Introducing Parker Clay: Ethiopian Goods with Soul and Style
We met the incredible leather and handcrafted goods brand Parker Clay under anything but typical circumstances.
OK, fine, technically we were on Zoom. But over an hour spent getting to know Parker Clay founder Ian Bentley and his Ethiopian partners, we were transported to the headquarters they’d called us from, right across from the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As Bentley and his partners gave us a run-down of the story behind Parker Clay’s gorgeous leather goods, textiles, and more, the bells of an Orthodox church tolled in the background. We were transported and inspired from the get go, which were sentiments that only deepened as we learned more.
Parker Clay was founded when Bentley and his wife traveled to Ethiopia from California to adopt their first child. They were amazed by the exquisite craftsmanship of the leather goods they saw for sale in the markets, and also saddened to learn about the high numbers of women sold into prostitution and human trafficking in Ethiopia. Bentley got to thinking - what if there was a way to combine the country’s rich tradition of leatherworking with artisan training for women looking to escape prostitution and trafficking for better lives? And so, Parker Clay was born.
Parker Clay partners with a non-profit on the ground in Ethiopia to train women in a one-year program to learn all the elements of leather-working and tanning. Eighty percent of the company’s employees are now women, including the leadership team. Bentley told us that the most gratifying element of Parker Clay has been watching women transform personally through the work - becoming artisans who make beautiful goods, rather than women who are simply used for their bodies.
And Parker Clay isn’t just a feel-good story. Their bags are stunning - think Mansur Graviel or Cuyana, with a boho twist and a jolt of inspiration every time you pull one out, like we’ll be doing quite often from here on out. The Topa Mini Bucket Bag just dropped, and we’re seeing it as our go-to for the foreseeable future.
Ian kindly answered a few questions we had about Parker Clay, Ethiopia, and what inspires him.
Who are your favorite artists and artisans who influence your designs?
We ground our design in "utilitarian timelessness" – heritage goods that will last a lifetime and actually live a life of their own! Too many premium goods come with this sense of fragility, the need to be kept locked away. We wanted to craft something luxurious that will actually get better with use. I love the designs that came from Charles and Ray Eames and the classic Eames lounge chair that have achieved this utilitarian timelessness. We also can't talk about influence without mentioning the immense passion for, and longstanding tradition of, leather craftsmanship in Ethiopia, which inspires us daily.
Where are your favorite places to travel for inspiration and pleasure?
Honestly, the journey from California to Ethiopia still invokes a huge amount of inspiration for us, even after all these years. Ethiopia is a land of so much beauty and potential; its otherworldly landscapes and ancient culture clash fantastically with the youthful vibrancy found in its cities. The obvious differences between Addis Ababa and Santa Barbara are what drew us in, but today, it's the undercurrents of similarity that drive us to connect and bridge our two worlds.
How did you get the idea to launch Parker Clay?
While living in Ethiopia, we began to work with organizations empowering at-risk women through rehabilitation, skills development, and job creation. Meeting these women and witnessing the transformation that can come with just a teaspoon of opportunity deeply moved and inspired us.
On one of our weekend jaunts around the city, we stumbled across an extraordinary leather bag – the craftsmanship was stunning, and we came to learn that the leather was not only of some of the highest quality in the world, but also ethically and sustainably crafted.
The cogs started to turn. Could we bring these beautiful products to the world, hire and empower women to become economically independent, and protect traditional, sustainable, and ethical craftsmanship all at once? This is how Parker Clay was born.
How do you find and train the artisans you work with?
Parker Clay is built on relationships, and we would not be where we are today had we not lived in Ethiopia for three years while building the brand. In the early days, we committed all of our energy to finding the best and brightest in the country to establish our leadership team. Now that we've grown, we have incredibly talented individuals knocking on our door!
We also hire from a local non-profit who is helping women escape prostitution. Despite the lack of education and opportunities, these women have shown incredible resiliency, and working to unlock their potential and watch them shine is really something.
What do you wish more people knew about Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is not the country depicted on your 1980s Time Magazine cover, starring woman and starving child. This is a young, vibrant community, it's one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, and it's home to some of the most incredible traditions, cultures, and raw materials you'll find. It's about time they got their moment in the spotlight, and if we can do our part to contribute to that, we're happy!
For Parker Clay, we want people to know that you can love products that make you look good and feel good. That you can celebrate the product and the people behind it. That telling the story of where your favorite bag comes from should be a proud and happy one!
We source sustainably, own most of our supply chain, and every bag we make has improved the lives of everyone it has touched. This is the story we invite you to be a part of.
What’s next for Parker Clay?
This year, like every year, we plan to build on the progress of the year before. We know that when we expand our reach, we can expand our factory. That means a few things; more empowered women earning a living wage at a dignified job, for one. It also creates more demand for sustainable ranches in Ethiopia, supporting those small businesses. And we also know that a living wage doesn't just help one person – they support families, send full and happy kids to school, and ultimately, those wages get spent at local businesses, helping to support a local economy from the bottom up.
We've also learned a lot from the last few years and are turning those insights into better products, better processes, and much more that we can't wait to share with you all!
What is your greatest luxury?
Time. We're so lucky and blessed to have the opportunities that we have, and I believe there's nothing more precious than having the time to enjoy life and share it with people you love.
Which living person do you most admire?
It's a woman I recently shared a coffee with in Ethiopia. She invited me into her home to share a cup – a home that was barely 4 walls and a roof – but the joy and exuberance that emanated from every smile and laugh filled that house to the point of bursting. In that moment, she represented so many women who have overcome such odds and never let that energy be taken. It's a joy that we all have the potential to unlock in ourselves, but we don't realize how difficult it is. So yes, she, and what she represents, is what I most admire.
What is your current state of mind?
I would say hopeful. I'd like to think that's always the case! But coming out of the year we've just experienced together, being lucky enough to take so many positives from it, and now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel… I feel very optimistic about what's to come.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Professionally, it has to be starting Parker Clay and building it into what it is today – though at times it certainly felt like I was just watching it grow! Personally, it can be none other than my marriage and five incredible children. It takes love, work, commitment… but the pride and joy I feel from every one of those faces? Nothing beats that.
Where would you most like to live, other than where you do?
Obvious answer? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I called it home for a time, and it will always feel like home to me. Traveling there is like filling my mind and soul with premium fuel, I have never returned without feeling energized, inspired, and endlessly optimistic.
Stay tuned for more interviews and stories coming soon! Learn more about Parker Clay's Story here