Lillian Garcia has always been interested in style and service. Lillian is the founder of the Way U, a line of unique bags handmade by the Colombian Wayuu tribes. As a tribute to her immigrant father’s pursuit of education and love for art and craftsmanship, the Way U donates ten percent of all proceeds to Fundacion Cerrejon, a Colombia-based organization that works with national and international organizations to promote and accelerate sustainable, fair development for La Guajira and its people.
What was your career path?
My journey started about 10 years ago. While I was studying for my bachelors degree in fashion merchandising and business at Marymount University, I knew I wanted a job in fashion, where I could put my classroom skills to work. At the time, I was about to start my third year in college and at the same time, Intermix, a brand that I had long admired, was opening a store in Georgetown, not too far from my university. I wasted no time in meeting with the store manager and selling her on why I was a perfect fit for Intermix.
Intermix was much smaller when I started. We had about nine stores, compared to now where we have more than 50 stores, including internationally and digitally. This really was a big stepping-stone for me; I helped build the brand, in addition to learning the tactics of the business side as well as fashion. After I graduated college, I was offered a job at the Intermix corporate office in New York City, where I worked in the visual merchandising department. I managed my own district of 12 stores, created the floor set manuals for the company, and put together mannequin looks weekly that were displayed in all of our store windows across the US. I also helped to open new stores, including our international store in Toronto.
After about eight years, I decided it was time for a change and I took a job at Free People to oversee the visual merchandising and e-commerce styling for all wholesale accounts. This is where I really got introduced to the e-commerce side of the business versus strictly brick and mortar. I was able to travel all around the world; work with huge brands such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and Neiman Marcus on their e-commerce photo shoots. and work with incredible talent that I still admire and look up to until this day. However, through this role, I also realized that I wanted to focus more of my time in the e-commerce world and less on the store side. Not too long after, I decided to make my way back to Intermix, but this time working on production for their in-house editorial shoots used for their digital and social media platforms. Working on the e-commerce side of the business allowed me to learn so much about the development of the retail industry and witness first-hand the power and growth of digital platforms. During my time at Intermix, I built my own website called www.thewayu.com, which I will discuss in further detail later.
What is your advice for someone who hopes to work in fashion?
For fashion or any other desired goal, don’t ever give up on your dream. Let your passion guide the way and don’t be afraid to be yourself. I feel like people inadvertently back themselves into a corner when their dreams seem impossible. And this can be a natural reaction when things don’t go your way. But trust me, things can only get better. You always have to believe in yourself and your talents and stay focused. Challenge yourself and set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. You will be surprised, but by writing it all down, you are documenting a promise to yourself that you must keep and cannot avoid. In 2015 I set a firm goal to build my own website and start my own company, by May 2015, with hard work, focus, and dedication, I turned my dreams into a reality.
Also, learn to let go. The fashion world can be so fast paced and ever changing. It’s so easy to get caught up in the stress that surrounds us each day but the truth is, fashion is fun. We are not saving lives, but we are making people happy and giving people a chance to express their individuality. During the stressful times just remember, it’s not life or death, it’s fun!
Where do you turn for inspiration?
I turn to traveling and Mother Nature! I get the most inspired when I am traveling and discover new ideas. Also, I’m a big fan of outdoor activities, such as hiking and touring a new country – I feel enthused and motivated to keep going. And if I can’t hop on a plane, a quick surf through Instagram or Pinterest always seems to do the trick!
We met at a Six Degrees Society event when I complimented you on your beautiful, unique bag. I learned that you started the company that made it! What inspired you to found The Way U?
My connection and appreciation for the country of Colombia and all of the beauty you find through the land and people inspired me to found the way u. My father was born and raised in Colombia and moved to the US just before I was born. He was one of nine kids and grew up in a very humbling environment. When he was younger, he couldn’t even afford a pair of shoes. But through education and perusing his love for soccer, he went on to play for the national soccer team of Colombia, which allowed him to support his family. While my dad’s story is inspiring, what I have come to find is that this story is one of many about the beautiful people in Colombia that live their lives every day guided by their hearts and their passions. I was inspired to do something that would shed a positive light on the country and the beautiful people that live there, which led me to the wayuus.
