Hopie and Lily Stockman head to the LA beach in a vintage Mercedes-Benz W123 for a sunset picnic and conversation about ethical business practices.
What’s in a pattern? A few colours and shapes printed on fabric and shipped across the world, for some, but for Hopie and Lily Stockman, the tiny repetitions of diamonds on indigo fabric or the black suns against terracotta pink silk are the entry-point to a story that spans from California to India, connecting their studies, dreams, and sisterhood to an ancient tradition and faraway community.
The Stockman sisters are the founders of Block Shop, a beloved Los Angeles-based textile company whose tradition-inspired modern pieces appear in luxury craft boutiques around the world. With their dual backgrounds in business and art, the sisters made it a point from the outset to create products that are not only beautiful, but ethically made to sustain the local community outside of Jaipur where they are produced. She’s Mercedes met the Block Shop Sisters for an LA beach picnic to learn how investing in human relationships yields better business and more happiness.
What are the challenges and rewards of working with your sister?
Hopie Stockman: As sisters we have a de facto radical honesty policy. It saves a lot of time. There are endless (bad) jokes, a sister shorthand, and the ability to work in tandem that only 32 years-worth of shared blood can provide. So if one of us is say, sick with a mosquito-born illness called Chikungunyia, the other one picks up the slack without batting an eye.
How would we treat our family if they were working for us?
It’s a blast, and it makes the day-to-day work environment our haven from life’s other stresses. Of course we’ll get into run-of-the-mill sister spats about silly things. We get grumpy at each other in low blood sugar moments and revert to our teenage dynamic (when we were mortal enemies on our HS field hockey team). And sometimes we transition too easily from talking inventory management to talking soup recipes to our mom on FaceTime. Boundaries are non-existent.
Lily—you studied painting in Jaipur. What initially brought you there?
Lily Stockman: In 2010 I moved to India for a painting apprenticeship, while my husband was on a Fulbright scholarship studying Indian water policy. We were living in Jaipur when I started researching natural dyes and traditional block printing. A textile historian friend introduced me to Viju, a fifth-generation printer outside the city. We began collaborating with block prints, which I thought of as large, unstructured paintings on cotton and silk. So Block Shop really started as an art project.
What about the hand-block process led you to pursue it?
LS: Our printers’ use of natural dyes and apprenticeship method of passing the trade down over generations is what I found so fascinating, and why Hopie came to visit Bagru after I’d left. Hopie visited six months later and fell in love with the ancient printing technique and Viju’s wonderful family.
Five percent of Block Shop’s proceeds go to support healthcare programs in the community of your workers. Why is this brand value personally important to you both?
HS: The Chhipa family of printers in Bagru has become family to me and Lily. We spend more time with Viju’s kids, Yash (13) and Chehika (9), than our own relatives. We’re a family business that spans two continents and these relationships are what make our work meaningful. We initially thought of our social mission along the very basic lines of how would we treat our family if they were working for us? The next question was: “if we devote a portion of our profits to a social impact program, how do we put our limited funds to work in way that’s sustainable?” Meaning, if Block Shop was to disappear, how could we implement a lasting program for this community? My social entrepreneurship class in business school helped provide a framework for addressing this question.
What has this meant for Block Shop?
HS & LS: We knew the scope of our program needed to be realistic given the small size of our business so we met with our printers to identify their biggest need gaps. These interviews informed our first initiative focused on primary healthcare. We brought in eye doctors, dentists, and general practitioners. Next we sought to address the issue of limited clean drinking water by installing water tanks and filters in the homes of all families we work with. In 2015 we hired a wonderful Community Manager, Sonia Jain, who works on the ground with the families in our printing community. With her guidance, we’re now directing our 5% towards the most vulnerable members of our community; women and children. We sponsor the Bagru Women’s Support Group, where each month’s meeting tackles educational topics ranging from nutrition to financial management.
That’s incredible. Do you see your initiatives as part of a larger tendency towards ethical business practices and if so, what is the next step for businesses within this trend?
HS & LS: We love that the new norm for brands is having an ethical aspect to the way they conduct business. It seems the next step in this movement is for brands to measure the impact of their social investments; to conduct need and impact assessments within their communities. It’s a challenge we’re still figuring out ourselves. Ultimately, customers drive accountability for brands, and we love seeing customers challenge companies like ours with questions about how they implement their social missions.
Could you speak a bit about the origin of the print styles? What are your aesthetic influences? Do any of the prints have symbolic meaning?
LS: Our mission is always to celebrate and invigorate traditional Indian textile techniques, using our own modern geometric patterns. Our designs are rooted in the places we love, so our patterns will often be inspired by Rajasthani architecture like the marble mosaics and Art Deco movie palaces of Jaipur, while our palette is drawn from the Mojave Desert. We hold printing/dyeing workshops in Yucca Valley, where we also do a lot of designing, so those dusky peaches and ochres have become strongholds in each new collection. We also love drawing inspiration from our favourite artists: Anni Albers, especially her Bauhaus weavings, David Hockney’s obsession with Los Angeles colours and light; Alexander Girard’s combination of playfulness and utility across so many mediums; Agnes Martin’s quiet geometries.
Living in Venice Beach and Glassell Park, how have the people and environment in Los Angeles influenced the designs and the business overall?
LS: We love LA. And we just happen to be here during a surge of energy in LA’s long, rich history of design, art, and architecture. It’s a very supportive community, people show up for each other’s openings, sample sales, screenings, readings, etc., and have been extremely generous in sharing resources and knowledge with us. As for the environment, we're outside (thanks to the oppressively perfect weather) when we’re not in the studio with our respective dogs and menfolk. Hopie lives in Venice Beach, and I spend most of my not-working time in Joshua Tree. Because Block Shop is part of everything we do, the landscapes of these places work their way into our designs.
Do you often get to test out your products by taking them out for a beach picnic?
HS: Our favourite beach item is a Block Shop scarf: it makes for a beautiful towel, sarong, shade structure or even an interpretative dancing accessory. I wish my commitment to picnics was hardcore enough to haul dhurries, quilts and pillows to the beach, but it certainly made this shoot cozy.
The next step in this movement is for brands to measure the impact of their social investments within their communities.
What are your hopes and dreams for 2017 for Block Shop?
HS: At its heart, our business is about beautiful design, ancient Indian textile processes, and family, all underscored by a sense of humour and humanness. That’s why we love doing what we do. And we plan to keep it that way.