February 8, 2021
I worked for over 30 years in Asia and returned home to Maine in the summer of 2019. I got involved in Southeast Asia by working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages US foreign aid, starting in Thailand in 1990 and then Cambodia in 1992. I was involved in Rule of Law and Governance programs by day, but in my spare time I got really interested in Cambodia's traditional silk weaving. So I started helping a nearby weaving village improve their designs and environmental impact.
In 1996, I got serious about this interest and quit my well-paid USAID job to start a business with "Albert" Duc Nhan, a well known tailor in Saigon. We focused on soft goods for the home (pillows, bedding, etc), and set up production in Vietnam with Cambodian and other fabrics. But we got too big for the handmade supply during the housing boom of the 2000’s and instead used machine woven silks and cottons. We ended up crashing with so many others in the Great Recession later that decade, which forced us back to our roots in handwoven fabrics and into fashion accessories.
In Summer 2019, we moved to the US to focus on wholesale marketing and to try retail. Retail is great because you learn consumer tastes and trends firsthand. We had a shop for 3 months in late 2019 in Biddeford on Water Street. And then the pandemic upended most of our plans for 2020, of course. But we finally reopened Wooven on Main Street in Biddeford last summer. It's going as well as can be expected I think, because people in the area really made an effort to shop small and buy local. But the wholesale market is still very challenging for us with most trade shows canceled.
Traditional craft makers in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have great skill, but many are missing market access, design sensibility and business know-how. So we started Wooven in 2017 to help bridge the gap. There are several groups in the world doing this, but what sets us apart is our focus on handweaving in the specific countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and our decades long involvement in those places. Our strategy is to partner with the artisans rather than simply be their customers. We provide designs, quality improvements, and focus on sustainability in the relationships.
It's hard to say what I’m most proud of in this work, but I guess I’d say our intimate knowledge of the customs, languages and, of course, the artisan groups in the 3 countries that sets us most apart from others who go there just to buy and resell handmade goods.
- Ron Biggs, WOOVEN