After winning $10,000 at the Supima Design Competition in 2013, apparel designer Morgan Selin 13 AP decided to spend a couple of months in South America before pounding the pavement back in the US in search of a job. The short trip turned into a long-term adventure when she realized how inexpensively she could backpack from country to country, staying in youth hostels along the way. “I had taken a lot of art history classes at RISD, including Winnie Lambrecht’s Arts of the Americas course,” Selin recalls, “so I wanted to see that part of the world first-hand. There is so much beauty and inspiration to be found in those vast terrains.”
Continuing north into Central America, Selin met Seattle native Britini Port at a yoga class in Antigua, Guatemala, where the American entrepreneur had recently launched Uxibal (pronounced ooh-she-bal). The small-scale venture –named for the word sister in Guatemala’s Qu’iche dialect – employs local artisans to craft boots, shoes and handbags incorporating traditional Mayan textiles into designs for sale in Europe and the US. Since Port was ready to expand, she hired Selin as a designer.
“The nearby towns are famous for their handmade leather boots and embroidery,” says Selin. “But the patterns and colors can be a little too much for the US and European markets. We’re trying to reimagine and modernize Guatemalan designs for an international market.”
With the goal of improving the lives of Uxibal’s craftspeople – many of whom are women facing extreme poverty, limited job opportunities and domestic violence – Selin and Port are working with the Women’s Justice Initiative, a local NGO that educates women about gender-based violence prevention, their legal rights and how to be financially independent.
“We’re also looking at other model nonprofits like [US-based] TOMS Shoes and two organizations located here in Guatemala – Mercado Global and Wakami,” says Selin. “Wakami makes hand-braided jewelry and has a wonderful local training program that teaches women entrepreneurial skills. We’re planning to use their bracelets as straps in a line of sandals we’re releasing next spring.”
Uxibal is sourcing much of the leather and other materials used in its products from local providers and planning to launch a new line of cotton tops that will be naturally dyed by a nearby women’s collective. “They’re inspired by the traditional tops Guatemalan women wear called huipiles, woven ponchos that feature incredible embroidery,” Selin explains. “Each village incorporates its own motifs and designs, and we’re looking forward to working with their symbolism – allowing the artisans to share their stories.”
Uxibal’s bohemian boots, bags and accessories are available in the company’s Antigua storefront, online and at boutiques in Europe, the US and Japan. “By incorporating the traditional Mayan textile work into our designs, we are creating a market-driven solution to help these women rise above poverty,” says Selin. “We dream of building an international network of women helping women.”