an interview with E.A. Lepine by Amy Peterson
photography by Caitlin Fairly
Full disclosure: I’m hardly objective when it comes to Arrowroot, a clothing company that creates dresses with a unique aesthetic while also helping to alleviate poverty in Honduras. Arrowroot’s founder, Elizabeth Ann (E.A.), is my sister-in-law. Our lives have been braided together for well over a decade now. We grew up within a half-mile of each other in the green Ozark hills of Little Rock, Arkansas, and graduated from the same high school, eight years apart. I came back and taught American Literature at that school during her senior year, when she and my little brother were on-again, off-again sweethearts. Now, they’ve been married for nearly three years.
It’s not personal bias, though, that leads me to think that Arrowroot sets itself apart from so many start-ups offering ethically-produced clothing, handicrafts, or jewelry. Ever since I read Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2013), I’ve made an effort to avoid purchasing clothes produced in unsafe sweatshops or made by workers who don’t earn a living wage for their work. But shopping at ethical companies advertising “fair-trade” products, I’ve found that sometimes their rhetoric tries to baptize consumerism into fighting for justice. Sometimes it smacks of white guilt, American paternalism, or a savior complex. Their advertising can be like poverty tourism: look how horrible things are! Look at the wretched lives these poor people live! Look how good we are to help them!
You’ll find none of this at Arrowroot. The seamstresses for Arrowroot are women E.A. met through Mi Esperanza, a 501c3 non-profit which provides micro-loans and training to women in the villages surrounding Tegucigalpa. As you hear E.A. talk about them, it’s clear that they are her friends, not her beneficiaries. In their stories, you see lives truly woven together in reciprocal relationship. And beautiful things are born of it.
AMY PETERSON: Tell me about the first time you met the women of Mi Esperanza.
E.A. LEPINE: The first time I met the women was in 2008, between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was interning with Mi Esperanza for the summer. My role was design and product development for the purses and other items they were producing.
My first day, one of Mi Esperanza's founders walked me in, introduced me to the women and basically just left me to work at my own pace. I loved the freedom I had, but I was also intimidated by how quiet the women were. I wasn't sure if they liked me or even wanted to know me, but I wanted to give it a shot. I had struggled through Spanish in school, so I was pleasantly surprised by how well I could communicate! I remember during my first couple of days there, going around to each one of their sewing stations and talking. They told me about their families and the communities they lived in. I told them what college in the United States was like. I made a pretty regular effort to visit their sewing stations, but after the first week or so, our conversations had lost the formal tone and we were just talking and laughing like old friends.
Mi Esperanza didn't have much money to work with, so I developed the vast amount of donated fabrics in their warehouse into a few different lines of products
AP: Did you have any experience with fashion and design before that summer?
EA: I did have experience with fashion design. I started sewing when I was in high school because I wanted to wear a copy of an Oscar de la Renta dress I'd seen in a magazine to my prom. It had these beautiful appliqués all over it and I knew there was no seamstress in Little Rock, Arkansas who'd be willing to take something like that on. So, I bought fabric and I made (an admittedly rough) copy of the dress using only a needle and thread! I felt so empowered afterwards. If I could make a prom dress, I felt I could make anything I wanted. I started designing and making more things and fell in love with it.
One afternoon my senior year, I came home from school and found my boyfriend (who is now my husband) sitting on the front porch, holding a big box and smiling. He had bought me a sewing machine! I spent the summer before I went to college teaching myself how to use the machine and started taking on more and more difficult projects.
AP: I’ve heard you say before that the women at Mi Esperanza helped you through some of the most difficult experiences of your life.
EA: They really did. I developed an eating disorder when I was 16 and was still struggling with it at age 20, when I started working with Mi Esperanza. I had also spent the previous summer as a camp counselor and was spiritually abused by the camp director. I didn't even know the term "spiritual abuse" existed back then, so I carried those unhealed wounds around for awhile. Between those two things, I felt broken and depressed.
It was both the sewing ladies and Mi Esperanza's co-founder, Lori Connell, who helped me. Part of the abuse I experienced was an overwhelming sense of constantly being watched, evaluated and measured against impossible standards. As a result, I had grown self-conscious and anxious. I think what was so healing about my time with the women of Mi Esperanza is that no one expected me to be perfect.
I was really good at coming up with new design concepts, but my only experience with pattern making was cutting out fabric and sewing it. In order to work with other seamstresses besides myself, I realized I was going to have to learn how to make a proper pattern.
Cecilia, the Honduran woman who oversees the maquila, is a gifted teacher and pattern maker. She taught me how to turn a sketch into a pattern that could then be easily cut and sewn by others.
Learning the technical aspects of design was difficult for me. I normally put a lot of pressure on myself but for the first time, I remember feeling secure in my strengths as a designer while also empowered to work on my weaknesses.
The women knew I was an artist, struggling to do science. They laughed, told me I was loca, and gave me those fierce kind of kisses on the cheek that you never forget. I had come to them worn down by criticism from myself and others. They showed me what it was like to be loved apart from my performance. After the painful summer I’d spent working at the camp, the women were a sweet reminder of what God’s love is like. Lori was the same way. To this day, she challenges me on my personal and professional weaknesses, but the measure of her love, her kindness, her hospitality and her desire to laugh with me have never been affected by my successes or failures.
