Inspired by the colors, exuberance, and traditions of Mexico, Patrice Wynne created Abrazos featuring San Miguel Designs, her boutique in San Miguel de Allende and production company designing textile products, which are handmade by local seamstresses working in fair trade conditions. Her collection has grown from a line of aprons to kitchen wares, handbags, baby bibs, dresses, men’s shirts, and more, selling all over the world—from Paris to Beirut to Mexico City. She uses fabrics patterned with Mexican cultural icons, such as Frida Kahlo, Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), lucha libre (Mexican wrestlers), cacti, and chili peppers that characterize what she calls “the fiesta of life in Mexico.”
Gina: Where are you from?
Patrice: I was born on October 5,1951 in Pottsville, in upstate Pennsylvania, but consider Minersville, a town nearby, where my grandparents lived, as my heart home or place of true birth. This is anthracite coal mining country. Both my grandfathers were in the coal mines, one as an executive, the other as a child miner.
Gina: Where all did you live before moving to Mexico?
Patrice: I have had the good fortune of living in tremendously wonderful cities and small towns all over California before moving to San Miguel in 2000.
Gina: What sorts of work did you do before moving to Mexico?
Patrice: I got my training in business and management as a young executive at Fotomat, the drive-through stores in shopping centers all over the US. Over my ten years with the company, I managed 500 “fotomates” [employees].
By the time I quit, I was ready for a huge change, so I took six months off to travel around Europe and ponder my future: in my late twenties and in a soul crisis. I was interested in becoming a Unitarian minister because it had saved me from corporate America’s grip and seductions. Since I was nervous about public speaking, I decided to get my degree in women’s studies not knowing what I would do, but fascinated by all of the writings by and about women of the 70s and 80s. I just followed my passion.
In college, I was the co-founder of the Rising Spirits Cafe at the Ecumenical House of San Francisco State University and I started the Amnesty International group at SFSU, specializing in Latin American human rights. The Cafe sponsored readings by authors, conversations with professors, poetry readings by Vietnam Vets and organized large scale events for the nuclear freeze movement. It was important political work, but psychologically very challenging. When I graduated I took that summer off to heal in nature at the Ojai Foundation. It was there that I was invited to open their bookstore. I discovered that I loved being in the book world, and opened my own bookstore, Gaia, a few years later in North Berkeley, where I was living.
In the beginning, I spoke to other booksellers to learn what I could from them about the business. Without exception they thought it was a tough field and strongly challenged me on my area of specialty, women’s spirituality, not feminist studies, but women’s spiritual processes, religion, psychology and health. I forged ahead, and rented a small space that was so tiny that we never bothered to alphabetize our books, we just put them wherever there was a space on the shelf. In retrospect, it seems like a wild idea, but I was committed and had a ton of contacts and put them all to good use. We flourished, growing into a large store with 25 employees and expanding into other areas of interest, all with a focus on the human spirit. We became nationally known for our nightly author readings; I hosted 3,000 events during my career. When we closed under extreme financial duress from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, I told the world, that I would never ever, under any circumstances, ever open another retail store.
Gina: What skills did you learn in your previous work that came into use when you started Abrazos?
Patrice: Audacity, confidence in myself and my vision, originality in concept and design, people management, mentoring and leadership training, importance of novelty and the new in retail business. Again, I heard the same things: “Oh, you can’t succeed, you are too specialized, it will take over your life.” Blah, blah, blah. I did it anyways, and although there have been times when we barely survived, we are growing for the last three years and I am optimistic about our future.
Gina: What new skills did you need to learn to do business in Mexico?
Patrice: Listening to and observing the subtle cultural cues in Spanish that differ from English; tolerance for differences in banking, regulations, tax collections, border crossings, importations; manufacturing complexities; and most importantly, the expectation of courtesies and respect at all times. For example, always asking customers and employees how they are doing before leaping into the question on your mind.
Gina: How good is your Spanish?
Patrice: Functionally conversational, but not fluent: good enough to speak to employees all day long; good enough to go to Mexico City every week in search of supplies; good enough to manage a tour business which I did before I opened Abrazos. I cannot carry on a lengthy intellectual discussion on complex issues, or spend an entire night over dinner and understand the conversation if it was all in Spanish.
Gina: How many people do you employ now and what are their jobs?
