Jake Orak wearing one of his Ethnotek "culturally sustaining" backpacks
Photo by Joey McLeister,
Work: Fair-trade fashion
- Article by: Tristan Pollock
- June 8, 2012 - 7:05 AM
Jake Orak has a head filled with wanderlust and a heart bleeding of idealism. After spending seven years in California, Vietnam and Switzerland designing backpacks and shoulder bags, Orak returned home to Minnesota to act on a dream he envisioned while living in Ho Chi Minh City. He wanted to provide an outlet for the dwindling number of age-old artisans of the world and make a living at the same time. Those two worlds collided into what is now Ethnotek (www.ethnotekbags.com), a social enterprise that creates high-quality, culturally sustaining backpacks and messenger bags made with fabrics sourced directly from local artisans around the globe.
"I spent a large part of my life designing bags," Orak explains, "but I wanted to create something that supported the hidden designers of the world -- artisans and weavers, the very people I saw selling their fabrics in small markets in Vietnam."
Orak uses a unique form of sourcing materials called "direct trade." This means that Orak, or someone from his team of world travelers, actually goes to the source, meeting the artisan and creating a work order for the fabric on the spot. Orak adamantly holds his relationships with the artists in high regard. He always meets their families and friends, spending countless hours in Vietnam, India and Indonesia.
"We always pay the asking rate of the artist and ask them to produce only what they can," Orak asserts. "These aren't big factories. Most of the time these artisans do all the work from their home."
The hefty demands of large retailers who often require high-volume orders with little lead time is one reason why Orak has chosen to grow Ethnotek slowly but surely. The artisans he hires can't quickly produce the large amount of fabric that a corporation using economies of scale demands. Even so, big-box retailers are already starting to take notice.
REI, the customer-owned outdoor retailer, has recently begun working with Orak to start a soft launch of Ethnotek bags in their stores, starting in June. REI has allowed double, or, in some cases, quadruple the lead time for Orak's artisans.
"This is a respect-first business model," says Orak. "It is always, and will always be, people first, product second."
- Age: 30
- Job title: Founder and creative director
- Employer: Ethnotek
- Start date: July 2011
- Background: BFA in industrial design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout; product designer at Booq, Crumpler and 3M
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