Fashion designer and former reality star Lauren Conrad, 28, has left “The Hills” and “Laguna Beach” behind quite literally with her fair trade project, the Little Market. Created with friend and Human Rights Watch member Hannah Skvarla, the online store — which celebrates its first anniversary in October — sells handmade goods from artisan cooperatives across the world, products selected by Conrad and Skvarla during their travels to countries including Bolivia, Peru, India, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana and Guatemala. Wares include home decor, jewelry, bags and more. Skvarla, calling from the Little Market’s office in Irvine, and Conrad, at her new oceanfront home in Laguna, spoke with the Los Angeles Times about developing the site, working with artisans abroad and how traveling isn’t always glamorous.
You two first met while attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in 2006. How did the Little Market come to exist?
Hannah Skvarla: Shortly after we met, we began traveling, and every time we took a trip we would find beautiful items we wanted to take back to our friends. And we really enjoyed meeting the women who were making these items. We went to Africa, and during that trip we spent a lot of time in the car and we talked about [whether it] would be possible to create an online marketplace that would allow us to support women from all over the world.
What’s it like when you travel to these foreign countries and meet the artisans?
Lauren Conrad: I don’t even know how many women have invited us into their homes; it’s amazing to see, and it’s different every time, but it’s always really cool and we come home from every trip just so inspired and with a new perspective. You don’t have hot water or plumbing necessarily and you just sort of deal with it. In a way, it just makes you want to work that much harder because you realize how fortunate you are.
How do these artisans, often impoverished and living in countries with serious human rights violations, react to the opportunity?
LC: I think that it’s as different as each group is. They want to work, and nobody’s looking for a handout even though they need help; they want to help themselves. That’s what’s so great about this is [the artisans] are creating things that are really beautiful that we would buy, and people are able to while also supporting other women.
HS: We are currently working with 17 artisan groups in 13 countries. Our artisan partners employ over 10,000 artisans all over the world. On our recent trip to Guatemala, many of the women artisans work from their homes to generate income to support their families. One woman we spoke with told us that the sales of the bracelets were allowing her to send her children to school; it would be the first generation in her family to graduate high school.
When you’re abroad, what goes into picking each product?
LC: I think especially right now, people love unique products. We do a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces. Right now we have these beautiful market baskets. They’re from Ghana. We order like 50 at a time and they come in and they’re all completely different. Some of the groups we’re able to give direction, so maybe a group does really beautiful embroidery but the silhouette of the bags they’re selling isn’t quite what we’re looking for. A lot of groups have been really great about working with us and still maintaining the technique and what makes that bag specific to that place, but maybe just making it a more saleable product. At the end of the day, they’re able to sell more through the website and that way everybody wins.
HS: In order to keep costs low, we have not spent any money on advertising. We promote the Little Market through social media channels and word-of-mouth.
Do your trips influence your own designs for your Kohl’s clothing line or your Paper Crown specialty line?
LC: All the time. I think any time you can immerse yourself in a new culture or in a new place that you haven’t seen before, you’re just automatically inspired. Our trip to India was so inspirational to me because it’s so beautiful there and the colors, and the detail, it’s just everywhere you look. That really influenced me when I was working on my spring line.
When you’re traveling abroad, do people ever recognize you from your reality TV days?
LC: Almost never, and it’s fantastic.