A few weeks ago I was introduced to Lara, a Canadian designer who has a the most exquisite handmade bag line called Ann & Arayata. After doing a little more research I learned enough about the company that I knew Lara had to be a feature in our Creating The Life series…
Ann & Arayata’s seeks to create the perfect balance between style and substance. Not only are the clutches super gorge, 100% of the materials used to make them are natural and they donate 20% of their profits to sustainable livelihood, infrastructure, food and education projects in the Philippines and Rwanda, how amazing is that?
Meet Lara Stephenson, the founder and creative director of Ann & Arayata.
Lara Stephenson – founder & creative director of Ann & Arayata
Lara, where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Toronto by a Filipino mother and small town Canadian dad.
What was your course academically?
I studied fashion design at the International Academy of Design in Toronto
Tell us about your career path…
I ran a woman’s wear label called Revolve Clothing Co. for about eight years. I proudly manufactured the entire collection in Canada. In 2008 I made the transition to using sustainable materials such as organic cotton and lyocell (Tencel). After the Spring/Summer 2010 collection I decided it was time to move on to new things. The recession had put many suppliers out of business and more and more local manufacturing facilities were closing down due to the move to offshore production. These factors made producing locally very difficult and very expensive and I wasn’t interested in joining the masses of taking my manufacturing to China. I opened a successful little shop called IDO: Independent Designers Outlet on Dundas West to sell off my remaining stock built up from eight years of designing two collections per year. I also sold overstock from other local labels such as Juma, Maison and Dagg & Stacey. It was a great shop but once my stock was gone it was time for me to travel and start Ann & Arayata!
When did you decide to make a change of career and why?
A major catalyst was losing my mother to cancer in April 2008. This was a huge, life-altering event for me (as it would be for most people, daughters in particular, I’m sure). I was very close to my mom and despite our 40 year age difference she was my best friend. After she passed away I felt compelled to create something that would continue to strengthen the bond we had and honor the incredible life she lived.
My mother founded a charitable organization called L.I.F.E. Philippines Foundation, now known as L.I.F.E. For Health, in 1990 after surviving a long and risky procedure to remove a benign brain tumour. The organization was completely volunteer-run from the beginning and raised money through community events in Toronto to fund projects and medical missions in the Philippines. Today my sister leads the organization as President, and with eight other Board members including myself and my dad, we continue the work my mom started. Today our focus is on sustainable developmental projects with a focus on livelihood, infrastructure, food and education programs that improve a community’s overall health. We currently have active projects in Rwanda and the Philippines.
My aim with Ann & Arayata is to develop beautiful products for the world market with talented artisans in the Philippines, providing them with livelihood opportunities that support their craft and the ancient techniques they use. At the same time I’m able to delve deeper into my own Filipino heritage, spend more time in my mom’s homeland as well as bring awareness and funds to L.I.F.E. For Health with our donations of 20 percent of profits from all sales.
How did you get into your current profession?
As a kid I was known to cut up my brand new clothes (much to my mother’s dismay) to make them my own. I always had a strong sense of my own style so going to school for fashion design was a natural step. I’ve also always had a tendency towards doing my own thing in my own way (it’s a family trait) so being an entrepreneur came naturally to me.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you decided to switch gear?
Probably one of the hardest things to do was to accept that I had to “let go” of the brand I had spent so many years building…and not feeling like I had failed. Running your own business is hard to begin with, and running a fashion business in Canada is particularly challenging. I had a good run with Revolve, and at my peak was carried in boutiques across Canada, the U.S. and even managed to land an account in Japan without even trying. I had to remind myself of my accomplishments yet at the same time step back and objectively look at what changes needed to happen in order to continue my personal and professional evolution.
What is it about your current occupation that you now love?
The ability to travel more! And having a mobile office is pretty awesome too.
What inspires you?
Beautiful yet functional design, my yoga guru Mahyar Raz, good people doing good things
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud that I have remained true to myself and have kept faith in the universe to guide me along the way.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to change their path?
It’s your duty to follow what your inner self is telling you to do.