Meet the Maker: Jess Bercovici of Stela 9

To say that our Stela 9 weekend bag is ‘well traveled’ would be selling it short – it literally comes along with us on every adventure, from Big Sur to Joshua Tree, to home in Ohio and overseas. If you’re not familiar, Stela 9 is a collection of colorful bags, shoes and accessories artfully and intricately handmade by local artisans in Guatemala. Founder (and mega-babe) Jess Bercovici has an unexpected background in archeology, lending itself to the brand’s worldly aesthetic and Latin American influence.

Wait – it gets cooler. All of Stela 9’s goods are handmade locally, providing jobs for Guatemalan craftsmen who would otherwise be at risk to losing their jobs to manufacturing technologies. The business model of Stela 9 is based on fair wages, fair trade and sustainability which includes a meticulous process of sourcing precious stones, recycled textiles and ethically procured leather.

Jess’s dedication to preserving and sharing global culture is inspiring and somewhat rare these days. As if the latest New Myths lookbook video below doesn’t spark some serious adventure envy, scope our Q&A with Jess below to get the scoop on life in Antigua, and learn just how intricate and awesome the Stela 9 process really is.

CULT: Tell us a little bit about Stela 9. Have you always wanted to be a designer?

Jess: Honestly, not really. I was working on an archaeological project when I first came to Guatemala. I immediately fell in love with this place, the people and especially the handicrafts. I started purchasing items from local artisans and reselling them as a way to sustain my travels. Once I realized that this could be much more than a little side project, I started collaborating with the artisans that I had created relationships with. This eventually grew into a full label and the exclusive designs that we carry today.

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CULT: How did the name, Stela 9, originate?

Jess: Because archaeology was the reason that I came to Guatemala initially, I wanted the name of the company to somehow reflect that journey. A “stela” is an archaeological term for an upright stone carving. They’re numbered at sites throughout Mesoamerica and I just thought “Stela 9” had a nice ring to it.

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CULT: It’s obvious that Guatemala plays a huge role in the ethos and inspiration behind the brand – what about it inspires you?

Jess: I’m very fortunate to live in a place like Antigua, Guatemala. It’s almost impossible to not be inspired daily by my environment. I also like to pull inspiration from ancient iconography, vintage textiles and traditional folkart from various cultures.

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CULT: Where are some of your other favorite places that you’ve travelled to?

Jess: Oh no, that’s such a tough question! Outside of Latin America, Dharamsala in northern India would definitely top my list. It’s this picturesque place at the base of the Himalayas. I stayed in the village of McLeodGanj while I was there last May and, by chance, this also happened to be the same time that the Dalai Lama was there. My Director of Production, Alexandra, and I got to see him in person and hear him speak. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

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CULT: How has travel shaped both your business, and you, personally?

Travel completely changed me. It made me aware of things that I never knew were important to me before. It opened my eyes to new worlds and new experiences.

I’ve made incredible friendships with people from all over the globe that I would have never met otherwise. And of course, it’s the reason I started Stela 9.

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CULT: Each item in your collection is artfully handmade – how long does this process take, from inception to the finished product? What makes each Stela 9 item so unique?

Jess: Each collection is carefully thought out. I work with our two other designers and we try to start three months out by planning our theme and color story. For the most part, we base each collection around a specific indigenous Guatemalan textile. We then create a story and add iconography in that we feel best supports what narrative we’re trying to convey. We also make an effort to bring in new and fun bodies to keep the collection current. Once all of this is sorted we divide the designs among our artisans based on their area of expertise and meet with them personally to go over each detail of the design. Most of our artisans don’t use a computer so these meetings are essential to our process.

All of the textiles we incorporate are handmade. Some of these take over two months to loom so those are always a priority to get started on.

Next on the list is our bronze pieces because those usually take around 4 weeks to get made. This is mostly because the mold is hand carved and the bronze is hand poured. Once those are sorted, we start on the actual bodies of the bags which take about two weeks to complete and if we need edits, that will take another week or two. Everything here always takes a bit longer than we anticipate. It’s just the way of life. Giving ourselves 3 months for creating samples for each collection is pretty much necessary so that we’re not rushing any of our artisans or jeopardizing quality. Lastly, we show our collection to our accounts and they order about 3 months out. It usually takes at least 6 months for our work to arrive in stores. I always find this to be so difficult because I’m usually so excited about our new designs and have to refrain myself from blasting them all over social media. For example, we have two very exciting projects that we’re working on that I can’t say anything about in this interview!

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CULT: Where do you look / what do you do to find sources of inspiration?

Jess: Stela 9 was born out of my wanderlust.

Each item we make is meant to make you feel like you discovered it on some magical journey in a far away land.

To stay true to our ethos, my sources of inspiration always start with my own travels. As for daily sources of inspirations, I creep a lot on travel inspired pinterest boards and instagram accounts to keep those creative juices flowing.

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CULT: Five things that you never travel without:

Jess: My phone (unfortunately) for work, a notebook/journal, a good book (usually historical fiction), my Birkenstocks and a Stela 9 bag (of course).

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CULT: What do you know now, that you wish you knew when starting a business?

Jess: Be organized and financially prepared for growth! I definitely learned that the hard way.

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Words to live by:

Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid to not try.

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Jess Bercovici of Stela 9
Videographer: Joshua Ballinger
Models: Faith Hitchon and Alexandra Hitchon
Instagram: @stela_9

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