I called Sandra Jordan on a busy weekday afternoon to ask about life running her eponymous luxury textiles business—“the world’s only extensive luxury line of alpaca textiles for the home” according to her website—Sandra Jordan Prima Alpaca. I found her gracious, wise, and open about all the subjects we covered, from growing up in Peru to managing to keep a business alive during the crash of 2007-2008, to the role she plays today in supporting the local economy of her home country as well as contributing to the marketplace here in the states.
Ms. Jordan is a wise soul who combines art and commerce with great care. She has clear priorities, an incredibly rich personal history (she lived in several countries growing up and brings those experiences to bear on her work today) and a keen business sense. To browse the images on her website is a sensory treat. To speak with her, as we were lucky to do, is to learn from a master. Here is that conversation.
HipLatina: One thing I’ve been wondering is how much you knew about the alpaca textile tradition before you got involved in your business.
Sandra Jordan: I knew a lot beforehand. I’m originally from Peru, so it’s something that you grow up with. You grow up hearing about alpacas as a schoolchild and how beautiful the fleece is, how it was called the gold of the Andes by the Incas, and how it was used by the Inca Royalty. I heard about the natural colors and the wonderful lightness, how it’s lighter than wool, how it doesn’t pill, all of these wonderful properties. I had seen it in clothing but I had the idea of starting to use it for the home and now we have the biggest line of alpaca textiles for the home.
HL: Are all of the alpacas located in Peru?
SJ: The alpacas that we use are in Peru. The alpaca population originates in Peru, but there are some people raising them here in the States. I try to keep as much of our business as possible in Peru, which is where our mailer is located also. We try to get our ribbons, cards, boxes, anything that we need from Peru. They’re doing a great job there.
HL: Was it difficult to get the business started in Peru while living in the States? Did you make some extended trips there to set it up?
SJ: I still make trips down there. Whatever business you’re in you need to really pay close attention. I go down to Peru and we’ve been very lucky with the quality of the product. But like any business, it takes a long time to grow it.
HL: Do you have someone managing the daily operations down there or are you just doing it from here?
SJ: We have people here and there. Here we’re eight people and we have one contact person down there who answers all of our questions. In fact we were just on the phone with him. We usually go to Peru during the collection process and then we start working long distance. Our contact person works directly with the mill which employees many Peruvians.
HL: Do you know how the practice of developing alpaca textiles has changed over the hundreds of years that it’s been in production?
SJ: In reality it’s now going back to how it used to be produced during the time of the Incas. We are very careful to identify alpacas of quality and good fleece and we separate them from inferior alpacas. We also make sure the animals aren’t interbreeding. That discipline is coming back because it was absent from the time that the Spaniards arrived and took the herdsmen to work in the mines. The alpacas were not being taken care of and the production suffered. There’s also new machinery so we can make more beautiful designs with that, many different weaves.
HL: What are the lives of the alpacas like?
SJ: They live in the Andes. They feed on grasses and roam around in the day. They’re kept outside and can move around mostly freely during the day.
HL: It seems like a much more animal-friendly and sustainable practice than the commercial manufacture of wool.
SJ: Absolutely. Many herdsmen and their families live with the alpacas and they take very good care of them since this is how they make their livelihood. The alpacas are an important part of their lives.
HL: So I read that you only use the fibers from the first shearing of the alpacas. Can you tell us about why you do that?
SJ: We do that so that we can get the finesse and the best quality. You also want a very good genetic breed of animals from the first shearing. Even after that you have to select the fabric. Very small particles called microns basically determine the size of the fiber. You want to make sure you’re getting the baby hair, the smallest fibers possible. It’s the softest and shiniest.
HL: I noticed some of the beautiful colors on your website. I assume it’s dyed at some point in the process?
SJ: 90% of all alpaca fur is white in color. They’re bred to be white. But there’s also an array of shades of alpacas which are dove gray, a rusty color, an inky black, and many other shades. We make a couple of our hues from those natural colors, but we use the solid whites to do the colored designs. Some designs are only half dyed to maintain the natural color. Nature in Peru and here in wine country in California are my main sources of design inspiration.
HL: Where do you sell the textiles?
SJ: We sell them in the design district in Florida. We have 14 different design showrooms in the US and overseas as well.
HL: What would you say is your goal? You talked about the importance of growing your business in Peru so that you’re employing many people there.
SJ: We’re creating jobs in Peru. We’re also expanding the knowledge base of what constitutes good quality alpaca. The biggest thing that’s happened is that alpaca wool was known more as an artisan type fiber but I’ve shifted it toward the luxury market.
HL: When did you start the business?
SJ: About ten years ago.
HL: The last 10 years have seen quite a lot of economic ups and downs. It’s impressive to have started a business 10 years ago and have it be thriving now.
SJ: Yeah, it started at a scary time. I employed people part time and then we employed people full time and now we’re able to provide benefits. But it’s scary. First you just want to cover the basics: make payroll, and then be able to pay your bills.
HL: As a businesswoman, what advice do you have for women who are starting their own business or dreaming of starting their own business?
SJ: Don’t quit your day job!
HL: It’s interesting to say that because starting a business takes an enormous amount of energy. How do you do that without quitting your day job?
SJ: Believe me, that’s how I did it. That’s how I see a lot of people doing it. They work evenings and weekends and then eventually it makes sense. You figure out a way to make it work. You have to keep your infrastructure costs down too—we’re operating from a barn.
HL: Do you have other female business owners that you speak with for support?
SJ: There’s a group called Women Presidents of Organizations where you really spend time discussing and talking about issues. The women are very supportive of each other and are willing to share their stories also.
HL: What did you do to make sure you didn’t fail?
SJ: I told myself that the impossible takes just a little longer. I always believe that. You need to have a passion for your work. It’s not fun to start your own business if you don’t have a passion for it. I think it’s the passion that keeps you going. And you need to experiment. Do a lot of research to see what competitors you have in the market. The practical stuff. There will still be bumps in the road but those will help strengthen you. The memories help you to get on through to whatever the next hurdle will be.
HL: What has been your biggest bump in the road with this business?
SJ: Not having started with an inventory in place. We keep some inventory on hand to be competitive with other luxury brands. Basically I didn’t have enough. There were customs problems, transportation problems, there are all kinds of things like terrorist attacks which you don’t expect to happen. Don’t try to grow too quickly. That’s the other thing. We started very slow. Always keep a reserve for emergencies.
HL: Good advice. Thanks so much for speaking with me today—I know our readers will so enjoy hearing from you.