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The Luxurious Goodness of Maiyet

In the 18 months since its inception, Maiyet has done what other brands have tried and failed to do: fuse a luxury sensibility with ethical credentials. The real test will be whether the company can scale its unique business model in the years to come.
Maiyet Spring/Summer 2013 campaign | Source: Maiyet
  • Suleman Anaya

NEW YORK, United States — Even a short visit to the website of Maiyet, a fashion label based in New York, leaves one with an indelible sense of having come across something remarkable. With striking images of Daria Werbowy in the Indian spiritual capital of Varanasi, educational-style videos highlighting exquisite artisanal techniques, and information on the company's ethical stance, the site reflects a blend of luxury and social consciousness that few fashion brands have been able to nail.

Co-founded in 2011 by Paul van Zyl, a human rights lawyer, Daniel Lubetzky, an entrepreneur, and Kristy Caylor, a former head of merchandising for Gap Accessories and Product RED, Maiyet sources highly specialised and refined craftwork from artisans in off-the-beaten path places around the world, from Nairobi, Kenya and Ahmedabad, India, to the mountains of Peru.

But crucially, Maiyet isn't "sourcing products from the artisans; we are sourcing skills and co-developing products with them that fit into our seasonal vision," Ms Caylor told BoF. This distinction is the crux of the company's business model.

Before Maiyet finds artisans with whom to partner, the label's New York-based design team, composed of staff who have worked for global luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Céline and Saint Laurent, develops a clear, focused creative vision. In fact, at the design stage, Maiyet is not radically different from other luxury fashion brands, establishing a direction for each season using a palette of colours, fabrics, shapes and inspirational references. And despite Maiyet's exotic aura, the brand's creative hub remains in Manhattan, where patterns are made, fittings are held, samples are sown and most of the final product is assembled.

“We are obsessively focused on product and design, and on creating a product offering that is compelling and interesting and sells itself. So the brief for the design team is always ‘produce something that people would buy regardless of Maiyet’s mission.’ Luxury consumers need to be compelled [by the product],” added Van Zyl.

Since its debut at Paris Fashion Week in the Autumn of 2011, the brand's collections have garnered positive reviews, focusing, not on Maiyet's socially conscious mission, but the label's unique combination of high-end polish and exotic craftsmanship. As British Vogue reported last fall, "It wasn't [Maiyet's] ethical, albeit luxury, status that had editors chattering. It was the clothes."

Maiyet’s design credibility does not diminish the seriousness of its ethical mission, however. Van Zyl maintains that he founded the company to “find ways to alleviate poverty and promote stability in places around the world that needed it most by creating a brand that sources skills from these places.”

According to Van Zyl, the artisans with which Maiyet works face a number of specific challenges. “They lack design direction, access to markets, fair financing, the sort of training and rigour required for them to perform at the highest levels of the luxury market,” he said. “We try through our model to offset all of these obstacles, so these craftsmen can turn their skills into viable businesses.”

On how the company measures its social impact, Van Zyl continued: “we track everything from when we start working with people, how much money we give to community, how many pieces we ordered, the improvement in the quality of the pieces, but also how many people are employed. We will measure these things over five years to see how much we’ve been able to steadily grow their business as a result of our initial investment.”

Essential to the effort is Maiyet's partnership with Nest, an independent not-for-profit organisation that specialises in empowering artisans through entrepreneurship and helps Maiyet with local business training and infrastructure upgrades, while ensuring the brand's activities comply with fair wage laws. Maiyet didn't share hard figures on the company's positive social impact, but perhaps, only 18 months after launch, it's too early to tell whether the brand can affect lasting social change.

As for the business, Caylor told BoF that, while the company does not release revenue figures, Maiyet is expanding and sales are evenly split across four fully developed product categories (bags, shoes, ready-to-wear and jewellery) with a broad range of price points — from $450 for entry-level leather-goods to upwards of $10,000 for exclusive fine jewellery pieces — providing a solid foundation for future growth. Indeed, it's rare for any brand, let alone one with an ethical mission, to successfully launch with so many product categories and do it as well as Maiyet.

But while there is little question that the company has got the recipe right when it comes to image and product, does Maiyet have the potential to become a business of real scale?

So far, Maiyet has attracted a small but respectable number of stockists around the world (40 doors) including influential retailers like Luisa Via Roma, Net-a-Porter and Barneys New York, which carried Maiyet exclusively in its first season. The brand is also available through the company’s recently launched e-commerce site and plans to open its first flagship store, on New York’s Crosby Street, in mid-June. Global expansion is on the horizon, as well. “We want to grow the brand’s footprint in both Europe and Asia, both through stores and concessions,” said Caylor.

But as the company grows, managing a distributed supply chain — with decorative components of a single garment coming from craftsmen in several different corners of the world to be assembled in New York and then reshipped globally to wholesalers and consumers — has the potential to pose challenges.

What's more, the highly skilled artisans that Maiyet employs are not available in limitless supply. And when a business is growing, even large brands struggle to adequately source a supply of specialised crafts people. Faced with a shortage of artisans to produce its signature Intrecciato bags, in 2006, Bottega Veneta, which recently crossed over in $1 billion-plus sales, opened a school to train a new generation of leatherworkers.

Maiyet's founders already seem to be thinking about this. The company is currently investing in a climate-controlled, David Adjaye-designed workshop for more than 100 weavers in Varanasi, India, that, according to Van Zyl, will “maximise efficiency and bring the benefits of scale and of centralised organization” to the business.

Still, with the notable exception of Stella McCartney (which, unlike Maiyet, does not rely on artisans as central to its definition of ethical fashion) many similarly positioned ethical-luxury brands have stumbled on a variety of issues, ranging from sourcing to credibility. Ethical fashion takes time and careful calibration to get right.

Maiyet will have to learn from the successes and travails of its peers in order to maintain its current momentum. But based on the strength of its product alone, this is a company whose journey will certainly be interesting to watch in the years to come.

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