How Invisible World began.
When I was 25 I hitchhiked and rode trains and buses on the land route from Montreal to Peru and back to Alaska. I spent $2000 in six months, was arrested twice and re-crossed the US border with $11 in my pocket and six Otavalo sweaters stuffed into an Army surplus duffle bag. I hoped that with these samples I could make enough money to go back to South America. That was the beginning of Invisible World.
At its best, business is a way to explore life and get deeper understanding. Like many young people, I was on fire to fill myself with knowledge of the big mysterious world, and these six rustic sweaters looked like the best way to get back to that continent and be part of it.
Gradually, we expanded to Uruguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico. Invisible World wasn’t simply a way to make money; it was a way to see the world. In China for a wedding in 1991, I thought it would be worthwhile to go into the silk trade because silk is an interesting fiber and China was just beginning to shake off its 40 year bout of Communism. Cashmere came into our product line because it gave me an excuse to go to Inner Mongolia in the dead of winter, a trip that started as an obsession and became the basis for the novel, Invisible World.
A better merchant would say that those are stupid reasons on which to base a business decision. And I agree with them. There is no particular financial acumen behind Invisible World: just a sense of curiosity and the ability to find people with amazing textile skills and let them do their thing.
We started a store in our small town of Juneau, Alaska in 1985. At that time, no one had fax machines. Now we’re moving freight between 13 countries, and we still do this from the same unlikely location.
Why unlikely? Take a look at a map. Juneau is nearly a thousand miles due north of Seattle. On one side is the ocean, and on the other side is a massive icefield thirty-five miles wide and a kilometer thick. You can only arrive by boat or plane. At 31,000 inhabitants, we are the biggest city within 600 miles in any direction. It’s a marvelous place, especially if you are a bear or a salmon, but it doesn’t scream “global reach!”
So, how did this happen? One reason is obvious: new technologies enable us to collaborate better and to reach global markets.
We’ve been working with these people anywhere from 3 to 33 years, with the average being 15 years. When problems arise, as they always do, it’s the basic human regard for each other that carries you through to the next level. And it’s been like that for millennia.
Because despite the new technology, our business is very ancient. Textiles were some of the very first trade goods, and we feel like we’re part of a line that goes back five thousand years or more. Textile is culture, whether it’s the unique pattern in a hand-woven manta of a single village in Bolivia or the latest hot European designer. We wear clothing to tell the world what we value and who we are, and to remind ourselves of those things. We infuse it with our lives: that alpaca beanie contains some wisps of the afternoon you walked on a frozen lake with your best friend, that cashmere sweater reminds you of the day you graduated from college.
You see, clothing is never just clothing. Each of our items represents an infinity of people and places you haven’t visited but can imagine. And when you’ve worn it through some life, piled it thick with private memories and moments, it represents much more. It becomes a country on a map of a secret universe that we can only perceive with our imagination.
That’s why we call our business Invisible World.
My personal favorite of the four. A faded rock star loses his fortune and goes on an absurd revenge quest against an infamous financier. That is the alleged plot, but beneath the glamour and flash of Hollywood and Shanghai, there’s a much different story unfolding. Intuitive, uplifting, and takes you places you’ve never been but that are nonetheless familiar.
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