Tuesday, June 17, 2008

High Fashion Retail from Rural Kansas

One of wife’s favorite catalogs is Peruvian Connection, a catalog that features hand crafted sweaters, dresses, purses and other accessories from Peru. It’s a business that you would expect to be located in NYC, Miami or some other large, globally focused city. But, if you look at the back of their catalog you will find that the company is headquartered on the Canaan Farm in Tonganoxie, KS (population 2,728).

This month’s catalog saluted Biddy Hurlbut, who co-founded the company with her daughter Annie in 1976. Biddy passed away last year at the age of 80.

The story starts on Canaan Farm where Biddy and her husband raised their three children. Annie was in the first graduating class at Yale to admit women, traveling to Peru for anthropology research on women in the Andean marketplace. The 19-year-old fell in love with the extraordinary hand woven mantas and ponchos there. For her mother’s 50th birthday Annie bought an alpaca sweater trimmed with the long haired fur of the alpaca.

With her friends fawning over her sweater, Biddy approached a local clothing buyer, who immediately ordered 45 of them! Very slowly Biddy and Annie built the business until a NY Times style writer interviewed Annie for a quarter-page article in 1979. Virtually overnight over 5,000 requests for their catalog poured in.

Today, that small business has grown to over 200 employees, several retail stores and a catalog that goes out to over 150,000 customers in the USA and around the world. Sales are over $10 million/year. The company today designs its products in Kansas and Peru, handcrafting them with artisans in Peru. Annie said, “We continue to work with the same cottage industries. Many of those have invested in their businesses; a lot are women-owned. We have relationships with our supplier base that go back 25 years, and we buy season after season from them.”

Globalism! From rural Kansas! The world is getting smaller and smaller and you can run a global business from anyplace in the world. Even a high fashion one!

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