I caught up with Diego Olivero, co-founder and CEO of The Mayan Store for a virtual coffee, to learn about the huipil, colour that ‘pops’, and more about his brand which features handmade textiles inspired by the rich and deep heritage of Mayan culture in Guatemala. Diego’s project invests in the transmission of regional skills from master artisans to a new generation, and impressively boasts a five-fold increase in the daily income of its artisan network. With a particular focus on empowering women through economic mobility and skills sharing, The Mayan Store integrates contemporary design with traditional processes and ethically sourced materials to generate positive change in parts of rural Guatemala where poverty and childhood malnutrition rates are at their highest.
Diego, where are you from?
Right now I’m in New York but I’m based in Guatemala City where I was born.
What’s the story behind the Mayan Store?
Our Mayan culture is very rich, weavers have been working with the same patterns and colors for two hundred years and they have amazing skills and amazing craftsmanship. I decided to go to industrial design school at The Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, so I could design and work with Guatemalan-based artisan groups. So that’s where it started: What can we do to make this different and to share it with the world?
What does “Mayan” mean to you?
For me the word Mayan evolves through many aspects of our physical and spiritual life, and the connection between the two. Messengers of wisdom and truth.
Do you get the sense that these artisan communities are open to trying something new?
At the beginning it’s always hard because we’re testing their limits and their knowledge. But we accompany them, we travel with them, we go to the communities and send technicians to the field, to help them understand what we’re doing. What we’re basically doing is opening international markets for these artisans, and creating a sustainable income. That’s the main purpose of the company.
What is unique about Mayan weaving? Can you talk about the bright, clashing beautiful colors that we associate with Guatemala?
The color is our inspiration: it comes from everywhere, not only the textiles but from the scenery from the food from the vegetables, so the colors are always all around – the flowers, everything is colorful. And it plays a big role. How can we combine all of these colors and make a piece look great? It’s been a challenge because it’s hard to make something new whilst keeping the essence.
Is Latin American design having a “moment” right now?
We started a social design movement in Guatemala – not in the world but in Guatemala. This was six years ago. Maybe there were one or two other companies doing this at the time. Our team was built up of designers, not accountants, you know what I mean. Ten designers and two producers: the design was a very important part. Right now I’d say there are about forty or fifty small companies in Guatemala, young entrepreneurs that want to make a difference. So it is amazing that we started that journey, and we’ve worked with many organizations like Feed the Future, Save the Children, Zero Hunger. I believe in doing good and good will return.
Some of your designs reference the “huipil”. What is this?
Huipils are the blouses that indigenous women wear. Each embroidered design is different depending on the village where they live. They are hand embroidered with geometric or floral patterns which we take as inspiration and then we transform it. For our rugs for example we zoom in on the pattern, and we also use huipil embroidery on our range of tennis shoes.
Is there a particular piece from your current collection that you’re proud of?
I’m really fond of two things. One would be all the wool rugs. That’s a very interesting story, they are made in Momostenango. When we started we did just three or four rugs, then people fell in love with the product, and in love with the price (which is also important). We weren’t able to supply the demand. There were a lot of looms but nobody was working on weaving anymore, they were working in the fields planting crops because they had no market. It was a challenge for us to convince the weavers that we like what they do and to return to it. But at this stage we have almost eighty weavers in Momostenango. They un-dusted their looms and now they’re weaving again. The young adults are working with their parents and so we’re helping to bring these skills back to life. The rugs for me are very very special.
The other product I love is our beaded pillows. Each bead is counted by hand, and put on the needle, it’s a thirty-two-thousand bead item. It’s crazy. It takes about a week to make one pillow, it’s amazing how the makers control their hands and the needle and beads.
Where do you feel most at home?
In Antigua Guatemala, at my parents house. I grew up in in Guatemala city but I went to Antigua every other weekend. It’s been a very important source of inspiration for me…
What is it about Antigua in particular?
Volcanos. Volcanos, colours, textures the markets – the markets, like I go to the market for hours and hours, and everything just pops, you know when you see those paintings that are 3D, that’s what happens to me at the marketplace. Volcanos drive me crazy. It’s the feeling they give me when I see them. That’s the real source.
And finally Diego, I know all of your products at The Mayan Store are fairly traded. Why is supporting indigenous craft important in the 21st Century?
Why is it important right now? I think we’re in a place where we need change. And we need change to happen fast. We need to start as soon as possible. And if we give craftspeople a sustainable income that means education. That’s what we need to overcome all of our difficulties and our differences.