A silent flock of black birds soar over Stela 9’s courtyard, carving a rout through the warm impending dusk. Owner of the Antiguan design boutique and Air B’n’B, Jess Bercovici, sits alone at a wooden table painted lavender, cradling her chin in her left hand and clicking a laptop mouse pad with her right. An hour after closing time, Bercovici awaits her final guest of the evening, as the glow of her Mac laptop gradually illuminates the contours of her face and newly grown pixie-cut.
A knock on the thick, lacquered front door sends Bercovici’s dogs, Gruner and Ito, into a barking frenzy, piercing the twilight quietude like an out-of-reach alarm clock. Bercovici softly scolds the two dogs, half jogging across the courtyard to unlock the door for her guest, Guatemalan seamstress and Stela 9 collaborator, Irma Chuy Gómez. The women smile and hug, as soft and familiar Spanish greetings replace the canine howling. The dogs know this is not a stranger.
Bercovici started designing clothing under the Stela 9 label seven years ago on the fashion retail website, Etsy. The design company quickly metamorphosed into an international wholesale enterprise with more than 450 accounts. Named for a Mayan monument with spiritual significance, California-born Bercovici designed Stela 9 in hopes that every aspect of the company would reflect Guatemalan inspiration and contribution, including the hands which create the products.
Before she met Bercovici three years, Gómez worked in a textile factory and sewing uniforms. When Bercovici began requesting custom designs, Gómez quit her job at the factory to work as a custom order seamstress, almost exclusively for Stela 9.
“Irma is very loving,” Bercovici says of Gómez. “She’s a sweetheart, but she’s also tough. She’s running a business and raising three kids. If Irma doesn’t get something right the first time she always gets it right the second.”
In addition to Gómez, Stela 9 thrives on regular collaboration with four other Guatemalan artisans, as well as employees of a cafe on Stela 9’s property.
During business hours at Stela 9, a wobbly toddler pushes a blue broom twice his height across the tile of the courtyard, imitating the whirring noise of a vacuum cleaner as he sweeps. His mother and cafe chef, Jo Eguiguren, smiles down at him as she sprays and wipes the white tile of the front counter.
“Jess is so gentle,” Equiguren says. “So kind. So helpful. Because I have a child, not many places would let me bring him to work. This is the first time I have worked with a woman who empowers me while I empower her.”
Equiguren has worked at Stela 9 for six months. She’s witnessed many changes, such as Bercovici’s company undergoing a significant downsizing transformation in response to medical complications.
In February 2016, Bercovici received a brain cancer diagnosis. She underwent chemotherapy in the United States and decided to minimize and refocus Stela 9, starting with her smallest in-store and online retail collection to date. Ultimately, she downsized her wholesale production almost entirely to custom orders, typically completed independently of the Stela 9 label.
After returning to her Antigua home and business following treatment, Bercovici does not plan to seek inspiration or residence elsewhere. Cancer or no cancer, Bercovici is here to stay.
As one of the first foreign entities to own a wholesale and retail clothing company in Antigua, Bercovici admits she made mistakes and needed to adapt quickly as she formed the template newer companies would follow.
In 2011 Anthropologie contracted Stela 9 to design and generate an order of bags utilizing traditional Mayan textiles, huipiles. But weaving huipiles requires a great deal of time, with the amount of fabric comprising a single blouse requiring up to four months to create. Anthropologie felt this was time they couldn’t afford.
The plan quickly devolved into buying pre-made huipiles cheaply and cutting them up to use in the newly designed bags.
“People don’t understand these [huipiles] should be worth sometimes more than $1,000,” Bercovici said. “For example, at Lake Atitlan, people are so financially restricted they are forced to sell their textiles for cheap. I didn’t realize it at first, but that order made me change what I was doing.” After her work with Anthropologie, Bercovici decided she would make fair pricing a priority if she ever repurposed pre-made huipiles. Stela 9 now tries to purchase and reuse the textiles from damaged, unwearable huipiles, turning scrap material into bags. Bercovici offers income to artisans without requiring them to sacrifice generations-old and still-functional huipiles.
Bercovici invited Irma Gómez to Stela 9 after closing to discuss more than just textiles. After Stela 9’s downsizing, Bercovici worries Gómez may need additional work to supplement her income and hopes to propose additional work with a company similar to Stela 9.
Gómez married when she was 17 years old and is the mother of four children, as well as the principal breadwinner for her family. When she worked at the factory, she longed to learn more about traditional textiles. Her husband offered to pay for an apprenticeship in weaving and later for an additional course in Antigua, to learn the specifics of elaborate custom designs. Her husband, who used to work in the textile factory as well, now works as a municipal plumber.
“He doesn’t earn as much,” says Gómez. “He is grateful I can do this and support the family.”
Bercovici claims many foreignly owned clothing companies in Guatemala place artisans in a difficult position. In the name of collaboration, they target artisans who work with original design companies such as Stela 9, asking artisans to replicate other company’s designs instead of supplying their own. Bercovici cited two local companies that copied Stela 9’s designs by working with the same artisans. One company blocked her on social media to hide their theft, claims Bercovici.
She now drafts contracts for her five primary artisan collaborators, forbidding them to copy and resell her designs. But, Bercovici also takes a vested interest in providing proficient work and compensation for the women and men.
Stela 9’s website features ‘Meet the Makers’ video which highlights some of the Guatemalan artisans Bercovici has worked with. Some viewers of the video criticized Bercovici. One commenter called her a gringa, accusing her of taking advantage of the Guatemalan people. Bercovici responded to the commenter clarifying and defending her intentions.
“I started my business because of Guatemala,” wrote Bercovici, who moved to Guatemala from California 10 years ago as an archeologist, transitioning to entrepreneurial design after three years of residency. She located Stela 9 in Guatemala and intentionally employs Guatemalan artisans to build cross-cultural collaborations.
“A lot,” says Gómez. That’s how much collaborating with Stela 9 benefits her and her family. Her daughter graduates high school this year, an opportunity she ascribes to her employment with Stela 9.
Bercovici smiles softly as she absorbs Gómez’s story under the soft glow of light bulbs decorating the Stela 9 workshop.
“My goal is to highlight Guatemalan weaving, embroidery and techniques in a fashionable way,” Bercovici reflects. “That’s what makes Stela 9 successful.”