While the recent tragedies in Bangladesh's garment factories are a reminder of how far the retail industry has to go in terms of reform, it's important to highlight those rare stories of fashion brands that do support the communities they work in. The latest project from Maiyet, the creation of a state-of-the-art weaving facility in Varanasi, India, to preserve the ancient silk-weaving tradition there, is one such story.
In case you need a refresher, Maiyet is a unique luxury label that partners with artisans in developing communities across the globe (Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, and Peru) to create high-end designs (it is stocked at Barneys) while promoting sustainable business growth. It's not an easy thing to maintain a social mission and produce designs that sell on the floors of Barneys.
At a star-studded dinner at the Consulate General of India last week to celebrate the Varanasi Project, Barneys' COO Danielle Vitale admitted that she and the buying team were uneasy when they first heard about Maiyet. Then they saw the product and bought the whole collection. Barneys is currently selling a Maiyet capsule collection made entirely from Varanasi silk.
Maiyet has sourced hand-woven silk from artisans in Varanasi, a place which has the distinction of being the oldest living city on earth, since the brand's inception a little less than two years ago. When Maiyet's co-founders, human rights lawyer Paul van Zyl and industry vet Kristy Caylor, made their first trip to Varanasi they bought 50 meters of silk. Last season they used 1000 meters. While Maiyet continues to employ these skilled craftspeople, the unique weaving tradition is threatened by poor working conditions (most weavers work out of their homes which leak during the four-month long monsoon season) and competition from cheap knock-offs from the far-east. So Maiyet partnered with Nest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and developing artisan businesses, to create a permanent weaving facility in Varanasi designed by starchitect David Adjaye.
"Maiyet wanted to produce silk in Varanasi but all of their artisans were working from their homes, the monsoons were leaking through their roofs, ruining the fabric, so there were a lot of quality control issues," Nest co-founder and executive director Rebecca van Bergen said. "So we did focus groups with the artisans to figure out a model that would help a lot of those issues and we decided on a centralized facility. Nest is raising the philanthropic dollars to help the artisans develop that facility and then Maiyet will be the purchasing power to ensure that that facility isn't just a beautiful monument."
"I think that artisan businesses need to level the playing field so they can better compete in the marketplace, so that brands have options besides using huge facilities that don't have the safety controls in place," van Bergen added. "Bangladesh is a perfect example of why we do what we do."
If the turn out at last week's dinner is any indication--Freida Pinto, Seth Meyers, and Christiane Amanpour were among the attendees who lined the candle-lit Varanasi silk-lined banquets in the ballroom of the Consulate General of India--this project will succeed with the support of all the right people.
"What I love about the brand is their philosophy--what they're trying to achieve and what they are doing goes beyond fashion," Freida Pinto said. "It's philanthropy--but not in the way that they're the white knight that came in and saved the people from Kenya or India. They don't have this 'mightier than thou attitude'--they're going in and they're saving something that could potentially be extinct."
The project has a personal connection for Pinto, too. "I understand these looms--my grandmother and mother still own saris from them--and to imagine that a couple of years down the line they might not exist--it's horrible."