Colombian-born designer Paola Buendía and her husband, Mark Donovan, met as undergraduates at Harvard. Spurred by a four-month backpacking trip to Bali, they founded Wooden Ships in 1992, two years after graduation.
paola: Wooden Ships began with the merging of many of my life-long loves – literature, travel, fashion, and the environment. In 1992, I went on a trip to Indonesia 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 nature, the sense of freedom, 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 dynamic and inspiring. The locals are so talented but also very grounded and kind. We knew we wanted that to be a permanent part of our lives and that it would be an ideal place for us to raise a family.
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. With minimal returns and no stock inventory, we never had to "dump" merchandise as many fashion companies have to do. This is important to us.
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 chunky sweater? 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 a Wooden Ships wristwarmer that Robert Palmer loved and had lost. Of course, we replaced it for free - what an honor to outfit an icon.
paola: Wooden Ships donates to causes that are important to us - and there are many! We are grateful to be able to regularly donate to Sea Shepherd International, Avaaz, Organic Consumers Organization, International Anti-Poaching Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, International Rescue Committee, Naral and WildAid.
In 2014, we participated in a brilliant program to help the orangutans and the rain forest in Indonesia. Together with over 90,000 Avaaz members, $1 million was raised to buy a 389-acre chunk of rainforest in Borneo. By purchasing it, we helped protect 700 of the world's last remaining endangered Bornean Orangutans... 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.
In addition to generous vacation, holiday and sick day policies, we provide free 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.
While knitting machines are traditionally operated by men, we initiated a program to train women and break that cultural barrier. Today, more than 60% of our knitters are women.
paola: We came to Indonesia because of a love of the environment. That still drives us today.
Solar Power - In 2014, 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. As of 2017, we are 85% powered by the sun!
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 single-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.
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 wholesale invoices and order confirmations to accounts exclusively via email in mid-2012.
We aim to reduce our carbon footprint by presenting our wholesale collections early enough that retailers can order with a minimum lead time of 4 months, allowing us to ship by sea, thereby saving the planet from more CO2.
mark: Wooden Ships is sold nationwide in the US from Alaska to Florida. Our brand initially spread through word of mouth. Today, for our wholesale business, we have a terrific sales team - sales reps covering every state across the US and a stellar in-house team in New York City. Beyond the US, we have distributors in Australia and Canada where the brand has instantly won a loyal following.
And after 24 years of wholesale, in 2016, we launched our retail site, wooden-ships.com, to reach directly to consumers and present our vision of the brand. We have been thrilled by the immediate success of the launch.
Wooden Ships has been our baby for 25 years but we do have many other passions as well. We have three sons (8, 12, and 15)! We love to travel (luckily so do our boys)! We love to ski, snowboard and hike. And we are passionate about the environment and our impact on it. In 2016, Mark launched a new business, Ewabi, an electric / bamboo bike company based in Bali. Ewabi, an E-CORP (Earth Corporation) has partnered with the East Bali Poverty Project and the Green School. The response has been phenomenal to this new concept, helping accelerate the world towards clean mobility and less fossil fuels.
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