Designer spins a living for poor in India

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 214 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — For most people, fashion is about personal style, nights out on the town or simple functionality. But for JOYN India, it’s about providing a livelihood for impoverished people on the other side of the planet.

JOYN India is a development-based company hatched in Arkansas by Melody Murray and carried out in Rajpur, India, for the benefit of the less fortunate textile makers there. 

In the mid 2000s, Murray was traveling frequently to India to comb the fertile textile industries for high-end, hand woven Tibetan rugs. Her hope was to provide sustainable jobs for the artisans there by selling their work in the Western world, but after years of struggle, she discovered the logistics of selling a $30,000 rug made it nearly impossible.

“We had the wrong product,” said Murray. “I don’t ever want to sell another rug in my life!”

She saw skilled women all around her in India, crafting goods such as baskets and quilts that had no real value. Moved to do what she could to help these neediest of people, she decided to spin her found knowledge of textile development into a new company that could better connect these Tibetan and Indian workers with potential customers in the United States. 

In 2010, Murray and her family moved to northern India to establish JOYN India, with an eye towards developing simple, marketable designs that cater to a wide audience while, in turn, requiring less cost and infrastructure. The latter allows her to maximize the financial support she can give the artisans. The product line is mostly made up of women’s accessories like boho bags, clutches, headbands, scarves and jewelry, as well as home accessories, such as pillows and throws.

“We come in with a Western design that we know will sell and let the people there do what they are already good at, which is their craft,” said Alison Lewis, who lives in Fayetteville and handles sales and marketing for JOYN India.

Each piece in the JOYN line starts and finishes with artisans in Rajpur. The first step is to hand spin and weave the fabrics. At another shop, craftsmen trained in the ancient art of woodblock printing carve JOYN designs into blocks of wood, which are then dipped in dye and applied firmly to the fabric. Finally, the blocks of printed fabric are taken to the JOYN women’s cooperative where local seamstresses finish each product by hand.

By the end of 2011, the fledgling company had taken off, as it was able to sell a growing number of products to an ever-expanding list of boutiques in Arkansas, as well as in North Carolina, Oregon, Kansas and Texas. Most of the growth has come through simple word of mouth, as the story of JOYN is shared amongst family members and friends.

Through sales, JOYN is now able to help more than 35 families in Rajpur provide for themselves and their community.

And the number continues to grow.

In recent months, JOYN has expanded its women’s cooperative and founded its Street Smart Cooperative, which takes young beggars off the street and provides them with vocational training, such as block printing, jewelry making and stitching.

“We have seen families able to move into better housing, kids get to go to better schools, street beggars get to work and leave the streets altogether, drug addicts leave addiction and become amazing artisans,” said Murray.  “We’ve seen so much.”

Now, fashion fans in Northwest Arkansas will get to see the fruits of all these good deeds when JOYN India stages its first fashion show on Thursday night (March 8) of the inaugural NWA Fashion Week.

“We think it is going to be a great way to get our story out there,” said Lisa Vinson, a volunteer who is coordinating NWA Fashion Week for JOYN.  “We’ll be showing our all new spring/summer line of accessories, and Masons Boutique will be helping us by providing some simple clothing that helps our accessories really stand out.”

JOYN India products are available locally at Masons at Bellefont and Masons Leather Boutique (in the Northwest Arkansas Mall), Bella Jack’s, The Mustache Goods & Wears and The Global Shoppe in Fayetteville, as well as Kate Austin Jewelry & Gifts in Rogers.

“It's crazy to me that a small purchase can make such a big difference for someone. But it really can,” said Murray. “Without work, these people would struggle to put food on the table. Because of the opportunities I have been given, I've never been faced with that problem. I am here to provide them with those same opportunities.”