You've seen them in glossy mags or the Conran Shop. But it's Emma Bernhardt who braves Mexican jails to get them. By Monique Roffey
"It was colour therapy," says 29-year-old Emma Bernhardt of her first trip to Mexico. "My life in England had become so grey. I had a job [at Elle Deco], a flat and boyfriend. But it all seemed so colourless until I chucked in the job, ditched the boyfriend and left my flat and went to Mexico."

And colour she found. Not just in the brightly painted old towns and the rich colours of the Mexican landscape, but also in the everyday objects of a vibrant culture: baskets, bags, brooms, chairs, kitchen gadgets, religious ornaments - all made out of plastic. With her eye for off-the- wall aesthetics, everything she came across seemed bright, quirky and fresh. But then, she's got a thing about plastic.

"Plastic is so versatile," she explains. "It can take amazing colours that wood or metal can't. It can be hard or soft. It's modern and sharp, but also very retro. It combines the familiar and the new."

Some time later Emma went back, sure there was a British market for all that plastic. "It's about having confidence in your own eye," she says. "I thought about all those amazing things for years, but it wasn't until I had some buying experience that I decided to go for it."

When she returned from her second trip to Mexico, in May 1994, she brought with her three-quarters of a ton of merchandise. (Trade agreements with Mexico meant there was no or little duty to be paid). But it hadn't been easy. Getting even this small amount of booty together had taken all her reserves of patience, ingenuity and charm.

For a start, the factories proved unpredictable to deal with. "I once rang a factory to ask if they made plastics, meaning the great Fifties sheeting I saw everywhere, and they just said: 'Plastic - yes, yes, come.' When I got there, I found they made plastic limbs."

When she found out that the bright plastic baskets in the markets were made by prisoners, she tracked them down to Penitenciaria Ixcotel, the local prison in Oaxaca, and gained access to the inmates.

"The first time I went was quite scary," she admits. "I was searched and had my passport taken from me. Then I was introduced by the local chief of police to the prison warden and left in a room with bars. The prisoners all came to show me what they were making and stuffed their hands through the bars at me. I didn't know what they were in for, and still don't ask."

These days all the prisoners know her, and she goes into their cells and trades regularly with those weaving her baskets. She sends her orders to the chief warden.

"The prisons are microcosms of society there," she says. "There's a market in the prison which sells cigarettes, fruit, vegetables and tortillas. The prisoners work so they can pay their rent, and once a month their wives and women are allowed in for sex. It's all quite civilised."

But factories and prisons aren't her only suppliers. Emma sourced some brightly coloured plastic chairs to a man with 12 children in a remote seaside village. The family make the chairs by hand in a garage that overlooks the sea. Her religious paraphernalia comes from churches, and the strange talismans she sells from a coven of witches who live on a rubbish tip outside Mexico City.

It wasn't just sourcing the products that proved a challenge. "Mexicans love doing business, but only in a very hands-on, word-of-mouth sort of way. For instance, they won't send faxes, so when I was there I would often get five men in suits arriving at my hotel unannounced to hand me a piece of paper."

"On the whole, they are very charming people," she continues. "But you have to watch out. I'd often ask someone to do something, and they'd say: 'Yes, fine.' Later I'd find they hadn't done it and the reply would be: 'I know I said yes, but I was lying.' You can't argue with that."

A year, many headaches and a lot of groundwork later, Emma feels her contacts are now about as reliable as they are going to get, and she has an agent based in Mexico to keep an eye on her product orders. Her hand- picked and hard-won bags, baubles and kitchen utensils have become a hit with the design-conscious. Red or Dead, Paul Smith, Whistles, the Conran Shop and the Designers Guild are all on her client list. Kitsch style diva Paula Yates has even been photographed with one of her plastic shopping bags.

"It's the retro look," Emma says. "Everybody's into it at the moment." She dislikes the tag "ethnic". "I don't sell Mexican culture," she insists. "My stuff is bright, well designed and fresh, and it doesn't look Third Worldy. Ethnic things look ugly. Who wants a piece of mouldy old wood?"

She is also adamant that she isn't exploiting the Third World. "Mexicans are born traders," she says. "Whenever I go there, there are two things they want to know first. What's my marital status, and what do I want to buy?"

Watching Emma narrate a segment of a recent BBC2 Travel Show on Mexico, it was hard to picture hertramping all over industrial estates in urban Mexico to haggle with witches and turn down plastic limbs. These days she seems more in tune with the laid-back Mexican temperament and speaks good bartering Spanish.

But, like any trendsetter, Emma is already thinking of moving on to fresh pastures. "I'm going out to the East at the end of this year." she says. "I want to go to all the places which make great things out of plastics."

Emma Bernhardt's products are on sale at the Conran Shop, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3, and Graham & Greene, 4 Elgin Crescent, London W11, among others;

for more stockists call 0171-266 5522.

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