This feature is extra special to me as it is on a dear friend of mine Luke and his lovely partner Emily. Eighteen months ago Luke and Em packed up everything and left Sydney to embark on an adventure across the globe. Their laid-back personalities saw them set out with wanderlust in their hearts but their entrepreneurial minds and generous spirits have led them to begin a new business while embarking on volunteer work with an ongoing inititivate set up to carry on their work after they move on to their next destination.
Together they have joined their creative forces to establish Piece Collectors, sourcing beautiful artisan products and working with skilled craftsman in small towns and marketplaces to create a range of products to sell through retailers back home. While affording Luke and Emily a gypsy lifestyle, Piece Collectors is a way of giving back to these craftsmen who have become their friends by promoting their craftsmanship and providing them with a steady flow of work.
Emily has previously worked with Australia’s leading fashion brands including Sass & Bide, ksubi and Oroton in addition to international Preen By Thornton Bregazzi, House Of Holland and Sophie Hulme, to create unique eyewear collections and holds a bachelor degree in Design (Fashion & Textiles) from the University of Technology Sydney.
Luke has spent years travelling and photographing some of the most interesting people and places in the world. He has collaborated on various creative initiatives working with Australia’s best musicians and artists, producing music festivals, long term art based projects and landmark venues.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Piece Collectors wares
Tell us a little bit about how Piece Collectors began.
We had been travelling through Mexico for almost six months and were constantly in awe of the beautiful artisan pieces we found along the way. We wanted to come up with a way to share these pieces with people back home, support the local artisans and also to sustain our travels. It really evolved once we reached Guatemala where the textiles are incredibly stunning. By basing ourselves in Guatemala for six months, we were able to build strong, lasting relationships with the local artisans.
Piece Collectors is inspired by our love of travel, our appreciation of beautiful objects and our desire to support the incredible people we meet along our journey.Describe a typical work day for you.
For the last six months we have been living in a small village in Guatemala called San Marcos La Laguna. We had the ultimate utopian lifestyle; we would wake up without the aid of an alarm clock, relying on the glorious sunrise streaming through the window. We would start our day with either yoga or a run to the neighbouring village and a breakfast of locally grown fruit and vegetables that we would buy in town. We would then jump on a ferry over to one of the surrounding villages; Panajachel, San Juan, Santiago or make the day trip out Chichicastenego (the biggest market in Latin America). We would arrive with empty backpacks, greeted with big smiles from all of our favorite vendors. We would then spend hours trawling through piles upon piles of the most exquisite woven textiles, antique jewelry and other unique treasures. We would spend a lot of time talking to the artisans, learning their stories and the stories of the pieces they craft.
Now that we are back on the road again, making our way slowly through Colombia, our days vary. Mostly we spend our time researching new markets, talking to local designers, stopping people on the street wearing beautiful local pieces and ask them to take us to the people who made them. We explore and discover almost everyday.
What has been your greatest challenge with this project?
Mainly, the desire to help these artisans, who have become our close friends. A lot of them have really sad, trying stories and of course all you want to do is to help them. So it’s finding a way to support them in a sustainable way.
Language has also been a challenge. We both speak conversational Spanish but a lot of the people we have been working with speak Spanish as a second language too, their first language being a local Mayan dialect.
What have you enjoyed most?
The treasure hunt, building relationships, eating exotic foods, playing with kids, sharing creative ideas with locals and sharing these incredibly skilled pieces with home.
Tell us about one of the interesting people you have met while sourcing for Piece Collectors.
Nicholas The Leather Man was one of the first artisans we met. He has a beautiful studio at the back of his humble storefront in San Juan. He designs and makes the most incredible leather bags, with a strong Native American influence. He says his craft is his form of meditation. When we asked him to pose for a picture he ran into the house, changing his shirt and tying a red scarf around his head – the perfect brand ambassador!
Another artisan we became especially close with was Adalita a young mother with a strong business mind and an eye for design. Her family owns a modest store on the edge of the lake selling various textile goods, including blankets, scarves, bags, table runners to name but a few. When we met her, they were in the process of moving the storefront, as in recent years the lake level has risen and flooded many of the houses that were in prime position along the lake. We instantly fell in love with Adalita, with her kind nature, great sense of humor and her gorgeous daughter Estrellita (which means little star). Adalita was integral to our business and put us in touch with many artisans around the lake.
Nicholas, The Leather Man!
You have been volunteering while abroad. Can you tell us about the work you have been doing?
