Interview: Alexandra Weston H Project

Extraordinary Products with Extraordinary Stories

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In 2013, Holt Renfrew launched H Project. An unique in store shop offering an assortment of apparel, accessories, home décor and beauty products that supported a charitable cause.

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H Project is led by Holt Renfrew’s Director of Brand Strategy, Alexandra Weston. We sat down with Alexandra to learn more about H Project and her travels to Indian and Africa to source the incredible products for H Project.

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How did you come up with the concept for H Project

When I first started in my position at Holt Renfrew as Director of Brand Strategy, one of the biggest things I saw was the opportunity to provide a way for Holt Renfrew to give back to the community. It all started with the idea of our charitable collaborations.39

We are now doing our eleventh collaboration launch this week. This is where we ask one of our vendors to design an item exclusively for us, with 100% of the profits going to charity. For this initiative, we collaborated with Burt’s Bees and Canadian accessory brand, Ella Handbags who created a beautiful clutch with 100% of the proceeds going to Pollinator Partnership Canada.

We went big into the numbers, purchasing 10,000 units of an item that was at a more obtainable price point, with the goal of reaching $100,000 in donations. Mark Derbyshire, our president and I wanted it to be something substantial, and it turned out to be a really big success. We have raised a million dollars since then for a multitude of charities locally and globally.

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Given the huge success of our charity collaborations, I wanted to create something in Holt Renfrew that would be more permanent. I pitched the idea of H Project to the team – basically asking for the world. “400 Sq feet of your highest traffic area, and it may or may not make any money, but it’s going to do a lot of good work for the brand.” I thought I would have so much push back, but there was an unanimous “Yes, let’s try make this happen.”

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To have a leadership team that saw the long term vision of what this could do is amazing. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Even for me, having the idea was one thing, but then, starting to live it and breathe it, I really started to see first hand how the smallest thing, even the smallest order can have a domino affect.

What is the criteria when sourcing products for H Project?

When we’re looking at products for H Project, we look at three things:

  1. Where they are made?
  2. How they are made?
  3. Is there a charitable giveback?

We started researching and going to trade shows, finding products where both the background story and the product were incredible. It took us about a year to launch the shop. We needed to ensure that the products we were sourcing would maintain the quality and consistency that our customers expect from us.
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A year into H Project, we started to see a lot of traction with the artisanal goods. Our customers loved being able to get a market place find, without actually having to travel to find that item. Instead, we were taking them on a journey.

The tag line for H Project is ‘Extraordinary products with Extraordinary stories.’  You’ll see around the shop there are little white cubes, that tell the story about why we picked that product, and what it’s story is.

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The more we started researching products, the more we became emotionally involved. We would have our vendors reach out to us with monthly updates, saying, “This is what you have done for us. Now, we’ve drilled two water holes in South Sudan because of this.’” The more this happened, the more I wanted to go and meet the people we were helping.

We came up with this idea of ‘Uncrate a Culture.’ This concept is that we would do a deep dive into a culture that still relies heavily on traditional craftsmanship as a form of livelihood. In order to make it at the caliber again for Holt Renfrew, we decided we should find a partner or collaborator that not only represented the culture, but also represented the fashion industry. Last year, we did ‘Uncrate India’ with Waris Ahluwalia, which was really exciting. It was exactly what we wanted it to be. So, after the success of Uncrate India, we got the green light to do it again, this time in Africa.

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Was it a challenging process to bring the products to Canada? 

With India, it was the first time we traveled to a region for H Project. I had this very romantic, perhaps naïve idealism of what it would be like. I thought, we’d go with Waris to the market places and pick out our items. Which we did, but the reality is, when you come back home, and you have to reach out to that single small vendor, who has that table in the middle of a market, and ask him to mass produce a product at the consistent quality and quantity that you need, and then ship to Canada on time, it became a really big challenge.
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A big part of what we were doing is walking these artisans through the process of what does it mean to have your purchase order match your shipping number. How do you ensure the packages arrive on the right date so our warehouses will accept the delivery. All the logistics with working with these small community groups was interesting, but also very challenging on the back end of things. For our next trip, we did a lot of pre-research. We pre-engaged almost all the sources before we traveled there. Because of this, I think we have a much richer, stronger range of product.

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For our trip to Africa, one of our biggest collaborators has been the designers Dannijo. Sisters Danielle and Jodie Snyder from Dannijo were instrumental in introducing us to Indigo Africa. Indigo Africa is a social enterprise outside of Rwanda that we spent three days with. We visited eleven different cooperatives, all of which the Dannijo girls were working with to create a product to bring back for H Project. Some of my favourite pieces currently in H Project are from Indigo Africa.

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It’s amazing to meet the people creating the products, but also to try your hand at the craft. You really appreciate how hard it is. To learn the intimacies of what it takes, who they are, and what their lives are like. I think the most important thing that came out from our trip was the inspiration and positive impacts that selling a woven bowl here in Canada at Holt Renfrew can have on a woman and her family in Kigali, Rwanda.

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Through this cooperative, not only have they found a safe place to work, but they’ve also found a community through all the women working together. It’s fair trade and it’s a positive community. There are all these Mamas to take care of the children while the other Mom’s work. It’s a really happy place.

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One gentleman said something that really resonated with me. He said, “Before this I was surviving, now I am living.”

When you talk to these women about what their lives used to look like, to what they are now, because we sold a few bowls. It’s unbelievable. It seems so small, but down the line, it means a lot to people. Through these communities there are leadership programs and entrepreneurial programs. Not only do they provide these women with skills, but also basic entrepreneurial training. Such as how to open a bank account and how to create a savings account.
72A lot of these women talk about their children being the first generation to attend school. We hope that with this momentum of their children being able to attend school that they will be able to bring in more, and bit by bit be able to work their way up.

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How has the Holt Renfrew customer responded to H Project?

It’s been very positive. The response has been so great that we’re actually able to reorder from a lot of the artisans and continue those relationships. It’s not about making money, its about the heart and soul.

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Alexandra’s Favourites

1.Dannijo Bangles Bizi Set of 3  2. Dannijo x Indego Africa DJ Marrakech Basket  3.Lalesso Stuffed Animal Elephant  4. FEEDBag 2 Kenya 5. Far & Wilde Collective Basket Large Strip Yellow 6. Otago Set of 4 Glasses 7. Far & Wide Collective Bowl Pulp Large 8. Otago Basket

For more information on H Project, visit HoltRenfrew.com