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.

April 10, 2013

The real test will be whether the com­pany can scale its unique busi­ness model in the years to come.

See the full story in the influ­en­tial fash­ion trade The Busi­ness of Fash­ion here.

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Maiyet Spring/​Summer 2013 cam­paign | Source: Maiyet

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.

Maiyet LogoSince 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.