Emily: When we arrived in Guatemala we immediately signed up for Spanish lessons with an expat who happened to be one of the directors of a local non-for-profit organisation Konojel Community Centre. This incredible organisation provides sixty meals a day, five days a week to San Marcos’ most in need, mainly consisting of malnourished children, young mothers and the elderly. An astounding seven out of ten children in the region of Solala are malnourished, and the statistics are even worse in San Marcos. After lunch is served, an after school program is offered for the children, providing them with a space to have fun, learn and just be kids in a culture where they are expected to grow up at a rapid pace. Luke and I immediately became regulars and after a month, we were asked fill the role of after-school co-ordinators. This was an incredible experience, inventing fun activities and creating a joyful environment.
Luke: On one particular day at Konojel, one of the more boisterous kids Josue asked if he could use my cell phone camera to take photos. He came back with some really well thought out photos, with great framing. I then had the idea to take the kids out two at a time to experiment with my camera and teach them about photography.
I had the idea to turn this into a profit program, turning the photos that the kids had taken into postcards. The profits from these postcards would then go directly back into the photography program, which would consist of hiring a local teacher, establishing photography exhibitions and providing photography based excursions.
For my 30th birthday, I made a post on Facebook asking my friends and family to send a donation to us. These donations brought in an incredible AU$1800. I was completely shocked. I only needed $500 to cover the first round of printing 1000 postcards and enough to buy a simple camera. I then developed a comprehensive ten-week photography program, selecting four students at a time to participate.
We were recently just advised that this is the first initiative that a volunteer has followed through on.
What's in the future for Piece Collectors?
Currently we’re travelling through Colombia on the look out for beautiful pieces to sell on our website. We then have plans to travel to Peru and Bolivia, and hopefully to India in 2016.
TRAVEL QUESTIONSDescribe your travel style...
Top. Luke teaching one of the students of the photography projectBelow. After school activities with the students of Konojel Community Centre
Emily: Classic with a twist of bohemian.
Luke: Beard, hat and anything comfortable.
What are you top three travel items?
Emily: Kleenmaid water bottle (I hate buying plastic water bottles), podcasts and paw-paw ointment.
Luke: Good quality headphones, a camera and cooking herbs.
Where is your favourite place you have travelled to?
Emily: Oaxaca! The moment we arrived I instantly fell in love. The people, the culture, the art, the shopping, the stunning environment and the food!
Luke: Cuba – so many amazing photo opportunities, it’s just a completely different way of living.
What have you missed most while travelling?
Emily: Lipstick and magazines! Ha ha! No friends and family of course!
Luke: Mums lasagna and hugs.
What have you been reading or listening to while travelling?
Emily: we both just finished reading Born To Run, which was incredible book – it still finds its way into our conversations. Another good one is I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.
Luke: Lately I’ve been listening to Neils Frahm, Tobias Jesso Jr and Father John Misty. Best reads on this trip have been, The Art of Lucid Dreaming, Born To Run and a cheesy but needed novel called American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
What is something important you learnt while travelling?
Emily: I’ve learnt to appreciate how lucky we are growing up in Australia. Even though the world seems like a smaller place with the Internet and whatnot, there is so much we don’t know about. Things that you really have to live and experience. I’ve also learnt to be way more flexible and open-minded.
Luke: I’m a confident person, I’ve always relied on my happiness, openness and being silly to convey who I am, gain trust, make friends fast and learn about other people. I like to have people around me and l like to talk. Being silent around Spanish only speakers when I was learning to speak the language was a real challenge. I was not able to gain peoples trust and friendship easily like I would normally do. I had to learn to do so as an accidental introvert, I was quiet, withdrawn, nervous and timid. I didn’t feel like me. It taught me that people aren’t always what they seem and taught me how to feel as an introvert would feel.
What is the best thing about travelling with one another?
Em: Luke is an amazing people person and people just instantly fall in love with him… even with the language barrier! As a result we have some incredible experiences with amazing people.
Luke: Emily is super organized and always makes sure we get to the airport or the bus terminal on time. She is also great at remembering people’s names and thoughtful things about people, which is so helpful!
Search 'Piece Collectors' to find the products in our store
Find Luke and Emily at:
You can buy a postcard on our site here with all images taken by the students of Luke & Emily's photography program. 100% of profits go directly back into the program. The sale of those postcards will make the program completely self sustainable, including the employment of a local teacher.
Em & Luke