Boxed subscription services like Birch Box and Blue Apron are changing the way we shop. And while this may be bad news for American malls and department stores, whose demise is marked by rapidly closing brick and mortar retail venues (according to an industry think tank, 6,879 stores will have closed in the US in 2017)—it may be great news for Armenia, whose geopolitics has long created a literal and figurative barrier between its small business owners and an international customer base.
On December 1, WithLove.am, the first boxed product start-up highlighting handcrafted items from Armenia, released its third annual collection in 250 limited edition sets to the U.S. online market. After two sold-out years, the WithLove team’s ambitions for the future include more frequent releases throughout the calendar year.
“WithLove is the antidote to two long-standing myths that feed into each other,” said creative director Anahid Yahjian, “first, that products from Armenia should feature pomegranates, the tricolors of the Armenian flag, or Mount Ararat; and second, that products from Armenia can really only hope to be bought by people of Armenian descent as ‘souvenirs.’”
Yahjian explained that when the brand is finally fully realized to scale, it will stand the chance to break this mentality and prove that the products being produced by artisans, chemists and agriculturists in Armenia are must-haves for anyone in the world who values using beautifully handmade, organic, sustainably produced products in their everyday life–be it jewelry, food, houseware, clothing or gadgetry.
The products are remarkable because of their craftsmanship, innovation on ancient techniques, applicability to everyday cosmopolitan life and, most of all, the stories they tell. That last point is a big part of what sets WithLove apart from all artisan-focused brands–when sourcing products, they look for artisans with powerful stories and foreground them in their marketing.
“And we do this in an empowered way, “ Yahjian said. “You will never see us neglect to name an artisan or provide their direct contacts when advertising their products. You will also never see us waxing poetic about their socio-economic status–these are proud small business owners, period. We are interested only in collaboration and see them as equal stakeholders in getting their product to the US market.”
WithLove has aspired to curate the best of the country’s artisan economy, selecting one-of-a-kind items with universal appeal, sometimes from little-known craftspeople located in remote parts of the country. Some artisans operate so locally, in fact, that their feature on WithLove’s online store doubles as their debut into the digital realm—outside of word-of-mouth references or Facebook, which is commonplace in Armenia.
In the past, artisan partners have ranged from indie urban designers, like architect-turned-jeweler Armine Harutyunyan of Yerevan, whose sterling silver pendants were featured last year, to rural operations like that of Honey.am, whose organic honey grown in the village of Haytagh anchored WithLove’s first collection.
This spirit of discovery is the root of the concept behind WithLove, which is an initiative of Sosé and Allen’s Legacy Foundation.
“My sister was always a huge fan of avant garde and unique handicrafts–especially the ones in Armenia,” said Legacy Foundation director Vaché Thomassian. “She was always on the hunt to meet talented people doing creative things. Whether it was the ceramic potter who made [her and Allen’s] wedding favors, the young jewelry maker that she bought earrings from after meeting on Facebook, the painter, the clothing seamstress, or the shoemaker, there was no shortage of amazing stuff that she was able to find in Armenia.”
After Sosé and Allen’s untimely passing in 2013, Thomassian found a bag of business cards with notes on all kinds of different creative people his sister had interacted with. It sparked the idea to help share those treasures with the rest of the world.
“WithLove fits perfectly with the Legacy Foundation’s mission to highlight and magnify world-class things coming out of Armenia,” Thomassian said. “All the while, we get to work side-by-side with these artisans as they jump-start their businesses.”
This year, the tradition continues with the WithLove Tote, which was designed by Tatev Sayadyan, a textile designer who returned to her native Yerevan in 2014 after several years spent living and working in Los Angeles. The design is inspired by the Armenian eternity symbol and other traditional carvings that adorn the country’s historic structures. The tote itself is made entirely from an extremely rare Armenian-made canvas discovered—after much searching—by Yahjian in the southern city of Goris at the Zangezur Textile factory.
Each tote has been silk screened, hand-dyed, and handsewn in Yerevan and comes in 3 colors (orange, navy blue, and black). The bags bear the #ToprakPetqChi hashtag (Armenian transliteration for “no bag needed”) in solidarity with the eponymous movement to encourage the use of reusable bags in Armenia and protect its environment. Inside is a curated selection of five more products that were all hand-crafted sustainably in Armenia:
• Sterling silver WithLove Earrings that take the shape of the traditional Armenian eternity symbol and interpret it as a flower or wheel, made by Harout Der Baghdassarian.
• A dessert plate made by Aratta Ceramics in Gyumri using clay sourced from the nearby village of Talin.
• Zanazan Armenian “Ransom” Magnets with 330 unique Armenian characters and symbols created by Proper Company.
• A wooden puzzle made from reclaimed linden wood in Artsakh (NKR) by Woodpeckers’ Wood Toys. It comes in 4 variations: a duck, rabbit, turtle and bear.
• A Give Color/Gain Life coloring book based on medieval Armenian ornamentation that was researched, compiled and digitized by Armen Kyurkchyan of Kyurkchyan publishing. There are 3 versions of this item: “Armenian Continuous Ornaments,” “Armenian Floral Patterns,” and “Armenian Rosettes.”
The limited edition sets are available with complimentary 2-day shipping to anywhere in the U.S. Those interested in learning more about the stories behind the products in this year’s WithLove collection and purchasing a set for themselves or as a holiday gift can do so by visiting the online store.