Vegan Leather

“Vegan Leather!”

He was a big lad, good build, certainly one of those who practiced sports at some college in the USA.

“you’re pulling my leg” she said with her Southern England  accent.

“Hey lady, you say things like that to a guy where I come from…”

“I mean, you’re joking”

“Hey! No joke! Vegan leather!”

Yes, it looks like leather  it, might feel like it, but there is no animal in this.


Purely vegan.

Veganism /ˈviːɡənɪzəm/ is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in one’s diet.

“Wow…” she said touching the surface of the cushion in a totally new way: “un-be-lie-va-ble” she  said


“how come? I mean, you don’t look like the vegan kind of chap”

“A guy need his proteins…but I can change my diet if you think I should…”

“pure curiosity, of the innocent kind, if you see what I mean?” she interrupted.

“Gotcha!” he said a bit like a baseballer checking the bowler who just kicked him out of the game.

This scene could have happened at the trade shows where Po! Paris has been exhibiting the new “vegan leather” collections.

Why on earth do this? vegan leather? Do we need vegan leather? There is enough beef skin being brought from the food industry to have a vast supply of leather.

Well, at Po! Paris we take no notice of such practical facts.

There are of course many reasonable arguments against the hyper industrialisation of the meat industry, but one should admit we just happened to get involved, and simply accepted the challenge. We had the chance to be there when a group of fabulous women were asking something super positive to happen and we just contributed with our point of view.

The tree grows in their land, the art of making the oldest known fabric is practiced by men of their country since records were ever put in writing. All we needed was to come up with an idea.

“We have barkcloth!” said one of the women during that first meeting in Kampala. She was black, he had more of a pink complexion, feeling somehow inadequate, inquiring what local material could be used for making new products.

“Barkcloth!” they all repeated, till someone started with a drum and the italian coordinator was flying on a field of arms laughing, everybody going crazy, the American waiting for his turn and the pink man hoping the approaching storm will get him out of it.


Yes, barkcloth. You can’t say “no” to barkcloth. No one can.

You have to use it, touch it, make something out of it.

Beautiful material, the art of one tribe in Uganda. Anybody in contact with this material feels compelled to do something about it. Cultural heritage of humanity, the Unesco people felt compelled to say.

And here we are. No missionaries; pink, but, nevertheless, no missionaries.Invited to do something together with this group of women who have the greatest enthusiasm in the world.

We were just captivated by the material and the people so we developed Mutuba skin, a derivative of the barkcloth through a special process to make it viable for, let’s say, a “durable use in the modern household”. We’l let our sports chap say that. It just sounds better.


Available soon at

Abc New York
888, Broadway
+1 212 473 3000

The right strategy

Continued from business-meeting-with-style

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the large room in the botanical garden in Amsterdam, where the group of “experts” debated about the future of design in a relaxed atmosphere, all the participants focusing in a stimulating conversation.


“Is this off the record?” the moderator politely asked one of his guests, an Englishman representing a French firm from Paris.

Even though some might question his choice of footwear, Steve P. is widely respected for his “savoir faire” and elegance.

“I mean, do you want me to use that wording?”

The group expectantly looked at Po! Paris’ representative, all still trying to understand if it had been en expression of British humour and now expecting the punch line: “What did I say again?” he fumbled, trying to gain time.

“you said precisely:” answered Steve, patiently reading through his notes “wrong place, wrong people, wrong material, that’s the right strategy. -Is the wording convenient?”

Wrong place, wrong people, wrong material.

Some could indeed not consider it the ideal starting point for a business. Tolerant as we are at Po! Paris, we fully understand any doubts our audience might have had at the time. Explaining the details of our philosophy to experts in development can be a challenge one might want to spare for a more informal setting, but it was too late now. The experts were waiting for an explanation, if not outright denial, so we delivered what we could.

In few words we will try to do it again here.

“Why Albania?” I have been often asked, followed by “Where is Albania? I never heard anybody working with Albania…Have you considered India?”

“Vous avez dit d’où?” is the standard question arising when you tell French people about our new projects in Uganda. “Ce n’est pas francophone n’est-ce pas?”

Uganda, Albania, indeed, not the first places one thinks of when sourcing handicraft.

Albania has proved to be an arduous territory for any organisation trying to start development projects with government backing or private donors. The end of authoritarian collectivist regime left the society deeply traumatized with generations struggling to understand the mechanism of free economy. The proximity with Italy and the EU market ended up in more imports than exports and very high emigration rates. A red light for any tiny privately funded company.


Uganda is of course a beautiful land, with extraordinary wildlife -the gorilla amongst others- and is also home to the legendary source of the river Nile; but has sadly risen to international fame for the terrible dictatorship led by Idi Amin Dada Oumee and a civil war in the north of the country, devastated by cruel doings of the Lords Liberation Army, a violent group lead by unscrupulous warlords. Uganda also held Africa’s record of the highest HIV infection rates.

