In this edition of New American Voices two sisters find themselves living their Latvian dream - in America.
Sarmite Svilis and Daiga Henson are the creative team behind a business called Wearable Art. The sisters design and sell strikingly original garments - mostly jackets and coats - made of wool or cashmere, with bright, colorful inserts of hand-woven chenille collages enhanced by embroidery.
Although they've been in this country for over ten years, Daiga Hensen says she is still amazed that they are here, running a successful business. “No, I never thought about living in the United States,” she says. “For us, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, I mean that was really like… That thought never crossed my mind. But we ended up here.”
As it happened, they ended up in the United States because Sarmite fell in love with an American. “Actually I met my husband in Latvia,” says Sarmite “He's originally Latvian, his family comes from Latvia. And in 1990 his mother brought him to Latvia to show the country from which his family comes, and accidentally I met my husband over there. And after 6 months of pen-palling he invited me to come to the United States to see the country where he lives. It ended up that after a year we got married.”
Soon after, Daiga came to visit her sister, and met a good friend and co-worker of Sarmite's new husband. The meeting blossomed into a romance, and led to marriage, as well. With their husbands working, the sisters looked for something to occupy their time, as well. In Latvia, Daiga had studied leatherwork and bookbinding, Sarmite, applied art and clothing design. They say they wanted to take advantage of that training.
“We both had this arts background. That was basically the kind of driving force, that we wanted to pursue that. This is the land of opportunity, obviously, so …” the sisters explain.
With their husbands' encouragement, they took the opportunity. Daiga says they started working on clothing designs similar to those Sarmite had created in Latvia. “And pursuing this, we find out that coats are the thing that we really like to do, like to make, and people loved our things, and we started doing craft shows, kind of low key, very small ones…” she says.
From small craft fairs, they graduated to larger craft shows, where they exhibited and sold their work. In the process, they made contact with a number of galleries around the country that sell original, one-of-a-kind clothing, and now showcase their Wearable Art.
Sarmite says that while it was relatively easy to create their clothing and exhibit it at craft fairs, starting an actual business was something they couldn't have done without help.
“Actually, I have to thank my husband,” says Sarmite Svilis., “because he was the one who saw what I'm doing, and he helped very much with his income, with his money, with his credit history and everything. Because otherwise -- nobody knows us, nobody would give us any loan, because we even didn't have any business plan or something. But my husband, seeing what we were able to do, he really helped with that.”
In the beginning, Daiga says, their undertaking was a very modest operation.
“When we started we had a two-bedroom apartment, and we worked in the side of the kitchen which was supposed to be the eating area. And also later right in the kitchen,” she says. “Then we moved to an old house and we worked in the basement for two years. Finally, we bought our own house, and the family room is turned into, like, a studio, so we have a pretty big one. And I'm happy, we can look through a window and not be in the basement, we can see the back yard, which is nice,” she says, laughing.
Wearable Art is now created in a spacious workroom and there are employees to do piecework and hand-embroidery. Sarmite is the designer, with a special skill in making patterns to custom-fit each client. Daiga has an eye for selecting the most flattering colors. Sarmite says they have come far in the years they've been working in America.
“We developed. I would say that if I saw our work from ten years ago I would probably not even recognize a lot of it,” she says. “Doing the shows, and working with the galleries, or with the fine craft stores where we also sell our work, and with clients - we find out what exactly we want to do, and what there's a demand for, and then of course we put our own signature on what we make.”
Sarmite says none of this would have been possible if she and her sister had not come to the United States.
“No way I was able to do this back in Latvia,” she says. “Not on this level. Not to be known in the whole country. Also people can see our website, and they can see the styles and everything. For the future? Just make more new styles, find something -- you know, make some things that make other people excited. When I see people are happy with my work, when people admire my work, it makes me happy, too.”
Sisters Sarmite Svilis and Daiga Henson have just opened their own gallery store in New Jersey as another venue for showcasing their original, Latvian-inspired clothing they call Wearable Art.
Note: VOA's Rosanne Skirble conducted the interview on which this story is based.