Tigre de Salón – Verónica Franco Vélez

Passionate, generous, impulsive with a huge heart for helping those around her are definitely some of the words I would use to describe Verónica, founder of Tigre de Salón. Her vibrant inspirational energy overflows as she speaks about her love, respect and working relationship with the Iku Indigenous Tribe and the new project she is creating to help sex workers in Medellin find a different path in life.

A truly motivational and inspiring story…

What dod you do before you started Tigre de Salón?

I’ve always been interested in handmade designs from local craftsmen.  At university I studied industrial design, how to make leather goods and also different aspects of interior design.  My first job was working with a company in Peru that sold colourful, embroidered handbags made by the local Peruvian artisans but when I came back to Colombia I was indecisive of what I wanted to do, I liked the industrial design so I started to work in an architect firm but this just made me realise it wasn’t my dream to work for someone else, my dream was to start my own brand, and my passion was in designing backpacks. Honestly I was like a crazy woman searching for everyone wearing a backpack and then I’d ask them if I could look inside and see what they were carrying. In a backpack you put most of your valuable things and when you look inside you can really see a persons’ personality, what they love, what they do.  This really helped me to create the perfect designs.

Is this when you decided to open your own shop?

Yes.  I opened the Tigre de Salon in 2014, in fact it’s exactly seven years this month.  Seven is a very special indigenous number so I think it’s going to be an exciting year.  During the course of my life I have learned from great masters the importance of doing things from the heart and so I started my own brand because I wanted to share my ideals of how I see and feel life.  I think it’s important to realise it’s not just about having a beautiful bag, it’s about the stories behind each bag and the essence of life it holds.

How did you decide which indigenous tribe to work with?

I first started my collection with only handmade designs working with leather and some other fabrics but five years ago I wanted to impact more people’s lives and I started to think about working with the indigenous communities.  In Colombia we have more than 100 different indigenous communities and a lot of them speak different languages but we know so little about them. In our schools we study more of the European history and culture but never the origins and history of our country. 

I decided that it was really important to start working with our roots and I had a few communities in mind that I was researching.  I first started looking at the Wayuu tribe and the indigenous tribes in La Guajira in Santa Marta.  There are four communities I instantly felt connected with, the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo because they are such a gentle spiritual community and mother nature is the most important thing to them. We don’t know how long they have been here because the Spanish destroyed everything when they came and so we are just now learning about the stories of their existence. 

Five years ago I went on vacation to the beach near Santa Marta, the only place where the beach and the sea are close to the snowcapped mountains, it’s the most special and unique place in the world. I was swimming in the river surrounded by the sounds of monkeys and exotic birds when I saw two indigenous women with their little children bathing in the river and wearing their customary white dresses.  I immediately felt a huge amount of respect.  In this moment I decided this was the indigenous community I wanted to work with.  They live in very closed places that are not open to people outside of the community, but I decided to go alone and try and meet them.  At first only to understand them, their cultures, their spirituality, the way they live and cook but as soon as I went to Nabusimake, the place they live, I immediately clicked with an Iku family. We chatted for hours, and this is when they listened to my vision and they wanted to start working with me.

The leather Bags I sell are an old tradition from Medellin, so I mixed the traditional with the ancestral weaving to make a completely unique design.  I’m fascinated by all of the indigenous tribes in Colombia, they are all so different but share the same genuine essence.  Each specialises in a different craftsmanship but I made the decision to work with Iku gwati (Gwati means woman in Iku language) in Santa Marta because I wanted to make an impact in their community.

Do you give them specific designs you want to weave?

We work together but I can’t change the designs. I give them the measurements and colours but the designs on the bags are created by the woman who is making the bag. It’s her inner thoughts she is weaving into the pattern of the bag, the culture, the tradition and their religion.  They are really meaningful and special. They don’t use geometric patterns, they don’t draw or measure anything, it’s all in their head and their hands. I was reading a book about the meaning of the figures in the Iku community and it’s really sacred as they say that when the gwati (women) are weaving the design into the mochila (bag), it’s more like a meditation and a mantra they repeat.

Have they shared any stories with you?

They are really quiet and secret. They don’t tell me stories but sometimes when they send me the mochila’s they send me a little note about its meaning, or a note of thanks. I save them as they are so precious and have a great sentiment. I have been so fortunate they have opened their houses to me and allowed me to use their traditional designs as there are no other organisations they work with.  I feel really humbled and honoured.

What are you plans for the future?

I’m planning to launch a clothing range but it’s in the design process at the moment.  I’m also working with women who used to live and work in the countryside but because of the war and the political conflict they had to move to the city with no education or work and ended up having to be sex workers just so they can feed their children.  Now because of the virus, it is too dangerous for them to works so I have started a project called ‘Tramas Colectivas’ with a group of these women so I can teach them how to weave and crochet and I’m producing a new collection with their work.  They are so excited and weaving is like a metaphor of life, a life changer for them and I want this new collection to be successful so they can look forward to doing different things with their life. Click here to read more about the amazing work Verónica is creating in Colombia