After years of watching her mother develop Indaba at their kitchen table, Alison Gillespie joined her mom, Irene Held, in helping the company flourish. The home décor and lifestyle brand pulls from Held’s experience as a South African immigrant to Canada and her desire to share artisanal crafts from abroad to North Americans. Over the course of 30 years, Indaba has established itself as a brand providing decor with a handmade, natural, and organic feel. We had the pleasure of talking to Alison Gillespie about what makes Indaba unique and her experience as one half of a mother-daughter duo in the gift and home industry.
Q: Your mother started Indaba and you grew up around it, when and why did you decide to join the company full time?
Indaba’s been a part of my life since I was a baby, since my mom started it in our garage. I was always involved in some way.
However, I really started contributing to Indaba as early as high school, by attending trade shows with my mom. I started doing catalogs for her quite young, too.
When I was younger, I always had the feeling of needing to do my own thing. I was doing PR for tech companies when I realized I didn't really enjoy that. I liked the communication side of it but not the other side.
And then I also realized I'd rather be a part of the company that my mom has. It was an incredible company already and I felt that I could add a lot of value. That is when I decided to join her full time.
Alison Gillespie and Irene Held
Q: What is it like working as a mother-daughter duo?
We’re lucky that we have a great working relationship. I don’t know that it can work for everyone, but it does seem to work well in this industry because we notice a lot of our customers are mother-daughter.
Being a family company, we're always living and breathing Indaba. Whenever we're together, even outside of work time, we're still thinking about it and nurturing it. I think that shows in the business and in the care behind the line.
[My mom] spends a lot of time keeping track of the things that she's seeing and loving, so when it comes time to put our seasonal stories together, she has a wealth of different pictures and resources that she uses to put them together. She leads that part of the process.
We make all our purchasing decisions together. We always have to agree on products we want to bring in. I think that makes them a little more special. If I am into something and she doesn't like it, we don't do it and vice versa. Once we have the collections and the products, the marketing of it comes more to me. I decide how we're going to style the products to photograph and create the content to really sell the products.
Q: What was the first place you traveled to with your mom?
I was 22 when she took me on a buying trip to India. We saw a couple suppliers, went to a fair, and also did a bit of tourism, which was really fun.
It was that trip that really solidified that I should do this full time.
Q: What does a day abroad with your mom look like?
Sometimes our travel involves a lot of time in the car, but when we’re at our destination we pick our main suppliers to visit. We spend time seeing the production process and how our products are being made. Some of the products are made in a workshop environment, some a factory environment, and some in the cottage industry - meaning they're actually made in artisan’s own home. That's the way a lot of women in India can work.
Another huge part of it, especially in India, is that we are invited to spend time with our suppliers; they invite us into their homes. That’s a pretty special part of India; I haven't really encountered that elsewhere.
Q: What other places have you been?
Before COVID, we were going to China. We import and design a lot of ceramic products there. We also would travel to Vietnam.
We also visit various trade markets. Ambiente, (the biggest international trade show for consumer goods), allowed us to see makers from all different countries all over the world. Products from Africa, from Kenya, from Nepal, from Indonesia, were all at this one spot.
We also would typically go to Paris for the Maison.
Q: Apart from travel, where are you actively looking for inspiration?
We try to have timeless, lasting products that people will want to keep for a long time and not just have for one season.
For color palettes, for example, a lot comes from nature. We try to predict what popular colors will be, but our version is usually a little more faded and a little more natural.
We have a bit of more of a European style to our aesthetic, so there's some different European designers that we follow. We also get a lot of pattern and color inspiration from fashion.
We try not to get too swayed by what's really, really trendy, so we can create lasting pieces that people will want to keep around.
Q: What sets Indaba apart from other home décor companies?
Our owner engagement is big! My mom and I are the creative team and are really hands on with everything. From the start, to meeting with our suppliers, developing the products, the photography that we do, putting together the catalog, at every stage we're involved. I think you can feel that comes through in the brand.
The other thing that's special about Indaba is that we are woman owned and fueled. All women from the office to the warehouse apart from American sales reps.
Q: How did you bring the ideas of comfort, meaningfulness, and your mom’s original ideas into your products?
My mom started with importing African handicrafts and we continue to work on those same principles. Everything in the line is handmade. Sometimes they'll have a more modern design to them, but then the techniques used to make them are those traditional craft processes. By doing that, we really feel that we're keeping those crafts alive. Like the weaving for the textiles or like the block printing. By us creating a market for those kinds of products, we keep the craft alive that people in India especially have been doing for generations.
All of our products are all made with natural materials, which to me is a little more comfortable than something shiny. Even the pillows, which are already comfy; the colors are usually faded or stone washed. It is more about products that you'd want to use every day and that are beautiful, but also livable.
Q: What excites you about the gift and home industry?
I think that people are really starting to care a lot about where their products come from, more so than in the past. A byproduct of having been through COVID is that people have realized how important the home is. They spend so much time in them. I think that that will continue even after COVID is gone because people realize how nice it is to make your home somewhere you really want to be. That’s exciting just in terms of people identifying with our brand.
Q: Where are you traveling to next? Any hints for the future of Indaba?
Next, we are off to India in October! We've been on a bit of a traveling hiatus because of covid. We are so excited to visit to what really inspires us.
Our new color stories for Fall 2023 are just being formed. Now that we can get back to traveling again, I think our fall collection will be really exciting.
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