"Thinking of luxury from a different perspective." That's the take-away quote that has stuck with me since my conversation with Kristy Caylor, president and one of the founders of Maiyet, a newish brand to the block that well and truly integrates social enterprise with fashion. What's more is that they do it in a way that isn't a self congratulatory pat on the back for their WASP-y philanthropy but that they are really trying to start a conversation about the way we perceive luxury in fashion. Maiyet was founded by Caylor, who has a wealth of experience in companies like Gap and Banana Republic together with human rights lawyer Paul van Zyl and social entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky. That's already quite an unusual trio for a fashion label start up. Caylor first struck the seeds of Maiyet when she was working for another company out in Gautemala and wondered if from little-exposed craft, could a luxury fashion brand be born.
"My first experience working with artisans in an unexpected venue was for a volunteer organisation and I spent some time in Guatemala. It was my first experience of wrapping my head around how to use indigenous craft in a way that feels modern and relevant and having gone through that problem solving with them I knew deeply that it could be done. There's a real opportunity for people to see skills that they haven't seen before if applied in a very current way and that it could be beautiful and outstanding."
Then Caylor and van Zyl embarked on a journey to twenty five cities in six months, covering the continents of India, Africa, South America and parts of Asia to harness craft from specific locations. Then came the real eureka moment. "Consistently, we found these really rare beautiful skills in places where we didn't anticipate finding them. At that moment we realised that if you could elevate and incorporate those skills, you can could succeed at creating luxury from a very different perspective."
The most pertinent question I had in mind when speaking to Caylor was "How?" It's easy to talk up social enterprise and point out the number of ways you are helping out industry in the developing and third world and gloss over the logistics of a sustainable way of working for these artisans. The difference is that Caylor and van Zyl have a real and genuine respect for what these artisans do. The work they are giving these craftsmen isn't whimsical charity. They are well and truly impressed by their skills and ensure that they pick the right people to work with so that they can build businesses out of what they do.
"It's a customised approach in each region and with each artisan group. What we did very well from the beginning was we looked for skills, not products. We found wonderful weavers and they were capable of weaving a variety of different patterns if given the proper design direction. We found carvers and jewellery maker who could make anything we asked to them within certain restrictions. We were very diligent about selecting the artisans. They had to have the desire to work with us from a design perspective. They had to have the ability to work with us and grow with us. They had to work to our brief. That was critical."
This is where the independent non-profit organisation NEST comes in. Maiyet works with NEST to implement training and business development for these artisans whose skills are scalable and can transform a community. Caylor makes a very salient point about sustainability of business, something that they hope to rectify. Effectively, the artisans that work with Maiyet are not exclusive or "owned" by Maiyet and in fact are encouraged to work with other people because at the end of the day, Maiyet wants their businesses to thrive. "We worked with NEST so they can deploy resources, trainers, development, language classes, computer skills – anything that the organisations needed to become more efficient. Too often, people train people in skills and don't find a way to find a way to leverage those skills in the market."
This isn't about forcing lone artisans into producing quantities either. Caylor gives an example where Maiyet and NEST have given a group of out of work artisans, the opportinity to work as well as continuing tradition in an area where their craft has been so fundamental to their livelihood. "In Varanasi, we work with a group of weavers. The weaving is phenomenal. That skill has been around for a thousand years. They've dressed the royal family during the Mughal empire. There are 95,000 weavers and a lot of them are out of work. They work mostly in their homes. That makes it difficult because it rains – it drips on the fabric, they lose electricity, they can't work at night and in the winter it becomes difficult. What we are doing through NEST is build a facility which is climate controlled. They can come together there and we'll have looms there that we keep in good condition. They can work in a healthy environment. We can build the facility to be environmentally sustainable. The dyeing process that we use there will be environmentally sustainable. That's the way we can harness that skill and ensure growth."
Hearing Caylor speak about the different artisan groups she has encountered; everything from brass work in Kenya to block printing in India and jewellery making in Columbia, it's so easy to get swept up in her enthusiasm. It's the experience of knowing and seeing what these people do that makes the final product so rare and truly luxurious because of the way the skill has been harnessed and nurtured. "Every time it's seeing the artisan doing a great job. The motivation they get from the opportunity is very inspiring."
The final question is of course how does this all manifest itself in the collections themselves? The resort collection is currently on sale on Net a Porter and whatever craft has been utilised be it Varanasi woven silk, Indian embroidery and block-printing or horn carving from Kenya, it's the way that craft has been synthesised and filtered so that the pieces don't immediately scream "ETHNIC CRAFT!". It's pairing those artisans with a separate design team, headed up by Gabriella Zanzani at Maiyet, that makes the difference to the final product.
Likewise, the S/S 13 collection shown at Paris Fashion Week has an ease about it that also subtly incorporates world-sourced craftsmenship in a way that is not immediately discernible. They're not tricksy high octane clothes but instead, they're simple silhouettes elevated by the honestly-sourced prints, jewellery or hand-spun detail.
They've also recently enlisted acclaimed director Cary Fukunaga (whose version of Jane Eyre had me blubbering several times on the plane when I watched it) and he has applied his sweeping scenographic eye to Kenya for this little spontaneously-shot short Sleepwalking in the Rift which premiered in London in short trailer-esque vignettes. They create a world that you definitely want a piece of and it affirms the link between those countries where Maiyet's blood and soul resides and their resulting collections. In today's age of noise and duplicity, it truly is a luxury when you've tapped into something that feels honest.