Fashion label Maiyet commits to help ethnic craftsmen who make its goods

MoralFashion label Maiyet is committed to providing economic sustainability for the artisans whomake its goods, writesDivia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:27pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:27pm

Ethical fashion has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, thanks to high-profile brands like Edun and Suno, and advocates such as Stella McCartney and Livia Firth.

But pioneering brand Maiyet is redefining the category entirely with an innovative business model that is also adding luxury into the mix.

Launched in October 2011, the New York-based label is the brainchild of renowned human rights lawyer Paul van Zyl, social entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky, and fashion industry veteran Kristy Caylor.

The mission is simple: to create an international luxury brand that also promotes sustainability, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship in developing economies by celebrating their craftsmanship and artisans.

"We are representing the next generation of global craftsmen by recovering valuable crafts that are trapped, at the risk of extinction, or haven't been cultivated properly in the past 100 years," says president and co-founder Caylor.

Caylor recently took over as the brand's creative director, too. To stand up on its own, Maiyet had to create a product that would resonate with customers, irrespective of the social cause behind it.

"Our products have to be beautiful, with a point of view and design integrity. It's not just about promoting a craft; other people had tried that, and it wasn't a game I wanted to play," Caylor says.

"I knew if we did not succeed as a brand on our own, the artisans wouldn't survive either. It was not about marketing the cause; the brand needed to succeed first as a business.

"It's about giving the customer something handcrafted, rare and unique, which is what I think is the definition of luxury."

Maiyet straddles the worlds of social responsibility and high style. The designs, which are unveiled at Paris Fashion Week twice a year, are an ode to modern, yet minimalist, luxury.

The light and airy spring-summer 2014 collection includes silk shirtdresses decorated with silver metallic embroideries and paired with hand-woven jacquard metallic shorts or miniskirts. Translucent slip dresses and tops feature bird prints, while sheer long gowns are worn over silk bras and miniskirts for a modern take on red carpet dressing.

"Our design approach isn't OTT or flourished. It's easy and clean, but there's an organic and bohemian vibe that's contemporary," says Caylor.

Behind each design is a bigger story. Each look embodies a rare niche craft that has been injected with a fashionable edge.

There is, for example, block printing from Jaipur, batiks from Indonesia, Shibori hand dyeing from Japan, embroideries from Ahmedabad, and handwoven silks from Varanasi.

"When we started, we cross-referenced Paul's knowledge of socially impacted places with my knowledge of craft to figure out where to go to make the most significant contribution from a sustainable employment perspective," she says.

"We also tried to find beautiful crafts that grow a brand. We wanted to find entrepreneurs who understood these techniques, but were willing to move them into the modern world to survive."

Caylor's strong fashion background has played an instrumental role in defining the brand's course. She began her career at GAP, followed by stints at Banana Republic and men's brand, Band of Outsiders.

At GAP she took over accessories and focused on creating a more effective business model for ethical endeavour called Product (RED), where she found a love of craft.

"After that, I joined Mercado Global, a fair trade company based in Guatemala," she says. "I worked with indigenous artisans and guided product development. I was exposed to the hands-on process of making things in difficult and challenging situations.

"I discovered an incredible sense of human spirit that was inspiring and wonderful, and made me realise that I wanted to create something that has a story and meaning."

Maiyet's designs may reimagine long-lost crafts, but their modern aesthetic has received praise from editors around the world. After just two years Maiyet is stocked by 45 luxe retailers, including Barneys New York, and Net-a-Porter, where it has just launched an exclusive capsule collection.

Interestingly, the designs are created by a team of seven designers who have worked with brands like Céline and Saint Laurent. Each collection begins with an aesthetic direction before the artisans are then commissioned to create the necessary fabrics and materials.

"We want to create designs that are beautifully crafted and executed and not costumey and ethnic," says Caylor. "We start from a point of inspiration, then create a colour palette, shape and volume, all while knowing what our artisans can do. We respect the technique, but innovate it. [The artisans] are our tool kit, but the real inspiration comes from the team. We are like mad scientists in a lab."

Despite the high price point (tops start at about HK$4,000 and dresses can go up to HK$15,000), the brand has resonated with a younger generation looking for a new meaning of luxury.

"As a generation, they are more caring and conscious so they connect with the social story. Across the board, we appeal to a strong adventurous woman. They travel a lot, see the world, know what they like, but are excited to have discovered something new," says Caylor.

As with any social endeavour, transparency and authenticity is key, although Maiyet encourages customers to discover their story at their own pace. While the brand's website features educational videos that detail the company's ethical stance, it's never used as a marketing tool.

"We tell a story that's very robust and deep, but you can participate at any level. You can love and buy it, then learn about the story later. People can come along at any portion of the journey with us, which I think is a modern concept," says Caylor.

The real reward is seeing the impact Maiyet has on the 12 communities it works with. To ensure that these are executed properly, the company has entered a strategic partnership with non-profit organisation Nest, which is dedicated to training and developing the artisan businesses.

"We try to grow these communities with us, and share the fruits of our labour from runway images to editorial. Long-standing relationships are important, and we want to see people grow in scale as we grow our business," she says.

"One of my favourite stories comes from this husband and wife team in Kenya who create our hand-poured jewellery. They started working with us from the beginning, out of their tiny home which houses their workshop and 10 children.

"We gave them a no-interest loan to build a new home, so they now have a bigger workshop where they can train apprentices. It's an opportunity for the next generation to participate in a heritage craft where they didn't want to in the past," says Caylor.

Earlier this year, Maiyet opened its first boutique in New York. Is Caylor hoping that Maiyet will start a revolution in the fashion world? "I don't think we will be the catalyst for overall industry change, but if we can start changing the conversation, it's exciting," she says.

"All brands should work sustainably, it shouldn't be a fad. Luxury and fashion can be done in a way that has a deeper connection to the world, while still providing a compelling proposition to the customer.

"You don't have to sacrifice either. Our greatest day will be when our contemporaries source this way," she says.

Maiyet goes exclusive for Net-a-Porter

Although the brand has no physical outlets in Hong Kong, it is available online. Maiyet has created an exclusive collection for Net-a-Porter featuring batik from Indonesia.

"Maiyet's designs stand on their own. It just so happens that there's an amazing story behind the brand. For us it's about supporting the artisanship and bringing a new type of luxury to our customers that has virtues and values," says Lisa Bridgett, global sales and marketing director for Net-a-Porter.

The nine-piece collection of shoes, handbags and apparel features an intricate handcrafted print. Among the easy-to-wear boho styles are a classic V-neck dress in shades of red and a 1970s-inspired, long-sleeved sheer maxi dress.