It’s a beautiful summer day in Manchester, but inside the big yellow barn just off Route 127, it looks more like Christmas. Silvery ornaments, ranging from delicate snowflakes and sand dollars to tiny picture frames decorated with dog bones, hang from display racks in the conference room, while elegant platters subtly decorated with toy trains and Christmas trees adorn the walls.
These items, and many others from Mariposa, a gift and tableware company with deep roots in the North Shore, are destined for more than 400 upscale stores and boutiques like Saks and Neiman Marcus this holiday season. For store buyers, summertime is when thoughts turn to the holidays, and so Mariposa’s decor takes a wintery turn as well. The playfulness of the dog bone frame, juxtaposed with the elegance of those snowflakes, is a hallmark of Mariposa, says Livia Cowan, president and creative director. “Both sides are very important to us—the whimsical and the contemporary, from chic to playful,” she says.
The casual charm of the company’s designs is reflected in its headquarters, a converted barn that served as the stable for the Manchester Livery in the 1800s. Much care was put into preserving the barn feel while crafting a comfortable, airy environment. When Mariposa bought the space, it housed a tree removal service and took a fair amount of vision to remake it as a functional modern workspace. These days, the “stalls” are cubicles for the company’s 25 employees. Dogs find the offices a comfortable space, too, as they are welcome at work. Lola, a Portuguese Water Dog, greets visitors with a friendly nuzzle in the hopes of getting treats.
Another renovation was needed when Mariposa added a new CEO to its roster last spring. Stanley Reeve, who joined the company after stints with Merida Meridian, a luxury sustainable floor covering company, and Rare, a nonprofit biodiversity protection organization in Arlington, Virginia, had been Cowan’s mentor and business confidant for many years prior. Reeve was looking to move back to the North Shore, and Cowan was starting to realize that her business had grown so much that it was becoming difficult to handle solo.
“We talked about business the way other people talk about sports,” Cowan says. While they are both very involved in all aspects of the business, Reeve is focused more on deepening and strengthening their distribution and the bottom line numbers, while Cowan can hone in on design and marketing.
“It’s a classic entrepreneurial thing,” Cowan says. “The reason I started the business was the love of the craft and dedication to design. Then you start building inventory and having all these different products, and you have to grow up and turn into a manager… There are so many different challenges that you start to get watered down and can’t pursue all aspects of it.” To make room for Reeve, Cowan’s open office was divided by a partial wall with a window. In keeping with the collegial, casual environment, neither office has a door.
One of the things Reeve found very attractive is Mariposa’s commitment to sustainability. With the exception of some imported Italian glassware, everything in the company’s line is made from recycled materials—primarily glass and aluminum. “I’m very interested in the environment,” Reeve says. “In a world of diminished resources, it’s nice to sell products you feel good about.”
Mariposa’s commitment to sustainability is shared by its manufacturing partners. The main plant in Mexico recycles everything from water to metal and is aiming to be the country’s first green industrial park that also focuses on worker well-being. “It’s very satisfying and rewarding to know that our manufacturing partners are committed not only to good environmental stewardship, but also to providing meaningful employment,” Reeve says.
Recycling has been a hallmark since the company started in 1991. One of Mariposa’s early finds—and still a popular item—is glassware made from recycled Coke bottles. Cowan still marvels at the process, which she has now seen many times in the past 20 years at Mariposa’s production facilities: It starts out with a wheelbarrow full of bottles that get melted down into beautiful glassware.
While recycling has always been part of the Mariposa story, it wasn’t until recently that the company started to emphasize it in its marketing. “I was afraid to share it for a while, because before people were thinking sustainability was a good thing, I think they were a little freaked out,” Cowan says. But when Mariposa started sharing the manufacturing story, it only added to the brand’s allure. “It gave people one more reason to buy,” she says.
Cowan started in the business at 19, traveling to Mexico in a van with her sister, looking for unique products to sell in her sister’s store. When her sibling moved on, Cowan gladly took over, placing orders for recycled glasses and other items and fulfilling orders by stores like Neiman Marcus out of her parents’ garage.
“Semi-trucks couldn’t get to my parents’ house, so we’d borrow friends’ pick-up trucks, load them up, and meet the semis at Gloucester High School, sending $50,000 of merchandise to Neiman’s and places like that,” Cowan says, adding that she doesn’t think the retailers had any idea. “It was always referred to as ‘the warehouse,’” she says with a smile.
