Two and a half years ago, Marissa Heyl started Raleigh-based Symbology, a fair trade fashion label with the goal of preserving cultural traditions, helping women work, and creating stylish apparel. Working with artisans in India, she’s made tops, dresses, bags and scarves with whimsical block-print patterns and meticulous embroidery. The line is sold in seven states and seven online sites, including ModCloth. Local retailers carrying the line include Uniquities in Raleigh and Chapel Hill; One World Market in Durham; and Gather Boutique in Cary.
Yet for Heyl, India was just the beginning. “I’m inspired by lots of different cultures,” she says. “I want to create collections that are cohesive for buyers and celebrate the work.”
So when her fiancé’s job moved them from Raleigh to Tulsa, Heyl looked for new opportunities. She found one with Janette Habashi. The Oklahoma University professor founded Child’s Cup Full, a nonprofit that helps women in the West Bank with training and employment. The organization already had a division that made toys, and now it was developing Darzeh (an Arabic word that means “stitch”); Habashi hoped the women could use Tatreez, a traditional Palestinian cross-stitch, to create sellable handbags.
Habashi decided to work with Heyl. “When I asked if pricing would be difficult and she said, ‘You set the price,’ I was so excited,” says Habashi.
The result is a Symbology Fall 2015 collection that includes a skirt, a leather jacket, a tote and a clutch using the cross-stitch.
For reasons of safety and cost, Heyl never went to the West Bank. Instead, she relied on Cayley Pater, Child’s Cup Full’s assistant director as an intermediary. During the holidays, Heyl conceptualized her designs, then, in February, on a plane traveling to India, she sketched and colored in her ideas for the embroidery.
But it wasn’t that simple.
Compared to the Indian embroidery she’s used (“I can’t get them to use a ruler if I tried,” she says with a laugh), the Palestinian cross-stitch method is more structured and angular. “You sometimes have to use a grid,” says Habashi. Some of Heyl’s ideas simply couldn’t be executed in the way she wanted.
Yet the challenge of merging the ancient craft with modern style led to something transformative. Though the West Bank women were used to the traditional way of doing things, they embraced the challenge of appealing to Western customers. “Rahaf, the head designer, took the initiative to do some designs on her own,” says Habashi. “She went out of the traditional paradigm and moved the tradition forward.” For instance, the tote bag uses a design reminiscent of a wheat plant; the stitch is usually not done diagonally, as Heyl wanted it. The artisans took five days to figure out the math to match Heyl’s design. They added threads in colors they’d never used.
“Marissa’s designs inspired a wonderful collaboration,” says Pater. “It’s been a really fun experience having Marissa and Rahaf work together, learning from each other to create beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces.”
Inspired by native cultures
By March, Heyl was in Raleigh shooting a look book for buyers and awaiting samples of the items. The whole process took a quick three months.
Heyl’s collection also includes a clutch made with the finger weaving of the Chickasaw Nation. That partnership was more difficult; the artisans who carry on the Native American tribe’s craftsmanship are dwindling. (“The door’s not shut, it’s just not the right fit in Oklahoma.”) But she says her fall line was inspired by the feathers, arrow heads and long horns of native culture, elements of which are found in India and Palestinian heritage.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how the process from three different cultures could come together and tell the same story,” Heyl says. “It speaks to our shared humanity.”
Symbology’s operations are still in Raleigh, so Heyl will be back in the state this summer working with the UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State interns she typically hires. Meanwhile, her fiance’s job now has taken them to Dallas, a hub for account managers who can help her pursue Midwestern venues to sell her clothes and perhaps find American manufacturing. (The apparel is now made in India.)
And maybe in Texas there’s another chance to discover and transform a traditional art.
The Raleigh-based clothing company lists three objectives on its website: to employ marginalized artisans, with a special focus on women; to preserve traditional art forms threatened by globalization; and to connect women worldwide through fashion.