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With HerStory, retailer Tinsley Merrill Paul showcases women-led social impact brands

By Rebecca ChristophersonApril 22, 2024No Comments

With HerStory, retailer Tinsley Merrill Paul showcases women-led social impact brands

By Jenny B. Davis
Photography by Jill Johnson

Light streams through the giant windows of HerStory Gallery, illuminating the expansive, high-ceilinged space. Artfully arranged items are gathered into distinct groupings to maximize the visual impact of color and texture, while wall didactics explain the special meanings of their materials and makers.

These items aren’t technically artwork — they’re clothes and accessories like hats, shoes, jewelry and bags. The store’s founder, Tinsley Merrill Paul, wants to do more than simply sell the items on display in her store. She wants to change the world.

It’s a mission Paul fulfills with each sale. Every item for sale in the downtown Fort Worth store and online at herstorymarket.com is made by a woman-led social impact brand with a mission to empower and lift the communities where they’re based.

Wall didactics such as this one representing Australia offer insight into the items displayed in each section of the store.

Paul curates her collection with multiple sections based on regions of the world. Each area is accompanied by display walls bearing text that explains something important to know about the items, like the history behind a technique or the ways a brand has provided work and raised wages in a particular community, Paul says.

The area nearest to the front door is dedicated to Mexican brands, including two of the most popular: Corazón Playero hats and AB.LINO hats.

“Corazón Playero makes hand-embroidered, 100% palm hats in Cabo San Lucas, and it was one of our first international brands,” Paul explains. “When they started, they had two artisans, and now they provide full-time employment to 35 artisans.”

In the India area, items include block-printed separates from Llani and intricate earrings from Mignonne Gavigan (including several exclusive designs made in collaboration with HerStory for rodeo season).

Paul calls the African area “near and dear to my heart,” in part because it features the Ugandan jewelry brand Akola. Paul’s sister, Brittany Merrill Underwood, founded the company in 2007 to provide fair wages and dignified work to Ugandan women, and Paul has visited the East African country regularly since she was 15 years old. Today, Paul says Akola is wholly owned by its women artisans, and the unique pieces they create from native materials like horn and raffia and even upcycled brass door knobs are among HerStory’s bestsellers. Akola and HerStory have 10 exclusive collaborations, including bands designed to accent Corazón Playero hats.

Suede hats from the Mexican brand AB.LINO are top sellers at HerStory.

The South American section is predictably vibrant. It features handpainted, handcrafted hats from Colombia (the technique here creates a thicker weave than that of the Mexican palm hats, Paul explains), intricate filet lace dresses, colorful short and skirt sets from Brazilian brand Miguelina, and beaded bags from Zereno, also from Colombia. Paul suggests using them as game day bags.

Other popular brands in the store include Fanm Mon linen dresses, which are custom embroidered in Turkey using Ukrainian artisanal techniques, exotic leather bags from South African brand Cape Cobra and beachy separates from Bali-based Puka The Label, HerStory’s first Indonesian brand.

At any given time, Paul works with a network of 250 brands. HerStory always carries selections from a core group, she says, but she brings on new brands every season, so there will always be new styles for shoppers to discover.

Igniting Entrepreneurship

Paul is originally from Atlanta, the youngest of five kids (two boys, three girls). She came to Texas to attend Southern Methodist University, and it was there she laid the groundwork for her entrepreneurial journey.

During her freshman year, a sorority sister started a female-centric dating app that would eventually become the billion-dollar public company Bumble. Paul was the startup’s first official social media intern, and she learned how to build a social media platform, create campus outreach and launch an app. Paul says she fell in love with entrepreneurship and the concept of a community of women working together.

The linen Papiyon dress from Fanm Mon is embroidered in Turkey using Ukrainian artisanal techniques.

As she prepared to graduate, she accepted an internship with another new business founded by a sorority sister — a social media selling venture now known as LTK. Here, she helped develop a business around an entirely new concept of celebrity: the social media influencer. “Being there, I learned what opinion leaders could do and how people can make money in meaningful ways.”

That said, she was more about experiences than fashion. In 2018 she was offered the opportunity to help launch a data-driven experiential marketing company. She jumped at the chance, even moving to New York City.

That’s where she was when the pandemic hit, and like so many people linked to the event business, she suddenly found herself without work.

“I saw so many of the small businesses that we were working with go under, especially those that were mission-based,” she recalls. “Retailers were canceling contracts and, of course, the little companies were the first to get cut.”

When she reached out to her sister, she learned Akola faced similar challenges. The company’s wholesale orders had evaporated, leaving its artisans with no income or ability to provide for their families.

Paul became determined to make a difference. In 2020, she and her sister partnered with a mutual friend, Whitney Rowell, to launch a subscription box service called Support HerStory to help struggling women-led small businesses move excess inventory they held when their wholesale accounts were canceled.

“The idea was to create a curated box that included not only the product but also the story behind the product,” Paul explains. Customers could curate their own boxes by choosing three products from participating brands. 

The trio built the entire company in three weeks, including creating the website and collecting the merchandise. When it launched on Mother’s Day, they had hoped to sell 50 boxes that first week. Instead, they sold 150, and it never slowed.

“We thought it was just going to be a passion project, but it morphed into so much more, and that’s thanks to the amazing women we work with, ” Paul says.

Expanding the Mission

When the pandemic ended, Paul knew the subscription box model’s days were numbered, but she wanted to keep the concept going.

“I wanted to continue to build this community of women entrepreneurs, and I knew there was value in educating people about the stories behind the products and the brands,” Paul says. “I sat down with Brittany and Whitney and said, ‘I feel like I have a calling to continue this.’”

By this point, Underwood and Rowell had become too busy with their families and businesses to stay involved every day, so they moved to an advisory role. Paul launched HerStory as an e-commerce platform in 2022, and did so as a solo entrepreneur.

“That’s when we were able to open up to all different products, from fashion to accessories to home goods, and we were able to open up to brands around the world who were providing dignified employment for people in their communities,” Paul says. “We want to help these brands access the luxury market in the U.S. and help them grow.”

Paul always dreamed of opening a brick-and-mortar location, but she never thought it would be possible — that is, until a chance meeting with the Bass family, owners of Sundance Square, led to the opportunity to open in spring 2023 in the store’s current space at 333 Houston St.

The goal was to create an inviting, educational space. Sustainability was also important, and Paul says she partnered with a designer to maximize the use of organic materials in the furniture and finishings.

The store’s customer traffic is often heavy with visitors and tourists. Her goal for 2024, she says, is to build awareness in Fort Worth and encourage more locals to visit the gallery — especially as she launches more exclusive collaborations and brings on more brands that benefit rural communities.

“Because we’re a mission-based business, I can’t really spend money on marketing,” Paul says. “But I hope to get the word out to everyone in the community that this is a welcome space to meet up with friends, do some shopping and help make a real impact in the world.”


HerStory Gallery
Sundance Square, 333 Houston St., Fort Worth, herstorymarket.com