While Americans in the northeast huddle in their thick winter coats and sweaters the European and America tradeshows are just starting to heat up for their first round of the year. Few consumers think or know about how the products they buy end up on the shelves and racks of American department and import stores, but these items have long lives before they reach the cashier counters and homes of Americans. This past January I attend the New York International Gift Fair and experienced a crucial part of this journey firsthand.
The New York International Gift Fair occurs twice a year, once in January and again in August, and highlights some of the newest and hottest trends in home décor and gifts. The fair consists of six sections of products including general gifts, high-end design, museum store items, garden accessories, tableware and, of course, handmade. In the handmade section buyers can find a range of product from African wooden turned jars to Guatemalan hand-woven pillows. The fairs, a vital part of the marketing cycle in the United States, are a place where producers, exporters and importers can showcase new products to buyers. These buyers in turn place orders for products that will ultimately end up in stores and catalogs for some of the most popular chains in America.
As I wandered the 18 miles of display area housed in one of New York's largest convention centers, I had a glimpse of the newest trends for this year. The products that are displayed in the most recent round of tradeshows were designed as long ago as six months and will not hit the store shelves for another six months giving artisans and producers enough time to fill large orders. These products also reflect a huge effort on the part of designer and product developers, who stay abreast of new trends in colors, materials, textures and patterns. These designers will help artisans develop new lines and collections that will be hopefully be favored in international, regional or local markets. This year I saw a tendency to geometric patterns, richer and deeper colors and a reflection to the past in terms of patterns and product shape. However, as a design consultant pointed out to me, there is also an emerging trend to use natural materials in their unrefined forms. This move away from refined, sculpted and treated natural materials reflects the use of cheaper, non-handmade components to replicate the look and feels of natural materials.
One of the most vital components of the international market that artisans and designers have to be aware is the competition that factory made goods create. Goods from large factories in China, for example, use cheap labor, factory methods and inexpensive materials in order to produce items that seem handmade. These products are sold at extremely low prices and draw buyers, and ultimately customers, away from the more expensive handmade items. Because of this artisans need to keep their designs fresh and new in order to gain the attention of the international market. However, artisans can direct their products toward niche markets that require high quality and fair trade practices. These niche markets are often demanding and constricting with little leeway for new and learning producers.
As an employee of Aid to Artisans I had the opportunity to attend the organization's Market Readiness Program which they hold biannually at the New York International Gift Fair. This training program, aimed at exporters and producers from developing countries, makes critical connections for people who rarely get exposed so fully to the American marketplace. The program consists of seminars, tours and product reviews, all given by seasoned consultants who have worked with ATA before. The seminar topics range from design trends to costing and pricing talks, giving producers and exporters a feel for the vast amount of knowledge needed to successfully access the American market.
Of course this experience was eye opening for me as well giving me a behind-the-scenes look at the process of bringing craft from the artisans workshops to the buyers attention. One of the most exciting moments for me during my time in New York was witnessing and facilitating an actual interaction between an importer and a producer. By acting as a liaison between certain ATA contacts and our trainees I introduced a museum shop quality importer to a craft producer from Bolivia. This woodworker created beautiful and intricate carved animals painted in traditional, bright colors. And although the conversation between the importer and producer happen almost completely in a language I didn't understand, the excitement and sense of opportunity that hung thick in the air was enough to effect me. I walked away from that experience with a richer understanding of how craft can make its way from the small villages of a rural section of South America to the shelves of the San Diego Zoo museum shop to the mantles of American homes.