Colombian-born designer Paola Buendía and her husband, Mark Donovan, founded wooden ships in 1992. The couple met as undergraduates at Harvard. Spurred by a four-month trip to Bali, they founded the company two years after graduation.
paola: wooden ships began when circumstances led to the merging of many of my life-long loves – literature, travel, fashion, and the environment. I went on a trip to Indonesia in ’92 to see the rainforest and the orangutans in Borneo. I had just spent a year doing grassroots campaigning for the environment, recycling and clean water. People were less receptive to these issues then than they are now and after a year, I was burned out. Armed with a journal, a pile of books and my backpack from NOLS, I set off "to see the world" and.... basically never left Indonesia. I was blown away by the colors, the beauty and the possibilities. During that trip, I realized fashion could be more than a passion - it could be part of the work of my life. Mark and I founded our company when I returned and were married later that year.
paola: After backpacking in Borneo and Java, I decided to do a quick stop over in Bali.... I had been expecting a touristy place and was only going to pass through…but it turned out to be the most incredible place…people come here to create – to paint, build, write, design jewelry or boats or kites...whatever. The community is very dynamic and inspiring. The locals are so talented but also very grounded and kind. There’s a whole other pace here…we knew we wanted that to be a permanent part of our lives.
mark: Because we believe in Lean Production, a no-waste approach, all pieces we make are made-to-order - we don’t build any stock. Rather than build up stock on things we "might" sell, we produce one Sales Order at a time. We are not wasting time and raw materials on wrong inventory so we can give our customers incredible turn around times... We also pay tremendous attention to detail and have a phenomenally low return rate.... We receive so many emails from consumers telling us about a favorite wooden ships piece they have loved almost to bits. I keep a file where I save the messages that say "wow”. We want to do a great job for our customers – it is something we focus on everyday.
paola: Knits out of Bali? Seems crazy... but I have always loved knitwear. There is something so comforting about knits – and for me, looking good, is totally connected to feeling comfortable. Knits have a slouchiness that makes them immediately casual and that is very much my style...I love fashion and I love that within that world, wooden ships gets to be the "comfort food" – who doesn’t love a snuggly cardi or a beret and mittens? It’s primal!
mark: We were inspired by the idea of old trading ships bringing goods from other lands. We loved the visual of wooden ships, something authentic and raw. We are asked all the time about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and that particular song - and yes, we love it. We grew up in the 70's and that music is in our roots. We considered it a highlight of the company when Robert Palmer's assistant contacted us about awooden ships wrist warmer that Robert Palmer loved and had lost! Of course, we replaced it for free - what an honor!
paola: wooden ships donates to causes that are important to us. We regularly donate to Sea Shepherd International, Avaaz, Organic Consumers Organization, International Anti-Poaching Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund and WildAid. In recent years, we have also donated to the American Heart Association, The Jimmy Fund, and others.
In 2014, we participated in a brilliant program to help the orangutans and the rain forest in Indonesia... the reason we came here in the first place:
We produce all our knitwear in Bali, Indonesia, where we continue to live today. Because we own and operate our own factory, we can go beyond fair wages and conditions by providing our employees with extensive training and opportunities for growth. Working at Wooden Ships is like going back to school - we invest time in each worker to provide them new skills and new ways of looking at manufacturing. While knitting machines are traditionally operated by men, we initiated a program to train women and break that cultural barrier. Today, more than half our knitters are women. In addition to generous vacation, holiday and sick day policies, we provide health care for all employees. Our factory is spacious, breezy and light-filled, creating a pleasant, clean and healthy environment for all of us to work in together.
paola: We came to Indonesia because of a love of the environment. That still drives us today. We use eco-friendly oxo-degradable plastic bags. These bags are produced with an additive (d2w) that makes the plastic decompose far more rapidly than normal plastic. Our plastic bags will not be on the planet for hundreds and thousands of years! Information about this is printed on all our bags (with eco-friendly dyes!). We do bulk packing rather than piece packing to minimize the amount of plastic used at all. This is another advantage of producing by Sales Order - we don't put stock on the shelves, so we don't need to package each piece in plastic. Goods are vacuum packed to minimize the number of boxes we ship - this reduces our carbon footprint. We recycle all paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metal at our factory in Bali and we donate all yarn wastage to be reused locally for stuffing in pillows and dolls. We compost all organic material (food waste etc) at our factory (and home) in Bali and teach our employees how to compost at home and the benefits of composting. Air Conditioners at our offices in Bali have been retrofitted to use Hycool, a non-toxic, non-flammable, biodegradable eco-friendly alternative to freon.
Solar Power - we installed a 20 kW array of solar panels at our Bali factory where we hand craft our sweaters and accessories. We are working to be 100% powered by renewables as soon as possible.
Zero Waste - While we still have a long way to go, we have set the target of zero waste. We track paper, plastic, yarn and trash by weight and set monthly targets for reduction. Step-by-step we are figuring out better ways to better utilize our inputs and minimize our waste.
We are working towards being a paperless office. We began to send invoices and order confirmations to accounts exclusively via email in mid-2012. We aim to reduce our carbon footprint by presenting our collections early enough that accounts can order with a minimum lead time of 4 months, allowing us to ship by sea, thereby saving the planet from more CO2
mark: Our brand initially spread mostly through word of mouth. We now have a terrific sales team - sales reps across the country and a showroom in New York City. wooden ships is sold nationwide from Alaska to Florida. We also have distributors in Australia and Canada and a growing presence in the UK, Europe and Japan.
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