Gardenia Alejandra (Ramirez) Woodhams-Roberts Owner of 'Lola y Tula'
Gardenia Alejandra (Ramirez) Woodhams-Roberts is the owner of Lola y Tula - an online boutique that sells hand-selected and curated pieces from Mexico. She launched her store this year shy of 5 de Mayo which she says, "was a lucky weekend we couldn't pass up." Her products tell the story of the indigenous artisans in Mexico like Santos - an 11-year-old boy who makes one-of-a-kind ceramic skulls, which were "the best" skulls Gardenia has spotted during her travels to Mexico.
But Gardenia's passion for Mexican artisan products has a more personal side. She named her website after grandmothers - Lola and Tula - who came from two different places in Mexico. Lola was of indigenous Huichol ancestry and from the state of Nayarit (further south) and Tula had more European features and was from the state of Sonora (up north), which is closer to the American border. She chose to dedicate her business to them as a way to remember their spirits:
Tell us a little bit more about your grandmothers:
My grandmothers were exceptional people - fiercely independent and pillars to their families and communities. I feel women had to be tough in those days, in their situations particularly. At one point in their life, they both became single mothers. So raising such large families and providing was the only option. Their children were always their priority and they did an outstanding job considering how little they both had. They're amazing examples and sometimes hard to live up to. When things get tough for me, I can get so overwhelmed as a working mother, but then I think of them and it's hard not to just say, 'suck it up.' I have it all. They had it hard and still managed to do so much good.
What is your favorite memory with Lola? My Nana Lola had 21 children. That's right, 21. It's hard for my Dad and aunts to keep track, but there were so many births. There were also children lost. They lived on a ranch down south in Mexico, with meager resources, so death back then was common. She also had a couple sets of twins, I believe, and married very young - as one did back then. So we're talking, 'BIG' family... I've got cousins I've never met! By the time I was getting to know my Nana Lola better, I was already a teenager and she had long white hair and had suffered a stroke. I was visiting her in Nayarit, in the small town where she was from, Villa Hidalgo. For the most part talking was difficult, but she smiled a lot and was always near all of her family. She always cracked jokes. For example, she would make fun of my sister’s boyfriend - Mexicans do love to tease :) I also remember when people tried to help her TOO much, for example: they assumed she couldn't do something like pick up a fork properly or scoot up to the table, or they thought she couldn't hear the chatting around her and she would get so mad and yell! I remember her yelling at my dad and saying, 'why are you shouting at me, you think I'm deaf? Get outta here I'm talking with my granddaughters!' And my dad got out of there. It was hilarious. She was tough, all the way up until the end, and whatever she said was the law. She earned that.
What is your favorite memory with Tula? My Nana Tula lived nearby me growing up in Arizona so there are a lot more memories to pull from. One of the greater memories I have is my college graduation. My mother got me a car with a big yellow bow on it - just like a movie. It was an incredible day. I graduated from a college about 4 hours away from Tucson in Flagstaff. That day, I drove my new car home and my mom said I should drive with my grandmother. It was such a great idea, I can't remember another time where we spoke for 4 hours. It was one of those moments where you wish you had a tape recorder or could've written everything down. The stories she was telling me - about her, her childhood, her husbands, and her business - it was incredible. And there was an underlying theme, which was how a woman doesn't need to count on anyone if she can make a living - not a bad lesson to be learned after you graduate from college. She was so proud. My sister and I are the first to graduate from college in our whole family and it made her so happy.
Did you have a different job before opening your store?
I've had lots of jobs - I've been working since I was 15! But my profession is in sales. I got my start in fashion sales in New York City and arrived there at the age of 23 - right after the towers had gone down. I was lucky enough to have a connection through a family friend and started at the bottom - as so many do in NYC. I helped open up an office in Soho for a Swedish lingerie manufacturer. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was determined to succeed! From there, it was obvious I belonged in the sales department. I climbed a few ladders and ended up working for amazing brands like Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, and Betsy Johnson. Working in showrooms with products at that level was inspiring and educational. Thanks to these jobs, I have experience in account management, merchandising, and sales, which are invaluable skills I've been able to use for my own business.
How often do you travel to Mexico? I have to go at least 3 or 4 times of year, however I'm 8 months pregnant right now and have very limited mobility! It was a tricky time to launch a business, but life always has unexpected plans for you!
