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  • Leila E. Cole

Artisans of IQ - Rich in Compassion and Female Empowerment

Get to know Ileana Quinones, Artisans of IQ's founder. Learn how honoring her father's memory inspired her to build a beautiful brand, creating opportunity for so many.

1. What motivated you to start Artisans of IQ?

It’s really personal to me. My father was a Vietnam veteran. He was severely scared by the war. He would have episodes and talk a lot about the war and always talk about this small Buddhist country called Cambodia and how they suffered a lot and they went through a lot. It was like they were “The Forgotten Country”. When he passed, I decided to go to Vietnam and Cambodia in his memory. That’s how everything started. Cambodia is very rich in natural resources, but then again it lacks so many other things because it’s one of the poorest countries in Asia. I met all these women that were so talented, making a lot of handmade items and selling it to the market, but they were really struggling. I was so impressed at how resourceful they were. They would make anything out of nothing.

It’s been a journey. Our handbags are in Shopbop. We just launched with them this past September. All of [our bags] are literally made in the jungles of Cambodia." [They're] beautiful handbags, with depth and meaning.

2. Do you have any stockists in NYC or elsewhere?

“We sell a lot of specialty accounts. A lot of accounts in Florida, up here in NY, but we’re being very selective because of the brand and the price point. It’s an ethical luxury brand. When I see a lot of my peers that are doing “ethical”, I just felt that there was a void in the market. I wanted to create a brand that had that luxury feeling. When you look at the bag, if you really look at them, you start feeling them and you look at the details on it, it’s perfectly made. People look at it and they’re like “OMG, this was made where?” I’m like ‘it comes from the jungle’. And they’re like “OMG, this is insane!!!” They really take their time. And that’s one thing that’s very important to me. For everything to be perfect. For every little detail. I’m really involved, so I travel to Cambodia a lot and I sit with them and I make sure that when they ship these bags they’re perfect. When something is handmade or course [everything’s] not going to be the same, but I want to make sure it’s being presented well, since this is their presentation to the world. This is the first time they create and sell these handbags. It’s a lot of effort between them and all of us. An effort between about 5-6 families. So many women are involved in these bags. It literally takes almost two weeks to make them.”

3. You’ve contributed to business and educational opportunities for women. In what ways have you seen these newfound resources empower the women they affect?

“I’ll tell you a special story of one of the ladies. They call her The Pom Pom Queen now. I was actually doing business with her cousin. I would buy all the silk from her cousin —she would dye everything for me, when we started. That’s when I met #####. I asked her what do you do? She said “Oh, I help #####”. I said “What exactly do you do?” I would always see her —she was always happy. After a while I asked her “What are you doing? I want to see where you live.” I got to see where she lived and it wasn’t a very nice place. She was living in deplorable conditions and I was like “OMG, how can I get her involved with me?” The next day I was coming back to New York and it just bothered me. She literally had no education, no handcrafting skills (when a lot of the ladies did), but she was so vibrant and she was so outgoing. Deep down inside she was hurting. So I made sure that the next time I didn’t just send her money because that’s not how you empower these ladies —I had to give her work. So I went back and did a lot of pom pom training with her. She calls them “bom boms” :) Now she’s the one in charge of all the pom poms. For someone that literally had no education, didn’t believe in herself, had no handcrafting skills.. now she’s in charge of all the pom pom production. She’s inspiring all of the women in her village. All of the women that felt forgotten and that felt because they were born poor, they had no chances. In that community, if you’re born poor, that’s it. They believe that you’ll remain that way. Well, she took charge. You have to see how this has changed her life around. The way she thinks, the way she speaks. It’s been rewarding for them. We put a lot of our profits towards education. There are a few teachers that come and teach them English and how to read and write. It’s really important that these women that really came from nothing, are now building their lives. It’s amazing to see.”

4. Although we realize that no two days are alike, what’s a typical day like for you?

“I wake up super early. I have a lot of energy. When you start your business it’s a lot of running and running and running. I get up very early, I do spin —I’m obsessed with spin, running.. it sets the tone for the whole day.

So I wake up, I do spin, I come back, have my coffee and start to go through my emails and then I’ll start sketching or seeing what happening in the market. To me, it’s really important to know what’s going on in the fashion business. I’m so in tune to see what’s happening in the street now —with Paris, what colors are going to be strong? And just to get certain ideas. From there I work with the artisans early in the morning and sometimes late at night we have Skype calls. It’s really important to stay in tune with them all the time. We’re like family, we talk all the time. They show me what’s happening over there, if it’s raining season, we have to prepare the bags, so we can have production for the season. Its’ a lot of prepping.

5. What projects are you currently working on?

“Now I’m currently working on the new collection of jewelry. When you’re on the ethical side and you’re working with artisans and everything is handmade, it’s kind of different. I would love to put things out during the fashion calendar and have my fall stuff already out and all that, but to me it’s more about working and being considerate of the artisans. It’s going by their time too. We are now in progress to do the new line of jewelry and a new, really cool handbag line, that will be coming out soon. This is going to be so amazing, I’m so excited. A lot of great projects happening —sourcing, new countries.. To me it’s really important that every country has a story. Cambodia is known for silk, now more than ever. Their whole silk production process had declined, but now they’re getting back into it. The older generation is trying to bring back handmade items and get the youth involved. Thailand’s known for silver.. I tried to know their main focus and build on that. That’s why my bags are made in Cambodia and my jewelry is made in Thailand.”

6. What do you find most challenging about your career?

7. What do you think the world needs more of?

8. Your tagline is “Be Bold, Make a Statement”. How do you encourage people, specifically women, to express themselves?

9. Proudest moment thus far?

“I went back to Cambodia after working with the ladies, in the village..and ##### --I went back to see the progress..”

10. Any advise for young entrepreneurs or creatives?

If you’re really passionate about it, go for it. And like I said before, people will always have an opinion or they’ll try to knock you down.”

“Eventually you’re going to get that one yes —and that one yes is going to take over all of the “no’s!”

11. What are your words to live by?

“Always be kind —kind, humble and believe in yourself.”



Elle Sees NYC
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