I came across the wayuus almost by chance. If you’ve visited Colombia, you may have noticed that almost everyone, both men and women, carry a hand-woven bag called a mochila that is handmade by the wayuu tribes. During one of my trips to Colombia, I was on a mission to find the perfect mochila to bring home with me. I searched for weeks to find one that was beautiful, unique and well-made. Once I found it, I was in complete awe of the design and wanted to learn more about how the wayuus made it, how long it took, and where I could get more. A few years later, I went with my mother and cousin to La Guajira, Colombia to meet the indigenous tribe of the wayuus and learn more about their craft. From then on, I knew immediately I wanted to partner with the wayuus. The women I have come to know inspire me on a daily basis because of their talent, intelligence, and entrepreneurial spirit. I am so proud and fortunate to be able to share their beautiful work with the rest of the world.
Ten percent of The Way U purchases are donated to Fundacion Cerrejon. Can you tell us a bit about the foundation and why it is important to you?
The Fundacion Cerrejon is a non-profit organization based in La Guajira to sustain and protect the wayuu communities. The amount of work they do is truly endless. They help provide schools with teachers, books, and build facilities for the children. They also help provide communities with clean drinking water, which is especially hard to do in a region in the desert and has no access to clean water. They’re able to give men and women in the community infrastructure and help connect them to people that can help promote the beautiful artisan work.
The Way U has such a unique name, where did the name come from?
The name of the company is actually a play on words. As you know by now, the tribe that makes the bags are called the wayuus. I love the name because it not only pays homage to the tribe but it also makes me think of all the wonderful ways my customers use their bags. It’s all about the way you style and the way you live and the way you travel with your bag.
What is the process of creating each bag?
Well first, getting to the communities where the wayuus live is a process in itself. On my last trip there I flew into Cartagena and after 10 hours and many different local buses, I finally arrived at the city of Uribia, which borders Colombia and Venezuela. I stay in a small hotel that has little access to running water in the desert and minimal electricity. So my workday is similar to those of the wayuu, it’s dependent on the sunrise and sunset. From there, I travel by caravan to the racherias of the different wayuus that I work with to partner with them on product designs.
From there, each bag is hand-woven and, depending on the design, it can take anywhere from one to three weeks to make one bag. The process of making each bag is actually a spiritual ritual for the women so they are praying the entire time that they are weaving the bag which makes each bag extra special.
What is your favorite The Way U product right now?
It would have to be the collection of custom made floral bags that I designed in partnership with a wayuu named Maria Teresa. The amount of work and detail that went into each bag is truly extraordinary. It took 21 days to make each of the floral mochila bags. (Shop all of the mochilas here.)
What is your morning routine?
I wake up every day around 6 or 7 am, and I make sure to have an hour to myself before getting ready for work. Some mornings I get up and take a fitness class, sometimes I meditate, and other mornings I just make myself breakfast. I think it’s truly important to do something for yourself and lead each day with gratitude and always allow some time to reflect, whether it’s in the morning or before bed.
How would you describe your professional style? What are a few staples?
For my professional style, I let the accessories do all the talking. I always rock a the way u bag, caña flecha bracelets that are handmade from the Zenu tribes in Colombia, and jewelry from other fellow Colombian designers such as Mercedes Salazar and Paula Mendoza.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My grandmother always used to say, “The more I give, the more I receive,” and as I’ve grown up I realize more and more how right she was. In my daily life, I make it a point to always be conscious of how much I am giving to others. Whether it’s volunteering, visiting children in the wayuu communities, or just going out of my way to do something kind for someone else when I will receive nothing in return. Realizing this journey is not all about you, but it is actually what you can do for others, makes all the difference.
What is your best advice for other young professional women?
Know your worth, believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to follow your own path. So many times in my career I have been at crossroads where I felt that maybe I wasn’t good enough, smart enough or talented enough. I always let some excuse or insecurity hold me back from moving forward. For years I didn’t start the business of my dreams because I felt like I didn’t have enough capital, or I didn’t have all the answers. And guess what, today I still don’t have all the answers. The truth is, once I decided to let go of every comfort, excuse and shred of doubt is when the miracles started to happen. I took a chance on myself and my dreams and every day I see miracles happen that push me forward. Choosing to believe whole-heartedly in yourself is the best advice I can give.
And I would like to end on this note of something I heard recently. “Everyday holds within it the beginning and the end. We can choose to be a vessel for love, inspiration, giving and fight our hardest to be the best versions of ourselves or we can just drift and get swept away by the current of each day. The choice is ours. Be present, be fearless, believe in yourself and lead your life with love.”