By Julia Munemo
The first time Elizabeth Suda ’05 visited Laos, she says she was “well prepared but without a plan.” She had recently left her job in the men’s merchandising department at Coach, mainly because she had a hunch it was the right time in her life to take a risk.
She had another hunch, too: That tides would soon turn in the fashion world. “I realized design could become more sustainable—it could even make a difference,” she says. From her office in New York City, she’d researched textile making and discovered what she calls “the living culture of Laos’s women weavers and natural dyers.” She hopped on a plane. One of Suda’s first stops when she arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was a textile shop called Nikone Handcrafts. She could not have anticipated how important her first meeting with Madame Nikone would turn out to be.
Suda spoke about her experience at Coach with Nikone, who asked her to design dresses using textiles from her atelier for the Laos national arts festival. Six weeks later, Suda was walking down what she calls “the smallest, most humble runway” in one of 30 dresses she had designed that combined Western and local Lao styles—an image that was featured in the Vientiane Times.
That experience led to more connections in the textile industry, and Suda was soon hired as a consultant with the Swiss NGO Helvetas. Her task was to find out how rural villagers could make productive use of the new electricity from recently installed hydropower generators. “We wondered if, with lights and additional working hours, weavers in these four villages could develop a more robust income-generating textile business.”
During her visits, Suda always asked what other types of things were made in the villages. She was expecting to learn about families weaving baskets or spinning silk. Instead, she was led to a hand-made kiln used to melt down shrapnel from American bombs that had landed in Laos during the Vietnam War. The villagers were turning the metal into spoons.
Flash back to Suda’s time at Williams, where she majored in history. She knew that, per capita, Laos was the most heavily bombed country. Ever. And she knew the country was deeply impoverished, at least in part as a result of the 80 million undetonated bombs still littering the countryside.
So Suda was and was not surprised to be stopped by a local officer on her way back to the village the next day. She watched from her vantage point at the roadblock in what she calls “a quiet, beautiful mountain community” as de-miners detonated a pile of unexploded American bombs. In that moment, she says, “it was so obvious.” She would start a business that would “support this community and their craft and donate money from each sale to clear unexploded ordinance.” That was the beginning of Peacebomb, a line of jewelry made from unexploded ordinance.
It took several years—and lots of patience—but by 2011 Suda was selling beautiful, handmade jewelry crafted by the artisans she’d met the day she learned about their spoons. Her company ARTICLE22 is named after the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that addresses “national effort and international cooperation,” Suda explains. “The goal is to literally and figuratively buy back the bombs we dropped on Laos.”
ARTICLE22 plans to expand. “We want to tell more untold stories and bring income to more communities in off-the-beaten-track places,” Suda says. Determined to develop local skills and build a long-lasting supply chain with Peacebomb, she’s intentionally grown slowly. Over the last few years, the artisans have come to count on Suda’s regular orders for bracelets and necklaces, which sell in more than 39 countries through their website and a network of small boutiques. “Customers range from Vietnam veterans to those seeking innovative or meaningful design,” she says.
Ready to deploy her model in other countries, Suda believes “business provides market-driven solutions to address poverty.” She explains that it works because the designs compete with mainstream fashion and because “the artisans and the team in New York are all so invested.”
Suda feels we all have the responsibility to “look back at the past and understand history but also to look forward and find the future.” And, she says, “all of us—the artisans in Laos, the consumers all over the world, and the patient investors who support the work—are agents of change.”