Eventually, she took over her parents’ basement, then the guest room. “Finally, my mother said, ‘Enough,’” Cowan recalls, adding that her mother then brokered a deal for her to share space with then Gloucester-based clothing company Mighty Mac. “At a certain point, everyone in the community sort of felt sorry for my mother and tried to help out,” Cowan laughs.
Mariposa’s fulfillment is still handled out of Gloucester, but at its own facility, from which more than 95 percent of customer orders are shipped within one to three days of receipt. All the photography for the company’s catalogs and marketing is done locally, as well. Crane Beach, as well as favorite restaurants, like The Market in Annisquam, serve as backdrops for photo shoots, and everyone from waiters to Lola the dog are featured in the photos. Many of Mariposa’s staffers are also local; designer Michael Updike is a former classmate at Pingree in South Hamilton, and artist-in-residence Shelly Bradbury is a jogging partner.
That “North Shore-ness” is a good thing, but it can also be an affliction, Cowan says. “Some of our retailers complain that we have too many sea things,” she says, referring to the boats, starfish, and other nautical notes in their collections. “It’s such a natural reference for us—every time you look, there’s something new.” For example, the dory boats that adorn some pieces are a nod to designer Updike’s wedding. He and his bride departed their wedding with seaside flair by rowing off in a dory.
Cowan keeps a ring-bound notebook full of items that strike her fancy—anything from the edging on some antique jewelry to the design of a napkin can serve as a spark for a piece. “It can be a doorknob or something at a flea market or a dress,” she says. “It’s really the little details that inspire.” Using these bits of inspiration, Cowan works with the company’s two designers, Bradbury and Updike, to create the finished pieces. “I never know how it’s going to go,” Bradbury says. “It’s a dance between design and function.”
Bradbury adds that she is enjoying the challenges of creating pieces that can be mass produced. As a sculptor, whose works include the Sea Bench for the Maritime Heritage Museum in Gloucester and reconstructing an experience of the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire, Bradbury is still learning what can be assembled in a factory. “I can create anything, but it needs to be able to be manufactured,” she says. “Our designs really push them in processes and directions they haven’t gone before.”
Lately, the company has turned to social media for inspiration. A recent Facebook request for ideas for the company’s “statement trays”—small silver trays engraved with phrases like “Live, laugh, love” and “Change is good”—yielded several ideas that are now bestsellers.
From that Facebook contest, Mariposa took just six weeks to get the social network-inspired goods onto customer shelves, something that the company prides itself on, though it also credits its relationship with their manufacturers in Mexico. While management explored having designs manufactured in India and in China, they found that the turnaround times and quality controls were much better in Mexico.
The statement trays and other gift items are relatively new to Mariposa. Until three or four years ago, the company’s focus was exclusively tableware—much of it from Europe. “We imported very high-end ceramics and glass from Italy…and flatware that we couldn’t afford ourselves from France,” Cowan says.
But as the dollar declined, identifying value and maintaining reasonable price points became more difficult. First, the company shifted its focus to the Far East, but didn’t find quite the right match. “We tried to transition to China on the ceramics, but the artists couldn’t capture our love of the craft enough to bring the subtlety to the pieces,” she says. “Since it didn’t reflect our commitment, we had to abandon [the partnership].”
Looking around for something to fill the void, the company turned to bottle stoppers, ornaments, and other small decorative items. “Metal has always been a core of our business, so we started playing with giftware, and it was really lucky [that we did],” Cowan says. These items cost less, and with the economic downturn, the timing was serendipitous.
“Our brand was loved, but the price points were challenging,” Cowan Says. “With the giftware, we could provide retailers with something safe under our brand name. It’s really brought us through a difficult period very well.”
Reeve notes that they now have a good balance between small giftable items—like a $17 spreader for a hostess gift—and the tabletop Sueno and Reveillon lines, featuring service trays and decorative bowls that top out around $300, perfect for a wedding present.
Both Cowan and Reeve feel that by focusing on unique handmade items crafted with passion, the business can continue to thrive in tough times. “It’s not frivolous anymore,” Reeve says. “You’ve got to really grab that customer with something they feel is worth it.”
Headquarters: Manchester-by-the-Sea. Number of Employees: 25. Year Founded: 1991. Products: Tabletop and giftware items made from recycled aluminum and glass, Italian glassware. President/Creative Director: Livia Anne Cowan. CEO: Stanley Reeve. Contact: 5 Elm Street, Manchester, MA, 01944, 800/788-1304.