THE STORY OF ABURY
Treasures from Morocco
"the most surprising fact for many people I talk to is that it is rather an asset than a burden that I am a woman doing this project in an Arabic country. Especially in Berber culture women are very well respected and are taking care of the household budget, etc. Women are trusted partners - especially in business."
In 2007, Stuttgart native Andrea Kolb moved with her husband to Marrakesh and began renovating a riad in the ancient Medina. The stunning result was AnaYela, which opened in 2008 and became a Design Hotels member the same year. Since then the AnaYela won four World Hotel Awards and was listed in the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List. These days Andrea has embarked on a project no less impressive - and even closer to her heart. She's started Abury , a non-profit foundation that collaborates with local artisans to create one-of-a-kind handmade embroidered leather bags, a tradition of the Berber people that global capitalism has sent into decline. We caught up with Andrea to find out more.
First of all, can you tell me how Abury came about? Where did the idea come from? When we renovated the AnaYela, we wanted to do it like the house was built 200 years ago - without electric tools. So we dived into the world of craftsmenship of Marrakesh. There you find hidden treasures, incredibly skilled people who create unbelievable beauty with their hands. At the same time, we realized that many of these crafts are actually dying out - young people don't see a future perspective in learning them. And one day, my husband gave me one of these old Berber bags - and I found it just so beautiful that I started collecting the most amazing pieces (of which you don't find many anymore). I got curious about the history of the bags and found out that they were originally mens' bags and that there are not many people left who know how to embroider leather in this special way. This made me think a very obvious thought: people in our society have a longing for uniqueness, individual pieces, hand-made products, they are looking for products with a story and a meaning. On the other side we have these people who are very poor and just about to give up their skills because they can't earn their living with it anymore. So I thought it just needs an intermediate who brings the two worlds together.
On your website, you say you're moving away from the idea of benevolence and charity toward real partnership. Can you elaborate on that? Donations and charity are important in many fields. But our aim is to support people to make their own living again with their traditional skills. The immaterial values, traditional skills and cultural assets that many regions can contribute to the global community are immeasurably enriching and uniquely valuable. If we are able to save, promote and make these treasures available to a wider public, it will also help to revive traditional skills, promote self-sufficiency and encourage education.
What does this partnership look like in an everyday sense? We talk to people and listen to people. We integrate them in the process and want to know what their ideas are of how a project can be established and then decide together, what the best way is. So e.g. when we agreed to work together, they took over the responsibility of building a school room with their own means and we guaranteed teachers, material etc. Like this we create local ownership and value.
What about the designs? Are those locally owned as well? Yes, we bring in modern designers who create new forms, but then they work together with the craftsmen and they adapt the old pattern to the modern designs together.
Why did you decide to allow people to design their own bags? As we have a 100%-hand-made production, we have the flexibility to make custom designs or embroider initials, etc. This also allows us to produce exclusive collections for companies - not only in the company colors, but products exclusively designed for them and their needs.
Can you tell me more about the sewing school you've helped establish? We decided to create a sewing school to offer young people - especially women on the country side who don't have much choice to earn a living - to learn the craft of leather embroidery again - but with the perspective to have a job and earn money with it after they have finished the school and passed the test. After the school was built we started with 20 girls out of over 100 applications. A woman from Marrakesh who still knows the craft became their teacher and spent four days a week in the villages to teach them. We are now working with the first women who finished the class and will soon start the second class!
What has been the most surprising aspect of the project? There have been many, but the most surprising fact for many people I talk to is that it is rather an asset than a burden that I am a woman doing this project in an Arabic country. Especially in Berber culture women are very well respected and are taking care of the household budget, etc. Women are trusted partners - especially in business.
The biggest challenge? Time. When you have an idea, especially when you are a little bit impatient, you want to realize it NOW - and we are used to that in our world. But then you go to the villages and talk to people and they are not really enthusiastic about it in the beginning. And you realize that their definition of time is completely different from yours. Obviously they are careful, they want to know everything, they want to make sure that they are not exploited… It took over a year of regular meetings, long exquisite Berber lunches, showing photos of the whole family, etc. to build up trust and understanding for each other - and friendship.