Jacqui Stephen has traveled to and from Argentina since she was a baby, shuttled back and forth by her mother when she was young to visit family.
As she got older, each trip yielded unique items—a purse or a necklace—to bring back for herself or friends.
After a cousin encouraged her to look into talking to the local artisans about possibly bringing their wares to the States, the idea for Stephen’s online boutique Siembra Heritage began to take shape.
She launched the business in the spring of 2019 with the goal of curating a merchandise assortment that’s focused on a countermovement to mass production, with small batch products from Argentinian artists and craftspeople.
The result is a store stocked with handmade purses made from Chaguar Plant threads spun by women in Formosa, Argentina; leather goods from a woman-owned accessories company in Buenos Aires; crystal necklaces mined by a designer in Argentina; and woven bags made from the Carandillo plant by the Qom community in Gran Chaco, Argentina.
“Everything is handmade. There’s nothing mass produced because that’s always been my thing since I was young. I like one of a kind,” Stephen said of Siembra Heritage’s merchandise assortment.
The company currently works with a handful of vendors in Argentina, ranging from a leather craftsman to jewelry designers.
Stephen, a longtime advertising executive, knew little about the world of retailing before Siembra Heritage.
She had worked in production at ad agency Foote Cone & Belding’s former local office, off of MacArthur Boulevard. Her responsibilities included finding the right talent for on-camera or voiceover work for clients.
She later went on to work at a Hispanic ad agency in Santa Monica called Anita Santiago Advertising Inc.
Stephen made the decision to step away from the industry when she gave birth to her first son.
Entrepreneurship and her own personal taste for the unique got her back into business.
During the first buying trip to Argentina, Stephen and her cousin, who continues to work as a liaison between her and the local artisans, traveled deep into the rural parts of the country.
Initially, Stephen met and spent time with women who wove wraps and blankets. The blankets turned out to be the first product Siembra Heritage began carrying.
“That was before I figured out how to ship things,” Stephen recalled of the experience bringing merchandise back home.
“I brought about 50 of those woven items with me and then had another 40 to 50 that I shipped. All the Chaguar [purses] I put in my suitcases. I had huge suitcases. I’ve had my share of run-ins with Customs. I’ve been pulled into those [Customs] rooms. I used to bring a lot of the stones back, put those in boxes and they were all broken [after landing]. I’ve learned throughout this whole experience.”
Business is now coming back from the lull of last year’s pandemic and Stephen in July opened her first physical outpost of Siembra Heritage in the Village at Laguna location of Open Market OC, a retail bazaar featuring concessions from small businesses.
She also has plans to expand distribution to other retailers and more in-person pop-ups.
“I did a lot of pop-ups and people knew of my stuff through word-of-mouth from friends, so I was able to continue to do some sales. It wasn’t huge, but it was OK,” she said of the benefit in word-of-mouth to push the business through 2020.
The lull of last year was also time to make improvements to the website and build the company’s social media presence, with a boost in live feeds and Instagram Reels.
While there’s been an increase in views on social media, Stephen said it hasn’t necessarily translated into sales and that’s why she said she’s hitting the pavement again and meeting with customers for more in-person showings. Although, she’s cautious about her distribution in a bid to make sure the story behind Siembra Heritage doesn’t get lost in expansion.
“I feel like if this goes to other boutiques, I lose the narrative, and I want people to know the narrative,” she said.
“I’m trying to give these people a voice and a platform and tell people look what you can get that’s made from somebody’s own hands and they’re putting their own passion into it and they’re using these ancestral techniques. I feel like I might lose the narrative and people will forget about that and that’s the stuff that’s the most important.”