There again, a “no way” sign bars the entry for the newborn independent entrepreneur.


So why Uganda? Why Albania?

Why not China or India, two countries offering a wide range of qualified and affordable labour costs, high quality raw materials and, furthermore, are well connected to the global market. Why not France or, as a matter of fact, anywhere else but Albania and Uganda?

Those other destinations, argues the well informed business adviser, would be a far more reasonable sourcing territory for a small company with great ideas for new designs.

Yet here we are, starting small businesses in Albania acting independently or with the help of local Ngo’s in Uganda.

The answer to that question could be that at Po! Paris we simply don’t know to do it any other way.

And the wording is accurate.

The offer of hand made products for interior design is overwhelming in today’s globalized markets, but how much of that offer is really original? How much of that offer do we really need, and is a relatively low price worth the social costs behind some sectors of the manufacturing industry in developing countries?

Last  but not least, what new will you find sourcing for products and ideas in areas where other people have already been exploring for decades and craft is well trained to respond to you precise demand? Or, even better put, what can happen in such a place if you have no idea of what you want, let alone a precise demand? In the best of cases you would probably be politely asked to take a seat while the personnel fetches for a doctor or security.

There is in fact a particular way of doing design at Po! Paris that is upside down.

Unquestionably, if you have a precise idea of what you want, then, once you have it on paper, you go and look for the “best place, the best people and the best price”. Steve P. would not have challenged that strategy. But Po! Paris would not be Po! Paris.

The question we try to answer is not “where and with who do we make this object” but rather “what object can we make in this place and with these people?” – knowing that if you do come up with an answer in the end, the solution has many chances to be a successful design.

On one occasion a producer from India came up to us and said “Sir, we like your chairs, let us do those same chairs for you! We guarantee quality and price!”

“Do you work with car bonnets?”

“Sir, we have very good quality steel in India! Why use car bonnets? If you wish, Sir, we can make them look like car bonnets”

This is the very answer to our question. It makes no sense to make chairs out of car bonnets in India, but it does in Albania, simply because Albania has no real offer in steel, apart from low quality material generally imported from Turkey.

The encounter with two brothers back home in Albania after five years working for a hand made metal furniture firm in Italy, sparked our desire to make something with them. Their devotion to design and perseverance told us we could come up with new ideas, even though we lacked the main ingredient: the right metal.

At the time scrap yards were all along the country’s main roads. Once our driver stopped by at one of them, looking for a replacement part for his legendary BMW so we started visiting the premises and found it was the perfect place for inspiring discoveries such as car bonnets and motor parts. The scrap yard handed over the missing ingredient and the idea for tributes to design from the Balkans, now sold worldwide.


When we were asked to come up with something in Uganda to help a group of women victims of the war in the late 90ies, part of a HIV health program, the matter was indeed complicated. They were -and still are- producing necklaces in paper beads for the local market and sold through a militant fair trade network in Italy . No machines, no visible experience in trade and production for design, but an outstanding quantity and quality of energy, possibly the most important key factor for a start-up development project.

Finding the right material and help are just a matter of time. In that case possibly less than a couple of hours, in fact, when a lady from the far end of the hall raised her hand during a meeting about local materials, and said: “barkcloth!”.

Finding the local solutions to transform a traditional manufactured article in something new, setting up a workshop and training the new entrepreneurs all require, of course, time, energy and perseverance. But finding a new material was possible because of the lack of obvious solutions, and that is one of the essential ingredients for a new product: the originality of the material and the way it is used.


Of course a small company cannot open new ventures in all parts of the world off the beaten track, especially when there are obvious reasons for those countries to be uncharted territory for trade.

Our adventure in Albania was made possible through our own financial investment and the relative proximity and size of the country. It is a small welcoming land where people are willing to help find solutions, where producers are eager to find new markets. It would certainly not be the same in a larger and more distant country.

Of course in Uganda nothing would have happened without financial and logistical help provided by other organisations. This is particularly true when it come to creating a new company only with victims of warfare and AIDS.

This is where we believe that, on top of making design the wrong way round, in the wrong place, wrong material, we can also choose and alternative business model by asking the actors of the international solidarity organisations to work for Po! Paris, instead of being asked to work for them for their programs.

We believe in fact that the private enterprise can truly help by leading projects and by having the non profit sector help in turn with expertise, networking and, when needed, funding for the producers. The private actor will contribute with his ideas and his market. Together, they can manage a self sustaining program.

In Albania we have financed a local Non Profit Organisation till we managed to assist the foundation of a new Social Business that produces for Po! Paris, amongst others, and now employs up to 19 people.