Patrice: I tell people that we have one hundred seamstresses, but we really only have thirteen, however when you hire a Mexican woman you are hiring her children, her neighbors, her family, and extended family, since everyone helps her and everyone wants to work, too. Abrazos has a talented, professional team that manages the retail and wholesale responsibilities. Since we have two businesses out of one location, it takes a lot of coordination and superior communication and teamwork to operate smoothly. Our business manager, Aaron Leon, has been with us since we opened; Samantha Nogueda is the Abrazos store and production manager and marketing genius; Gaby handles social media coordination; and Lorena is the general assistant who does everything and more to keep the store beautiful and merchandise ready for sales.
Gina: What sort of advisors do you have on your team?
Patrice: I have an accountant that we are in contact with all the time, a lawyer who I talk to about once a year, and a Mexico City woman taxi driver who also runs errands for us in the City since our biggest clients are located there.
Gina: What and/or who are your design inspirations?
Patrice: Anything to do with fair trade and slow fashion, so mostly other small-scale designers and creators. I find videos and working cooperativas on Facebook that move me. I am not inspired by anyone in the fashion or manufacturing industry.
Gina: Do you have any personal and/or business role models?
Patrice: I am most inspired by Frida [Kahlo] in spirit, fierceness, individuality, Mexicanismo, and passion.
Gina: What gives you the most pleasure about running your business?
Patrice: Seeing the women come in every day for work with their children and their mothers; watching the brand grow as we are sold in stores and museum shops all over the world; watching the confidence grow in the young women who work in Abrazos. For example, one in particular was very meek when she came to work for us as a housekeeper and now does just about every job with confidence and high performance and speaks up to her controlling father and brothers because she has found her voice and her talents.
Gina: What is the most challenging thing about running your business?
Patrice: Balancing personal time with being the owner/founder. I travel frequently—to open new accounts, to service existing accounts, and to enjoy life all over Mexico with Ernesto. Fortunately, I have employees who enjoy being in charge of the business and are fully trustworthy to manage all the business affairs. From the road, I manage the financial responsibilities, fabric ordering, and off site questions that need attention. The downside is that I am online frequently, but when you’re sitting in a plaza in the Yucatan on an iPad, it’s still a paradise.
Gina: What do you wish you’d known before you launched Abrazos?
Patrice: Opportunity is not the highest value; being part of a family system is much more compelling. Years ago I mentored a very poor young woman who wanted to be her own person. She was my housekeeper, then my assistant, then my store manager. She traveled with me; I left her the business and the house in my will; she was my right hand gal in everything and we were very close. But when her brother and sister were caught stealing from me and I fired them, she had to walk away from it all. Her family would not allow her to work with me, if they had lost their job. Kindness and generosity and opportunities offered do not mean a thing because family wishes always prevail. Family is everything and more in this country.
Gina: What do you think are the most important character traits for being a successful entrepreneur?
Patrice: Focus; kindness and toughness; confidence and humility; and in today’s world, willingness to do shameless marketing, a phrase I coined. You take the point of view “people care and are interested in my life and my work.” You have to be willing to share what you are doing boldly, creatively, and authentically. Professional marketing is no substitute for personal enthusiasm. Marketing skills have to be self taught and exercised confidently, even though your shyer self has all kinds of messages telling you to hide yourself under a blanket.
Gina: How do you stay healthy and keep your amazing energy? Do you exercise or follow any particular diet?
Patrice: Recently I attended a pre-performance talk by Farruquito, the world’s greatest gypsy dancer. When someone asked him this exact same question, we both give the exact same answer: Nothing. PASSION for one’s life and work and “dance” keeps us healthy. This passion keeps us energized, keeps us dynamically engaged with life. However, I do eat modestly, and never overeat, for one thing, because stuffiness makes me groggy. I don’t use any drugs including marijuana, don’t smoke and drink only when dining out.
Gina: How would you describe your personal sense of style?
Patrice: Bohemian Mexican Indigenous Contemporary. I wear the Abrazos dresses when I travel because they go over anything and are super comfortable. Natural fabrics, often mismatched, artistic one-of-a-kind jewelry created by friends, indigenous clothing that I adapt to be more stylish. I’m into style, not fashion. Fashion is dictated by businesses and industry. Style is your own artistry. Your body is the canvas; your closet is the palette.
Gina: What are your thoughts on aging and beauty?
Patrice: It is a grace and an opportunity to let life show up in your face, eyes, body, and soul. And it’s fucking hard to have a body that aches with joint pain, which is my suffering. But in my relationship with Ernesto, I am lucky to have a guy that is enjoying me as an older woman and adores me just as I am and validates it all since he thinks aging is cool. And it is, basically, as you watch yourself handle things with more gentleness and love. I actually think I am more beautiful now than I was ten years ago and at various times in my life, when I was more stressed and pushing myself harder.
