Fate, curiosity, entrepreneurs, and enterprises

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Summer sunset sky. 8:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Very warm and sunny yesterday in New York with temperatures in the 80s, falling to the high 60s in the evening.

Fate, curiosity, entrepreneurs, and enterprises. We have this advertiser you may have noticed — the Peruvian Connection. They came to us through a friend a few months ago. They’re out of Tonganoxie, Kansas, where the business originated. On a farm.

I’d never heard of them until my friend told me about them. But I’m not shopper, nor do I ever look at catalogues. I look at what I see on the street, or in a room, but I’ve never had the personal interest to shop unless I needed something. Even then I wouldn’t call it shopping. I know a lot of people who are, however, both women and men. They know.

Annie Zander in Peru.

So when we got together with Peruvian through their executive vice-president Kay Moini and their founder (actually co-founder, with her mother) Annie Hurlbut, I soon learned about their line of apparel; each piece a celebration of ethnographic textiles from around the world.

Annie was at Yale in the early ‘70s, her father’s alma mater. In her sophomore year she spent the summer on an archeological dig in Peru. Among the things she learned in this faraway world for a girl from Kansas, was about alpaca. Little did I know; I learned about alpaca through Annie. She gave me an alpaca sweater jacket as a gift. I thought nothing of it at the time although I was flattered by her thoughtfulness. Although I wasn’t sure I’d wear it. But I put it on one day – this was back in cooler weather when the heat still wasn’t on in the building. It’s light and yet warm, and comfortable. I can wear it anywhere, even in New York. And I do, because I wear it all the time except on days like this where it’s in the 80s. It’s my security blanket.

Annie Hurlbut Zander with her mother Biddy Hurlbut.

It was that summer for Annie on the archeological dig when she first learned about alpaca. It’s an animal, if you didn’t know. It’s related to the vicuna and the llama and it’s an important economic element for the people of the Andes. It’s a workhorse and it also has an extraordinary wool that grows naturally in colors from white and beige to brown (mine), black and grey. The men used the alpaca for work, and the women used its wool for garments. Annie was impressed by all of it – the women working, the wool, their productivity in taking care of themselves and their families. Before she left Peru, she bought two fitted jackets for herself and her mother to take back to the farm in Kansas.

Annie’s collection of Andean textiles, which was what drew her into this business in the first place.

Biddy Hurlbut loved her sweater. And what I love about this story I’m telling you is just that. Her mother loved her sweater. Annie loved hers too. I don’t know which of the two came up with the idea of going into business. Annie’s gift was an ordinary, simple gesture of care and love. However, those sweaters  changed their lives as well as the lives of many, many native Peruvians forevermore.

After that summer and back at Yale, Annie made another trip to Peru, this time as a graduate student in anthropology. She was doing research on women who work in primitive markets making their handloomed garments with their alpaca wool.

Annie with her compadres in Cuzco, Peru. Annie has been their godmother since they were children.

Those sweaters she bought for herself and her mother were very popular with their friends. Everyone wanted one. One friend of her mother who was a buyer for stores ordered 45 of them. It occurred to the Hurlbut mother and daughter that there might be a market in the US for this natural product, and for all the right reasons; it could help the women of the Andes and their families.

Annie loved advertising in The New Yorker.

A market was waiting; this was their instinctive foresight. The alpaca product was a good one and a good idea, it only had to be stylish for the American market, so Annie embarked on design. Her working with the Peruvian women gave their sweaters more flair. Annie returned to Tonganoxie with her first stock. This was in the mid-1970s.

Annie then took the first stock to New York. She was familiar with the city and its life. Her mother was a Finch graduate although she grew up on the farm in Tonganoxie; but her father was a Yalie, a Connecticut native. She showed her goods to Bendel’s, and Sermonetta and several other specialty stores. Bendel’s and Sermonetta bought them. 

Annie then took out one of those small back-of-the-magazine ads that they used to run in The New Yorker. That tiny investment produced sales interest across the world. It was from that they learned the real potential of their market. In 1976 they created their first mail-order catalogue, and advertised it in The New Yorker. They got 5000 requests for it.

This was an adventurous move that turned out to be the right time. The big, classic retail catalogues such as Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck that had been around since the 19th century, were no longer popular with the customer. Tastes and interests were changing, and expanding with the population and its prosperity.

Around that time a businessman from Texas, Roger Horchow launched the first specialty catalogue (luxury items) for the discerning consumer. It was a big hit. Annie could see that everything about the market was changing. She could see that people were being exposed and responding the way she did to the fashion and tastes of other cultures.

43 years later, they send out 10 million (yes!)
catalogues every year to customers all over the world. Still operating out of Tonganoxie, they’ve expanded their inventories in women’s apparel made from the luxury fibers of alpaca and pima cotton. The market grew. Pima Cotton and Alpaca are their aces for the customer. The business grew from their suppliers which now go back more than 35 years.

The New York Times took notice in a big way in 1979.

Early Peruvian Connection catalogues.

Their original designs by the Peruvian Connection staff, include dresses, jackets, coats, skirts, blankets as well as a selection of costume jewelry and accessories. They now have eight stores; one in New York (on Columbus Avenue and 76th Street), London, Aspen, Santa Fe, Washington, D. C., Chicago, Boston and Kansas City. Right now, they are having their “BIGGER” Semi-annual sale which includes markdowns on more than 100 items with markdowns up to 40%. Have a look here.

Since being introduced to Annie’s business, I’ve learned that many women I know, especially those who are always beautifully dressed, all know the line. Whenever I’ve mentioned it, I get the same response – which does amaze me: “Oh, I have their things. I get their catalogue.” 

As one who is personally aware of the retailing business, I am also amazed by the quality of their goods just in terms of fabric and tailoring, and at their prices. I attribute it all to Annie Hurlbut Zander’s consciousness and sensibility. I can see it just on her presence: a very successful, entrepreneurial and curious woman who despite her great success and accomplishments in her life, is still that Yale anthropology student exploring a foreign land and discovering culture and people. And amazed.

Annie with the photo crew on location in Cuzco, Peru.

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