As part of Rep Co’s mission to disseminate and elevate the stories of their subjects, Lonny is proud to partner with Rep Co on the publication of this piece, written by Martin G Hewitt.
Jillian Knox has an eye for beautiful things. And that's not just a reference to her background as a successful food, wardrobe, prop stylist, and art director. Cast an eye over the vivid hues of the artisanal products sold by online store Casa Ojo, which she founded alongside husband Elvis Santoyo, and you realize just how strong the passion for good design goes. Hence the pair's recent upheaval and relocation — partly a solution due to stock piling up at home.
"It’s a bigger apartment. Because of the pandemic, property prices in San Francisco have really fallen, so suddenly things are more affordable," Santoyo says when we get the couple on the phone, having spent the last couple of days moving countless boxes across town.
His enthusiasm was tangible the moment he answered our call, and it’s not only because of the new place. Upsizing is partly due to the venture he set up with partner Jillian Knox — the stylist behind the popular books Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews, as well as The Baja California Cookbook, and Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora (out October 2021) — outgrowing the home it started in. Established in the wake of Covid-19, Casa Ojo is a personal business for more reasons than a husband-and-wife team selling goods out of their living room.
Santoyo’s parents made the dangerous crossing from Mexico into Texas before eventually settling in Chicago, where he grew up as one of six kids. Pursuing a career in retail, he met Knox on Chicago Craigslist while she was in search of a new home after graduating from SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design). The pair moved to California in 2011, and have regularly visited Mexico over the years, falling in love with local artisanal products in the process. Knox's appreciation for the bold palettes found products such as cushions and towels, and traditional craftsmanship involved, combined with Santoyo's understanding of retail line development, would soon spur ideas for collaboration.
"When we went to Oaxaca after hearing about the indigenous cultures and creativity and art it completely blew our minds, we met so many artisans," Santoyo recounts. “It had been ranked the best place to live in the world by Travel & Leisure. Because of that, tourism increased by 90% or something, so when Covid-19 hit, it just pulled the plug completely.
"From catering to all this tourism to nothing. The Mexican government doesn’t really have ‘stimulus packages,' or at least that’s what they are telling us. So we had the opportunity to ask how do we take that craftsmanship, our creativity, and develop a line," he continues, before Knox adds; "I mean, the skills some of these guys have, they’ve been upheld for so long, they are generational. Their children learn the trade. But with the struggles right now, those kids are doing Uber Eats or driving taxis to make ends meet."
During the pandemic they have travelled between the U.S. and Mexico in compliance with both countries’ regulations, arranging for items to be shipped back or carrying stock home in luggage. First selling via Etsy, inquiries grew as colorful fabrics created by skilled makers and designs conceived in a process involving all parties caught the intention and imagination of shoppers. They needed more independence, so they recently launched a dedicated website, carrying 15% of lines with new launches in the pipeline, including the traditional Oaxacan beeswax candles, extra large bath sheet sets, and wool rugs Knox is particularly excited about. Large orders are also regularly coming in from other shops across the U.S. Additionally, Casa Ojo is set to release new products with two Black-owned brands by summer.
"We set some rules early on, and they were that we would not negotiate with the artisans, or not jerk them around — pit one against the other,” says Santoyo of their initial approach. "Second, any work they did for us, including samples, we will compensate them for. And then finally, if there are losses, they’re ours."
This attitude has helped Casa Ojo quickly establish close bonds with the artisans the company buys from. "The towels we create — it’s an entire family involved. The woman we work with is 23 years old, has two kids, her husband and father-in-law do most of the work on the looming machines, then she and her mother-in-law do the sewing. So, it’s a communal effort,” says Knox, who is also a founder of The Astute Agency — a global community platform that embraces human agency for industry and multidisciplinary creatives whose founding members are BIPOC.
"When we met them in person it was literally like meeting our family, we were so excited to meet them, they were so excited to meet us. They fed us, we brought things for their kids. It was a wonderful experience. We told them: ‘The business is great, but what’s important to us is you guys. Respecting you, your time, and your skills. This relationship is worth more to us than anything’."
"We’re not charitable, we’re not donating money in any way,” says Santoyo, keen to point out this is a very real business. Knox explains benefits go both ways. "The towel-makers are building a new workshop, and it’s the first time in 20 years this has been possible. And the respect goes right through to the customer — educating them on the process, the types of people we work with, the towns they come from.
"There’s a lot of integrity behind what we do and a lot of equity. Everyone we have worked with has been able to expand their own business. This is really about equity and our responsibility in educating people as to where things come from, and not watering down what these people make to suit our needs," she continues.
"When you look at home goods, bigger stores, it’s all buy one get one free on Egyptian cotton, and that’s great but how much did those people get paid? Where is the equity for anyone? Are you sharing the spoils, are we being true Americans and just taking it all?"