Karen Lahm: Proof Positive of the Power of Commitment, Creativity and Collaboration
Its natural beauty and near perfect weather aside, Vallarta holds a unique appeal for those seeking more than just a pleasant respite from cold winters — namely, the opportunity to assimilate a wonderfully diff erent way of living in concert with a stimulating expatriate community whose respective life experiences, sense of adventure and creative pursuits add zest to the fascination of living here. Melding the respective resources, talents, skills and strengths of Mexican locals with those of foreign residents who call Vallarta home has produced many a mutually fulfilling collaboration. Australian transplant Karen Lahm is the guiding force behind one such multicultural success story.
A screenwriter living in LA, she first came to Vallarta as part of her job with a cable series set in the Banderas Bay area. Overcome with emotion (which has never dissipated) on that initial encounter in Mexico, she returned to the States long enough to pack up her belongings, and came back for an “extended vacation.” Over the next several months, she traveled to Puerto Escondido, Mexico City, Chiapas, Playa del Carmen, Quimixto and Cancun, among other places, before leaving her position in the States for good. In contrast to her life in Hollywood, Mexico resonated with her, satisfying her yearning for a simpler, more down-to-earth existence.
Fully embracing her new-found way of life, Karen engaged the services of a non-English-speaking elderly midwife to deliver her baby, whose initiation into this world was a cleansing dunk in a bucket of water, after having his umbilical cord burned and waxed. To assure no lingering post-partum weight gain, the new mom — guided by her birthing mentor — underwent a ritual of tightly tying a towel around her limbs and torso to guide them back to their pre-pregnancy shape.
Eventually landing in Puerto Vallarta, Karen raised her son as a single mom and “did the hippy thing,” making jewelry, hair wraps and assorted novelties to get by financially, while testing out various neighborhoods from the Marina to Gringo Gulch. Fascinated with the lore and appeal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom she personally believes is the strongest female icon in Central and South America, engendering peace, hope and empowerment, Karen began experimenting with the image of Mexico’s revered mother figure, making it the focal point of decorative handcrafted matchboxes. Because of the popularity of Mexico’s equivalent of bingo (Loteria) and its ideally sized cards, she expanded her theme to include them as well, and briefly opened a store to market her wares. Ultimately, she chose to wholesale her crafts to a few select art galleries, and added custom-made book covers to her product line.
Whatever the item, Karen individually created each product, which underwent up to 18 processes (cutting, gluing, stitching, painting, varnishing, drying, etc.) before completion. Labor was intensive and quality control precarious, until fate (AKA Cupid) interceded and catapulted this one-person operation to a thriving cottage industry.
Sharing the house next to the one Karen was renting in Paso Ancho was a “lovely” Mexican man named Victor, whose gentle spirit, feminine energy and inner peace won over her heart after meeting him six years ago. An artist, sculptor and classical guitarist, he soon became her partner in life as well as business. With his technical ingenuity and skills and Karen’s endless stream of ideas, the business has “come into its own.” While all products are still meticulously crafted and lovingly tended to by human hands, they now can be made in lots of 1,000 versus one at a time, with the help of time-saving tools such as a compressor, jig saw and sander. More efficient manufacturing processes and better raw materials that have proven easier to work with have further enhanced the production cycle, as well as the quality of the end product.
With the luxury of more discretionary time, Karen has significantly expanded her line and decorative themes, resulting in an engaging array of gift items that incorporate Mexican cultural icons, customs and pop art, including her Frida Kahlo line, the Virgin of Guadalupe (aptly named Extra Virgin Art), Mexican Mujeres, Mexico Lindo (predominantly couples in traditional costumes), Mexican celebrities from the wrestling world and early cinema, lottery card images, Day of the Dead, Hindu deities and corpulent reproductions from artist Botero, among others.
With more than 250 different images in her repertoire, and over two dozen products ranging from matchbooks, key chains, magnets, business card holders and bookmarks to photo albums, wall and hand mirrors, picture frames, lamps, decorative cushions, Christmas decorations, candleholders and jewelry, the potential combinations are mind boggling. Prices run from $25 pesos to $2,500 pesos, making her creations accessible to just about anyone. Although decoupage — the process used to transfer prints onto her products — is not novel, the use of clever artistic enhancements and detailing, such as relief and gold paint beading, lends a unique whimsical flavor to her line. Raw materials are procured locally, and advertising is strictly wordof-mouth, although developing a website is a “huge goal.” Even without benefit of the Internet, however, she has managed to find a large market for her line in Amsterdam, as well as several US cities.
Building the business from its humble beginnings to its current operations over the past decade is certainly cause for celebration. What fills Karen’s spiritual cup even more, however, is the personal fulfillment of providing a dozen neighbors who serve as her production crew not only with transferable skills training and an income, but also with the opportunity to grow and learn, whether by example or direct communication.
“I don’t do anything just for the money. I feel the need to give back. If I can’t do it financially, I provide a model for people to learn from.”
Observing her relationship with Victor, for example, has inspired others working in her home-based business to strive for mutual respect within their own marriages. Seeing her realize a dream without benefit of financial resources or support early on lends hope and inspiration for achieving one’s own personal goals. Witnessing customers’ praise of the products personally crafted by the employees generates their individual self-confidence and pride in workmanship. Being a part of an interdependent team effort has encouraged cooperation and engendered appreciation for the power of collaboration and purpose. Working from Karen’s modest home, which includes three dogs, seven cats and 13-year-old-son Kahli, has created a nurturing family atmosphere, strengthening connections, exemplifying simplicity and frequently positioning Karen as a willing source of sound personal advice.
“I want my products to be made with love.” For that to happen, she is committed to treating those who work for her honorably and compassionately.
Despite considerable hurdles — such as accessing raw materials with limited purchasing power, initially having to market her products on
consignment, creating adequate work and storage space for supplies, as well as products in various stages of completion — she has made great strides, recently even opening a new retail store, La Bandida, in partnership with Denise Earley (AKA “Cool Nomad”), a savvy, aesthetically astute world traveler, who will supplement Karen’s locally made product line with imported textile treasures from India, Thailand, France, China and other exotic locales. Karen is also committed to showcasing additional products produced in and around Vallarta by various women’s cooperatives, many of which utilize recycled products, such as decorative keepsake containers fashioned from dehydrated orange peel halves, belts made from the flip tops of aluminum beverage cans, interesting totes crafted from grain sacks and charming purses crocheted from plastic grocery bags, to name but a few.
La Bandida, located at Lazaro Cardenas 230, is the place to shop for innovative gifts that combine utility, beauty, quality and creativity, enhanced by Mexican culture. Whether it’s a lovely wall hanging, mirror-encrusted bed spread, a sexy scarf, chic shawl or novel computer bag you are in search of, surely you will find the perfect piece among the eclectic selection that awaits you at La Bandida. Just knowing this sweet operation is the culmination of one feisty woman’s commitment, determination and chutzpah combined with the collaborative efforts and talents of Mexican nationals who share in that success makes the purchase all the more special.