That first trip was cut devastatingly short by a military coup. Honduras was no longer safe. I had to go home and the Mi Esperanza center remained closed for the next month. I set myself on raising money to make up for the donations and product sales that wouldn't come in because of the coup. For the rest of the summer, I made dresses and sold them around my hometown and raised more money than I'd hoped.
The fund raising project was a lot to take on, and it forced me to be outgoing in a way that was uncomfortable. But the women of Mi Esperanza had loved and accepted me in a way that helped me feel confident and secure. I didn't have to be perfect, nor did I have to be afraid.
It was largely because of my newfound confidence that I went on to pursue residential treatment for my eating disorder. My time with the women hadn't been a quick fix for the disorder, but it had instilled a sense of purpose and passion in me I had never felt before. I had always thought I would just live with the eating disorder forever, but I realized if I wanted to continue living life the way the women showed me I could, I was going to have to give up my obsessive and self-destructive behaviors.
AP: Did you maintain your relationships with the women after that summer? Were they ok after the military coup?
EA: I did! Back then none of them had Facebook, so we stayed in touch by texting. Most of the danger and commotion took place in the city streets. The women live in small communities outside the city and were able to stay safe in their homes.
AP: Tell me about the process of founding Arrowroot.
EA: Ever since my first trip to Honduras, I had the dream of starting my own clothing line and having it produced by women there, but I guess I had always thought that would happen later in my life. I went to grad school to get a degree in counseling because I wanted to work with women who had eating disorders. Halfway through my master's program, I began to feel this strong pull towards starting the clothing line sooner rather than later. I knew it was what I wanted to do, but I went ahead and finished school and worked in the mental health field for a little while to be sure it was the right time.
After about a year of working in mental health, James and I decided it was time to start saving for a trip to Honduras. For Christmas, we asked our families for contributions to the trip. We were expecting to be able to cover a nice portion of our tickets with Christmas money, but we were shocked when my dad gifted us with a United Airlines gift card that covered both tickets completely!
I started designing dresses the day after Christmas. My launch date was pretty ambiguous and there was a lot to sort out. Around the same time, I had started to become friends with a photographer named Caitlin. I told her about how I was in the early stages of starting a clothing line, and she offered to take photos of the clothes for my website. We put a shoot on the calendar that night and I worked tirelessly to have everything ready in time. Caitlin has now taken hundreds, if not thousands of photos for Arrowroot and is one of my very best friends. I don't know what I'd do without her.
After the photo shoot, I came up with the name Arrowroot, built the website, and made a few social media accounts. We launched on April 15th last year.
AP: Tell me about some of the things that inspire you as you design.
EA: It's funny. I don't actually make physical inspiration boards, but if I did, they wouldn't make any sense. Each season is a strange mash-up of music, time periods, places and cultures. Fall was Jackie Kennedy meets the Wild West with First Aid Kit's 'Stay Gold' album playing in the background. My upcoming Spring and Summer collection is a drive through the desert in the 1940's, listening to Escondido and infused with a near-perfect sweetness that I have to admit was inspired by Rory Gilmore. You'd think the ideas would rattle against one another, but somehow there's a peaceful cohesion at the end of it all. I'm starting to realize that's what it feels like to have a voice as a designer.
AP: What difference has founding Arrowroot made in your life? What difference has it made in the lives of the women who sew?
EA: Founding Arrowroot has made so many differences in my life.
I don't have the security of a regular paycheck, so it's been a real lesson in trusting God to provide what we need.
Because of that, my views of success have been challenged, too. When I used to dream about doing this, I dreamed of "getting big". If that's in our future, great! But this spring, Mi Esperanza hired 4 new women. That number might seem small, but when I look at each of those women as individuals who now have jobs and think about the fact that Arrowroot played a part in that, I can't say what we're doing is insignificant.
As far as the day-to-day, I'm busier than I've ever been in my life. It’s hard work, but it's incredibly fun. It feels really good to be doing work that just flows out of me the way this does. I feel really fortunate.
When I started working with Mi Esperanza that first summer, there wasn't enough work for the women to have jobs year-round. In January and February, things would get really slow. Now, the maquila is buzzing with energy year-round. Arrowroot has played a part in that, but there are other brands who work with Mi Esperanza too: Tribe Alive, Petit Peony and Liz Alig. The women are putting their children through school and university. Life is no longer a constant fight to survive: they have what they need and they've been able to turn their attention towards actually living.
AP: As you look to the future of Arrowroot, what are your dreams - for yourself, for the business, and for the women of Mi Esperanza?
EA: The dream for myself is to be able to keep designing and supporting my family. The dream for Arrowroot is for more and more women to love living their lives in our dresses and for us to be able to provide an increasing number of jobs both in Honduras and in the States. The dream for the women of Mi Esperanza is that they would continue to be able to live, not just survive, and they would be able to watch their children thrive in adulthood because of the foundation their mothers have worked so hard to lay for them.