Annie O. Waterman grew up in Northern California, about an hour north of San Francisco. She was always drawn to textiles, which likely stemmed from her mother’s love for fabrics and interior design. Her father is an architect with an incredible eye for detail which clearly influenced her appreciation for technique and her obvious sense of artistic proportion.
From an early age, Waterman and her family traveled often, exposing her to different cultures and affording her a unique perspective of the world. While traveling, she was particularly drawn to traditional artisan work as a way to connect with people and this resulted in the formation of some remarkable relationships. Waterman later studied photography and ethnic studies, but over the years, she found herself connected to design for social change. “It just made sense and it was a way to merge all of my passions,” Waterman says.
In 2007, Annie traveled to Peru with vague ideas of starting a business. Nothing was concrete until she crossed paths with an incredible women-run cooperative in Central Peru. The group is made up of about 80 women who are living in impoverished conditions and have been victims of domestic violence. After meeting these women, her direction became clear and she began to seriously plan her business. There was never a question as to whether she would run her business in an ethical manner. Waterman says she has to believe 100% in what she does and this was the only way. Two years ago, she officially launched Annie O, first selling belts through trunk shows and later indulging her love for design by developing a line of clutches, handbags, horn cuffs, alpaca shawls and more.
The design inspiration for her initial collection came from the floral designs and vibrant embroidery which is dominant throughout Central Peru. Waterman found that handbags and belts were most fitting for this medium and therefore has focused on the design of accessories. She works with the women-run cooperative in Peru that fueled her inspiration to launch the brand and in December, she will travel to Colombia to meet with another women’s coop in hopes of a possible collaboration with them. Annie connects with cooperatives by researching the artisan work throughout a specific country, traveling to that part of the world, and exploring local markets to see the variety of work being produced. Once she finds examples of what she likes, she asks around about where it is produced. She says, “it feels like a treasure hunt which often takes hours of research, tiring bus rides, and a lot of patience, but in the end it is a fascinating journey that has taken you to magical places.”
Waterman chooses to work with female-run coops because she believes in empowering women through social ventures. She wants the women who produce her products to have the opportunity for a better life and provide their children with things such as access to clean water, healthy food, and education. When business becomes particularly stressful, Waterman credits these women for infusing her with energy to march forward. Annie travels to Peru about once a year to share her sketches and create new designs with the women and feels this experience rejuvenates her and helps to keep her connection with the group real.
In Waterman’s design process, her goal is to sustain the rich art forms that have existed for hundreds of years while incorporating elements of contemporary design. She and the group work with all local materials such as sheep’s wool, alpaca and horn. The wool and alpaca is all hand picked from local markets and the horn is used for the clutch handles and belt buckles, supporting a small family business in the slums of Lima. All horn is made out of recycled material, which does not promote the killing of animals in any way and the horn accents compliment the embroidery perfectly.