Shop Aims to Help Artisans in War-Torn Countries
Ishkar sells handmade items to support craftsmen in places like Afghanistan and Syria, but also in the hope that their skills will live on.
LONDON — When Edmund Le Brun and Flore de Taisne left Afghanistan in 2015, they wanted to continue helping a country that they had come to cherish after three years of living in Kabul.
“Afghanistan has a rich artisan culture,” said Mr. Le Brun, 27, who had been employed by Turquoise Mountain, a nongovernmental organization trying to revive the country’s arts and historic sites. “And I had spent my time there working closely with local craftsmen, trying to help them create sustainable businesses.”
Ms. de Taisne, also 27, had spent her time there as a consultant for the World Bank and the United Nations.
“Decades of war and political unrest have isolated most of these artisans,” Mr. Le Brun said. “They have been cut off from the outside world to the point that their traditions are now in danger of completely dying out.
“We felt sure if people could just see their work, then they would want to buy it,” he added. “And that shaped our decision on what we wanted to do next.”
In November 2016, they set up Ishkar, an online ethical marketplace for artisanal objects; products are showcased with extensive information about their provenance and the people who made them. Earlier this year, a small store opened on Baker Street here.
When they began online sales, they tested the waters with a batch of cuff links, which soon sold out. Then they expanded their offerings to include such items as handblown glass tumblers (six for $88), produced in a mud-brick workshop belonging to the last in a long line of glass blowers; wooden latticework trays ($425); and kilim rugs ($470). There are also knives and ornate jewelry.
Ms. de Taisne said, “We are unusual as a retailer in that we weren’t really driven by a demand question; this was about preserving supply, even though we also knew there would be a receptive audience for these types of goods.”
The hope, she added, is that they can now expand the concept in other conflict zones and countries at war, specifically Yemen, Mali and Syria. A test shipment of delicate camel-hair shawls woven in Syria ($280) proved successful this fall, as just a few are left (although, they said, questions remain around the practical difficulties when trading in these kinds of environments).
Proceeds from Ishkar sales go to the people who made the products, as well as charities working in the regions, when appropriate. Coming at a time when the luxury market has moved back toward handmade goods that have lasting value and lasting meaning, Mr. Le Brun and Ms. de Taisne said they hoped the artisans’ livelihoods could be preserved for decades to come, with lasting benefit to those around them.
“If the children of craftsmen today can see their parents building successful businesses once again,” Ms. de Taisne said, “then they too could feel encouraged to pick up those skills tomorrow, and keep these skills alive for yet another generation.”
The idea of “good luxe” — craft businesses for the benefit of endangered environments or societies — is hardly new, and the pair knows that there will be many who see flaws in the project. However, Mr. Le Brun said there were certain factors that could make Ishkar stand apart from the crowded market.
“There is a lot of money spent on NGO-funded craftsmanship initiatives, but a lot of these projects, despite being well intentioned, are not thinking much about their designs and how they will be received by the market,” he said.
“Our luxury products, although expensive, are truly exquisite,” he said. “They more than stand their ground in a crowded and international market. And by showing and selling very high-quality items with a story behind them, people will buy and think about it as a beautiful object from these countries.
“If they think about Afghanistan, they will think of it as my Afghan carpet in my living room, rather than just be thinking about the Taliban or terrorist attacks.”