We Love Shopping Local - Interview with Marie-Claude Coulombe, founder of SO Original

In the winter of 2011, Marie-Claude Coulombe and her husband set off to discover the rich culture of Thailand and Asia. This adventurous couple fell in love with the landscapes, the architecture, the art and most of all the kindness they experienced from locals. Marie-Claude fell in love with the traditions, customs and village craftsmen who inspired her to buy their products. It was then that she realized that craftsmanship was an integral part of families in rural areas and that accumulated earnings enabled them to provide comfort and give their children a better education. Touched by these courageous, conscientious and meticulous workers, the idea for SO was born. For 10 years now, Marie-Claude has traveled the roads of Asia and Africa and always returns with her arms full of treasures that can be found at her SO Original store. Meet this globetrotter and ethical fashion enthusiast.

Can you describe SO Original in just a few words?

The goal of SO Original is to allow others to discover the know-how of artisans who are paid fair wages, who work with exceptional raw materials and offer high-end products at very competitive price points. SO Original offers fashion accessories, which make a tangible contribution to the vitality of the local economy in many parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

How was SO Original born?

From the love of travel, people, originality and respect for handmade work. At SO Original, we want to change the way others look at artisans by valuing their work and giving them a chance to change their life. At a young age, I traveled a lot and it was during these travels that I fell in love with craftsmen.

What makes SO Original different from other accessory retailers?

Our desire to celebrate originality, diversity and enduring beauty. Our craftsmen use superior quality raw materials, the design is made according to their traditions rather than following fleeting trends which contributes to the longevity and the timeless style of our products. The result: a better investment for you and for the environment.

How do you choose the accessories and craftsmen found at SO Original?

In backpacks and walking boots, my partner and I have walked off-route trails and have built great relationships with several artisans in more than 25 countries. Quality, durability and originality are at the heart of our selection criteria.

SO Original Boutique, Rockland Center

What inspired you to open your boutique at Rockland Center?

I have been at Rockland Center for 7 years now, for me it was an absolute must. Back in the day, street shops weren't doing well at all. I had to be in a place where there was already a level of traffic as well as customers open to consuming differently. I had to make several of them aware that we could be conscious consumers: shop intelligent, quality, sustainable products that were well made, beautiful, unique and that could help others (the craftsmen). Let’s not forget the history behind them, the way products are produced, the material used, as well as their economic impact. 

What makes you passionate about the ethical fashion industry?

Offering original products, sourcing differently, offering a unique opportunity to these artisans to sell their products in Canada and above all to change their lifestyle, one item at a time. The strength of the circular economy is incredible when you get started and see real change.

What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

I live by a 3D rule: Desire, Determination, Dedication. The desire to change (our life, that of others, a desire for novelty or change). We rarely count our hours, a crazy schedule awaits you, you have to be motivated and have the determination. My grandfather told us near the end of his life that we had to be courageous, because we need daily courage for both small tasks and big challenges. Be dedicated to your idea, your business, your journey in order to achieve success. The path will not be straight, it'll be winding, but beautiful!

You support the CECI cause, why did you choose this organization?

Since our beginnings in 2011, SO Original has donated funds to various charities, organizations, people in need, Christmas baskets and meals to the homeless. Over the years, several clients have told me about CECI. I am especially proud to be associated with CECI, an organization whose values of cooperation, respect, fairness and commitment match those of SO Original. Since its creation in 2013, SO Original has been committed to long-term support, and in an equitable manner, more than a hundred talented artisan-creators, in order to better help them make a living from their arts. The vast majority of these people are women. It was therefore natural for me to support CECI's #CECIestmongenre campaign and to support projects promoting equality between women and men around the world. Each purchase will therefore have double the impact, since it’ll contribute to the strength of a local economy and will help to curb inequalities in the world.

Why is it important to shop local?

I have always been a supporter of encouraging our economy. In Quebec, we have lots of great ideas, lots of great entrepreneurs. We must encourage them in order to develop a healthy, stable and stronger economy that will lead all Quebecers to aim higher together.

What are SO Original's plans ?

1. Offer a larger selection of products made in Quebec, ie a house collection signed SO Original and made from marbles and / or small treasures brought back during our travels. Each piece is unique and the majority of beads are handmade by cooperatives, or artisans with physical or visual disabilities.

2. Bring back the customer favorites (pre-covid), ie several products and / or baskets from Senegal.

3. I am currently working hard  on the production of a screenplay and the production of an SO Original TV show, which will feature our product choices, our artisans, our line of conduct, our know-how, how to consume differently and old manufacturing techniques with an interesting conclusion for our craftsmen.