In casting about for a seasonal business to balance the Jungle Flare operation which can be found on Main Street near the Old School Bus Ice Cream site, Janelle Moodie and Naho Okano have stepped into a winter-friendly operation.
While travelling the world in search of fairly traded jewelry, accessories and clothing to stock Jungle Flare is nothing new for Moodie, having an operation from May to September left a lot of the season unaccounted for, business-wise.
Moodie and Okano have now partnered in Sherpa Soles, which sees them working with a factory in Nepal to produce 100 per cent wool slippers. The slippers, wearable art if you will, are certified Eco-Friendly, feature handstitched designs by Moodie and Okano, and use natural dyes and wool provided by farmers in Nepal.
The slippers are handcrafted by women in Nepal in a small factory with a green hand soaped felting process.
With the motto, Sherpa Soles – Treads With Care, the entrepreneurs are not only working on a business of their own, they are spreading the joy around by doing business in Nepal.
“I’ve travelled a lot to places like Bali and Central America to find products for Jungle Flare,” said Moodie. “And I was in Nepal a couple of times, 15 and five years ago, bought some wool sweaters there and saw some felted slippers. But in Nepal, unlike other places I import from, you actually get to meet the people who are creating the products.
“And I’ve met with other importers who say there are no bad working conditions.”
Over the last couple of years, with Moodie starting a family, it’s been Okano who has travelled to Nepal. They’ve hooked up with an artist (Ajim) who has a factory and a number of women working.
“We call it a factory,” said Okano, “but really, it’s just wooden walls with a plastic roof. And it’s housewives who are doing the work, they take care of each other and it’s a real little community. Others have said they’ve never seen needlework like this and we have many designs.”
Wool for the slippers, available in both kid and adult sizes, comes from Himalayan sheep. It is cleaned with natural soap, then dyed and chopped finely to produce felt which is then crafted, one at a time, into slippers.
“When they start, the wool looks like a fuzzy ball of hair, nothing more,” said Okano. “But it’s pressed into flat felt, then the slippers are made on molds, then stitched.”
Currently, latex soles are attached to the slippers, but a move to leather soles is being made.
Working with the Nepalese has offered some eye opening glimpses of life in the mountain country; including the fact that many of the animals used for Sherpa Soles designs have never been seen by the workers themselves, so training is needed.
“These women have never seen animals like moose or wolves, or the ocean, so they have to work closely from our designs,” said Okano.
She and Moodie have also found that, beyond the fact Nepal is the 16th poorest country in the world, which presents challenges, the Nepalese also have a community spirit the can present challenges.
“Sometimes they’ll have festivals that go for days, even a couple of weeks,” said Moodie, “and nobody’s working anywhere. But they’re very happy people, they all support each other and it’s wonderful to see.”
As someone who “escaped” from Tokyo’s high-pressure, hectic, high-stress lifestyle, Okano has found that in moving from Calgary to Canmore to Exshaw, she has become ever further removed from the hustle and bustle, with her trips to Nepal presenting even more of a basic life.
“They have a natural lifestyle,” said Okano. “The first couple of times I went, it was a culture shock – they have no refrigeration, for example, terrible roads and, just walking around there, you realize how spoiled we are here.”
“And in Nepal,” said Moodie, “they’re spoiled with happiness.”
Okana agreed, saying, “all the families invite you to their houses and they’re so happy to see you.”
Currently Sherpa Soles products are mostly sold at markets like the Canmore Farmers Market, the craft market at Elevation Place and through large markets and trade shows like those held at Spruce Meadows and a large Edmonton gift show. The Canmore Christmas Artisans Market is coming up Nov. 14-15, and a website (sherpasoles.com) is in the works.
Currently, slippers decorated with owls and wolves are top sellers, while kids slippers designed like a fox, for example, are a hit, as are those worn by students at Alpenglow School. With the foxes, the tail is used to pull a slipper on. New designs include a Hopi flute player.
Prices range from $25 for baby-sized slippers to $47 for larger mens offerings.
“We’re always coming up with new ideas,” said Moodie, “the possibilities seem endless. And people who buy tend to come back for more because they’re happy with the slippers.”
Okano’s last trip to Nepal ended just prior to the devastating earthquake and the women are now working to raise funds to support those who work for them.
“We can’t help everybody, but we trying to help at least our factory people,” said Okano.
Moodie and Okano are also involved with Soles4Souls (Wearing Out Poverty), where a portion of purchase sales helps purchase a pair of shoes for Nepalese in need.
“But I want to do even more,” said Moodie, “like helping charities that stop human trafficking. Lots of girls are sold or stolen in Nepal and taken to India to become prostitutes.
“We had an email from Ajim asking for help for the workers there, so we bought Nepalese souveniers to sell for them. We also ordered chocolate sticks for the Ice Cream Bus to sell. I’m selling my yoga books at the Yoga Lounge next month to help raise money.”