Gina: Please tell me about your wonderful house in San Miguel. Did you build it?
Patrice: I bought the house twelve years ago after renting it for two years. I wanted to make sure that I would enjoy living a twenty-minute walk from Centro. I do, because it is a break from the constancy of traffic, events, tourism, fireworks, and street closings that are the conditions of life in the Historic Centro. Since my store is located there, it is the best of both worlds: I get the pleasures and benefits of tourism as a business and the peace of living in a quiet Mexican neighborhood.
My colonia, Independencia, is a mixed neighborhood, mostly Mexican, with few businesses so few trucks and deliveries, mostly residential, on a hill, with breezes and natural sounds from birds and the wind, as well as the church bells, which we can hear from our bedroom in the mornings and at night. There’s also a mariachi school nearby so I get to hear them play and watch them go by. Love it.
When I bought the house it was a wreck. Ernesto calls it “the place that Frida came to get ideas.” It is muy Mexicana colorful. I paid a little over US$100,000 and put in another US$50,000. Over the years, I added a rooftop terrace and a landscaped garden where we spend time being restored and secluded. Avenida Independencia, the main entrance to town on this side of the city, is two doors from our house. So we can watch the world go by and the religious processions, which we love to do from our rooftop. Also horses and donkey pass by our house frequently.
Gina: When and how did you and Ernesto meet?
Patrice: I met Ernesto when a friend introduced us three years ago though I had a crush on him a decade ago when he dated a friend. I kept it to myself and never spoke to him, only to my therapist. I was a goner and could not figure out why I was so fascinated by him. After we began dating I understood: he seduced me with his kindness, his gentlemanliness, his Mexicanismo.
For the full story, see an essay I wrote for the Huff Post called “Reborn On Cobblestones” about how we met. It reveals a lot about me. I let it all out about my fierce independence and the stages of meeting him and letting myself surrender to that love in my sixties.
Gina: What is he interested in (besides you!)?
Patrice: He enjoys taking care of our home, caring for our darling rescue dog Rudi (notice a theme here?), documentaries, reading thriller novels, hanging out on the rooftop, and napping. He loves the simplicity of life that he can create for himself. We are both huge admirers of each other’s ways and interests and place no demands on each other to be anything but the best we can be: he as a professional napper, reader, and walking retiree; me as a professional social entrepreneur and slow fashion advocate. Our daily activities are a huge contrast, but that unites rather than separates us as we talk about every detail of our days when we are together in the evenings. We share a passion for eating delicious, simple meals, reading, talking about Mexico, music, and traveling all over Mexico. And we both love Facebook and find amusement to read all kinds of things to each other.
Gina: Have you had a formal public wedding ceremony yet? I enjoyed your wedding dress quest on Facebook. Did you end up buying any of those dresses?
Patrice: I am still collecting wedding dress ideas that I see on Facebook and in stores. Have tried on a few and find that they always look better in theory than in practice. A friend summarized my problem: I can’t decide whether to have ten people or a thousand. I know a city full of people and don’t want to leave anyone off the guest list that I have known all these years. However, a wedding of ten is not my dream since my first marriage was a small one and I never felt that I celebrated enough. As you can see I am stumped, but it will sort itself out over time.
Gina: Why do you want to get married rather than just live together?
Patrice: We want to be married because we love the idea of doing it over again this time around as a married couple with all the lessons culled from living to this age of sweet wisdom. And because we are so much in love, we want to formally proclaim it to the world by a marriage. In some ways, we are both old fashioned about marriage, it is a joyfully public expression of a commitment that just being partners in life does not satisfy.
Gina: What are your tips for a happy relationship?
Patrice: Forgive Quickly, Kiss Slowly; Nothing is worth fighting over if you can resolve it with forgiveness and a kiss and most everything can; speak up if you are hurt because holding grudges will come out later the wrong way; listening is better than speaking because we all want to be heard; spending quiet times together at home builds intimacy, even if you are both in other rooms doing Facebook—as long as you share stories and read to each other periodically; give each other the freedom to be apart if that is what makes another happy; primarily, enjoy your own company and share as much as you can with your partner whenever you are together.
Follow Patrice on Facebook at Abrazos featuring San Miguel Designs by Patrice Wynne.