We are following a similar path in Uganda where we have set up a small business and workshop, employing  today  7 people for the first year.

“Yes, definitely, we will keep the wording” said Po! Paris’ representative, and poured himself some more coffee.

 Po! Paris



continued from “born again


Kireka, a part of town off any map of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

“Kampala is like Rome. Built on seven hills”, said Rose, the director of the local meeting point, during a conference call meeting. “Only here the wealthy live on the top, the poor in the lower grounds, close to the malaria plagued papyrus swamps. Kireka is in one of these valleys. The necklaces are made there. Just come, most important of all is friendship” she had concluded.

Necklaces. They had built a school with them.


Mothers rolling paper into beads and selling them in Italy. They had been driven away from Acholi-land, their homeland in the north, by an absurd crowd of fighters who called themselves ‘The lord’s revolutionary Army”(LRA). An army fighting against no one in particular, in the name of some Lord and a revolution.

Rebels, as some have called them, mercenaries in fact, driven by lust for violence and money, enrolling children to help them enact the rule of pure irrational terror.

The mothers made beads, Rose took them to Milan and the Italians sold them, till they financed a building and a school from their children saved by the mercenaries.

Nothing but strong mothers.

The day hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans the women realised something should be done.

During the meeting under the roof covering the clean assembly point in Kireka they rolled out the plan to Rose, the head of the local organisation dealing with health issues:“Auntie, let us go to the quarry and break the stones into sand for money, and that money we shall send to the brothers and sisters in pain today”

The mothers of Kireka, helping the rising superpower far away across the ocean.

(more about this here)

“Of course you must understand, there is no real production facility, but just go and see what can be done” said a coordinator from Milan.”I’ll come and show you around”

“Yeah! lets go!” says the man from Texas

“All right, I suppose we can go and take a look”


Photos courtesy of Mark Eden Schooley


Born Again


“Dude, you speak in your sleep”

“Do I? Should have slept instead of watching that film; what did I say?”

“I don’t know, funny language, sounded like you were on a highway with some crazy driver in a sports car”

“Oh yes, I remember, that was Albania”


The large car pulled out of the car park under heavy rain on a warm spring morning.

The two men sat silently contemplating the sound of the large drops of rain hammering the roof of the vehicle, a thousand drums giving it all they had.

While his companion tried to talk to the patient driver, who was finding the conversation hopelessly limited by the noise, the Englishman slipped again in his dreams of travels and winding mountain roads. A sound of Balkan rhythms, mixed with visions of flat screens on walls and, faces, smiles.

The sudden ending of the drums concert tore him away from his restless sleep, waking up in a large empty car parked in some busy market place or a petrol station. He opened the door and stretched his legs.

“How old are you sir?” said a man with a uniform way too large for his thin build.

“I am…I beg your pardon?” he answered taken by surprise by this moment of sudden sociability.

“Let me tell you about myself, Sir. I am two years old”

“Well, well, you certainly don’t look them…are you sure?”

“Sir,” he said, bearing a splendid smile, “I can tell. You are not born again. Not yet, Sir”

“Well I didn’t mean to…”

“Let’s go dude!” says the American, jumping back in the car followed by the driver who started the car leaving the genial two year old man behind.

“a funny little chap there” said the Englishman to his companion


“didn’t quite get that, said he was reborn”


“didn’t seem dangerous, had a nice smile”

“Dude, where do come from? Born Again! a Baptist dude! found light, revelation, a believer! There’s plenty around in Texas. You should get out more!”

The European was finding it difficult to adjust to the surroundings. The warmth and humidity were unusual for April. The traffic was dense, the crowd busy. The sounds of music coming from the open windows were mixed with the smoke of roasted chicken. The earth and mud were red, rising from the ground climbing on the wooden walls of an infinite number of tiny shops the size of a shed resting on the ground amongst healthy green plants, as if abandoned after drifting in a biblical flood.

White and blue taxis of some Japanese car maker, hand painted, as everything else, with sentences often mentioning supernatural powers and citing passages of the old and new testament.

This was not Albania.

He remembered.

It was after a phone call from Milan, Italy. The head of a large international organisation.

“Go and take a look and tell me what you think. A group of women, they have done wonders with necklaces in paper beads. Just go and see what you can do. Expenses are on me” He said, simply, and efficiently.

“Let’s go dude!” said the American when his doubtful friend brought up the idea mentioning business plans and spreadsheets,“yeah! Love it! We’ll find something! Gonna be great!”

Africa. Eastern Africa, Uganda. Where the Nile starts its long journey.

Very, very far Away.

(more soon here: welcome

Po! paris

U-2barkall pictures courtesy of Mark Eden Schooley