What is your favorite city in Mexico? This is hard to answer, Mexico City, because it's Mexico City. What an amazing place, the amount of art, architecture, food, and historical gems concentrated in this area is mind boggling. Guanajuato, which is such a charming little place with such amazing culture. And I can't forget the fun beach towns I've been visiting since I was a little girl like Mazatlán!
Describe Mexican people in 3 words: Loving, Warm and Grateful
We loved the story of Santos! Do you still keep in touch? Santos is my go-to guy for these amazing skulls. He's the only artist I buy from and they truly are the best ceramic skulls I've seen. In most stores, they're small in scale or painted in a generic style, but mine are large and intricately painted. They're stunning! (Read more about Santos on LolayTula.com.)
What other examples - besides the skulls - have you seen in fashion and design where Mexican culture has been made popular?
Oh my goodness, I see it everywhere! I mean, there is a huge trend at the present moment, which is why I felt like launching my site was great timing this year. Across the board, we're seeing Latin influences everywhere. On the runway, we have Isabel Marant who reinvented the boxy peasant dress to something refined and tailored, but clearly drawn from those floral hand-embroidered dresses, we all know and love. In accessories, the bright colors, beading, and use of textiles and canvassing can be found from jewelry to handbags and in the department of home decor. It's all the rage. Hand loomed blankets and throws and colorful bohemian style pillows, it's a great time in retail for original and worldly goods with our worlds feeling smaller and people being more connected.
What is your favorite piece you've ever bought? And why? I think the yarn paintings have to be my most precious items. I've seen the work that goes into making just one, they're so incredible and tell such vivid stories. It makes me proud to hang one on my wall and to know it's the only one like that in the world. It makes it so special.
We read this in your blog: "I am first generation Mexican-American, which helps explain the strong link I have with Mexico. Although I was not born there, my parents calling it home made Mexico an enormous part of my cultural upbringing."
Explain more about how your cultural upbringing has helped shape you today and why being Mexican-American could be challenging while growing up, but now makes you prouder than ever:
The children of immigrants all have different experiences in this country. Mine was one of holding on to our heritage - we were lucky that way. I know several people who feel they lost connection to their families' past by being raised to assimilate to America. My mother made it a mission to remain close to where she came from. She always said she wanted the 'Best of Both Worlds,' and she did a great job of doing that. We love this country just as much and celebrate what both have to offer. I feel my biggest challenge growing up was figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to be, since I was from both places in a way. I'm sure others can relate to feeling torn many times about whether I was too American or too Mexican for certain people and places.
Is it difficult to run your business? What are the challenges? What are the positives?
It's difficult to run my business mainly because I'm the caregiver of my crazy 2 1/2 year old daughter Alejandra! You can see her modeling the dresses on my website. Family was a big part of wanting to launch my own business. As we're seeing across this country today, being able to care for ones family and working within your career has become near impossible. Our current structure of hours most of us have to put towards work is archaic and does not support those who, at points in their life, have to care for children, spouses, or parents. I believe it’s a detriment to our society, and the work force is losing amazing career women in their prime who want to be mothers to their children for more than a couple of hours a day. I'm lucky that I had an alternative plan. Although caring for her makes a huge dent in my time management, I at least have the option and can do my best. I do wish I had more time and energy to dedicate to my business, but then again these kids grow up really, really fast. I'll have years ahead of me, slaving away at work, but only a few precious years of chasing after my babies at home.
What is the key to running your own successful business?
Know your strengths and play to them, know your limitations and seek help! Not all of us are talented enough that we can accomplish all aspects of running a business well. It is important to risk, but at some point, in order to grow and prosper most business owners need partners. It’s impossible to be great at everything! The best designers aren’t always the best negotiators at business and the best at business might run short at creative direction. I say, do what you know, keep learning, and partner with the right people who can help your business grow!
What is your mission for Lola y Tula? What do you hope to accomplish?
First and foremost, I started this business because I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to work with product of quality, artistry, and integrity. After years of producing goods overseas at highly competitive costs, there was no passion left in what I was designing and producing. I wanted to work with actual craftspeople, people who made things by hand, and I wanted to help those communities. Supporting the indigenous communities who nurture these artistic traditions is a joy for me. Helping to shine light on a country I feel so passionate about is a gift.