WILMINGTON — When starting a business, it’s good to know your clientele, and even better to have a relationship with your producer. You need enthusiasm for your product, as well as the know how to get the job done. For husband and wife duo Caroline Fisher and Tony Peele, that’s exactly what they’ve done with the opening of their new store, Swahili Coast.
The “design and lifestyle” store utilizes friendships the pair made while working on a project in Tanzania several years ago. Their goal is to manufacture high-quality, handmade African sandals and products, while empowering the manufacturers at the same time.
“We just opened up this spring and this is our first foray into retail, although our company has been around for three years,” Peele said. “We started off just designing sandals when we still lived in Tanzania, and started working with some folks over there that make some really cool beaded leather sandals.”
“Caroline being a designer started designing a line that we could start showing in the U.S. We brought back our first line of shoes, and just started selling on our website and going to trade shows, lining up wholesale accounts,” he added. “Then, it just sort of picked up momentum from there and we’ve been running with it ever since.”
The store began as a hand-crafted sandal line called “Seeded Hand Sown.” The owners jokingly describe their business as “pun” based, playing on the way their friends in Africa “hand sow” their crops, and tying back into the way they hand make their shoes.
Fisher said she had always done a lot of jewelry making, and was intrigued by bead work.
“When I saw the beaded sandals I just thought it was really cool, and figured ‘I can do that,’” she said. “They already had the talent, and the shoes that are available in the local market in Tanzania are very beautiful. However, they would not appeal to that many people in the U.S., they were very elaborate, colorful, and not very comfortable.”
After making the decision to try their hands at the shoe making game, Fisher began designing sandals she thought would appeal to a more Western aesthetic. This involved getting creative, adjusting the design for comfort and durability.
“Foot shape was a big thing, lady’s feet in America are very different, women over there are on their feet most of the time, and are barefoot a lot of the time, and so they have big strong feet,” Fisher said. “I wear a size nine and they would see my feet and be like, ‘ha-ha, your feet are so small,’ and I don’t have small feet.”
After consulting with industry professionals, evaluating price points and business models, the duo decided to move forward with their plans.
The couple moved to Wilmington last year, and opened their shop this past spring. They say the store is a testing ground of sorts, allowing them to bring over small quantities of new items from Tanzania, rather than bring in “big wholesale orders.”
Using an awl, the manufacturers punch holes in the leather bases, allowing for a bead strung monofilament line to be sewn into the shoe, thus producing the intricate design patterns seen on their goods. The only machines used are a hand grinder to smooth out the outline of the shoe, and a heavy duty sewing machine to tie in the leather thongs to the base of the sandal.
“Our sandals retail between $74 and $115. Basically, the prices depend on the bead work, the bead work is definitely the most time intensive part,” Peele said. “A really simple pair will go for $74, with more intricate one’s taking a lot more time, so they’re priced higher.”
Originally, the duo was set up with a partner group in Tanzania. But now, in addition to that, they’ve helped establish an employee owned co-op, allowing the manufacturers to succeed in their own right.
“They’re independent of us, they negotiate their prices, and can fire their bosses if they don’t like them,” Peele said. “We provided the capital, but they’re totally independent now.”
In addition to sandals, Swahili Coast also carries other quality hand-made goods. Items like beaded jewelry, leather bags, intricate hand carved jewelry boxes, kitenge napkins, kikoy towels and handcrafted shoe bags.
Around the boutique, it’s hard not to notice the signs displaying #PowerOverPity. The hashtag speaks to their marketing strategy, one that aims to empower their suppliers, rather than pity them.
Fisher says that when they first started the business, they studied the marketing strategies used by African-based and mission-focused companies. After discovering much of that strategy revolved around pity and guilt, they were disappointed and wanted to go a different direction entirely.
”The people we work with do not think of themselves as poor, and, in fact, are very offended by the notion that people would consider them poor. They don’t pity themselves at all, and it doesn’t feel good to be pitied,” she said. “We just decided to go the opposite direction, and emphasize that we work in partnership with people, collaborate, and celebrate their talents. This is a partnership, and we’re helping them bring their markets to the U.S., and design a really good product.”
Twenty percent of Swahili Coasts sales go toward funding partner organizations in Africa.
Swahili Coast is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. They are located in the Dahnhardt Building in the Cotton Exchange on the Front Street level.
For information on Swahili Coast, and to keep up with their latest products, follow the store on Facebook, or give it a call at (910) 264-0604.
This article has been edited to clarify the owners use of puns in their business