Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, Maiyet co-founder, Paul van Zyl, was exposed to an unsettling truth. "From an early age it became apparent that the country I lived in bestowed privilege on you if you were white and tremendous indignities if you were not," he recalls. Galvanized in the hope of effecting change, he settled on becoming a human rights lawyer—the only profession he felt would equip him with practical tools to help his country—and quickly climbed the ranks of a then shaky legal system.
He worked alongside Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to help the country transition from conflict to peace in his role as executive secretary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was later granted 20 million to set up New York-based nonprofit, International Center for Transitional Justice, to help other countries recover from similar mass atrocities, following his masters degree in 2001.
Over the past six years, Paul has brought his human rights perspective to the unlikely realm of women's fashion. Alongside partner Kristy Caylor, he co-founded Maiyet in 2011, the first luxury brand with ethics at its core. So named after the Egyptian goddess of truth and harmony, Maiyet takes a two pronged approach to social and economic change, and turns the notion that eco-fashion is less than fashion on its head. At Maiyet, every collection is made from sustainable materials by artisans in developing countries like Colombia, Burma, India, Kenya, Peru, and more. This enlightened business model promotes employment in the places that need it most, preserves traditional crafts, and has the added benefit of offering high-end consumers the opportunity to shop with a clear conscious. This week on Semaine, Paul outlines his pioneering approach to luxury fashion and reflects on how far the industry has come—and how far it still has to go.
Semaine: What led you to start Maiyet?
Paul: "When I came to the USA to do my masters program and develop the International Center for Transitional Justice, I fell into a community of entrepreneurs who were looking to do good, do well, and contribute to positive change. That's when the idea for Maiyet first came about and I decided to co-found the brand with Kristy. If there's one thing in my life, it's that I want to allow people to live dignified lives, so to source goods and skills from artisans was a clear route for me. Off the back, it means that we’re investing in rare talent and offering people a more decent way of life."
Semaine: Was it hard to make the switch from law to fashion?
Paul: "I had a very low awareness of fashion when we first launched in 2011, but I was driven by a desire to give people the dignity of work and to help those at the bottom of the pyramid. Kristy, however, had a great depth of fashion industry experience, so I was confident that between us we had the required skills."
Semaine: Did you encounter any setbacks during Maiyet's first season?
Paul: "When you try to achieve something difficult and ambitious from two directions, it's inevitably going to be tough. At the time of Maiyet's launch, the human rights space thought that fashion was a trivial and vacuous industry and the fashion industry didn't think that you could build an elevated and chic brand with ethics at its core. Six years on, I think that debate has been resolved and we've proved that there doesn't need to be a tradeoff."
Semaine: What are some of your proudest achievements at Maiyet?
Paul: "We have this really exciting project using cashmere herding in Mongolia. It's the world's first ethically sourced, sustainably produced, Cradle to Cradle certified cashmere. It's incredibly luxurious and pure white because the goats live in a very isolated valley, which means that the yarn dyes beautifully. We use it in our own collections and we've since brought 20 other brands on board to use it in their collections too. If you're wanting to make significant social change on a large scale, you can't keep these things to yourself. You have to get the big name players to make the switch with you."
Semaine: What other changes would you like to see the fashion industry adopt?
Paul: "More ethics at the core industry wide, without a doubt—but I do already think that it's happening. In fashion, the same as in food, people are slowly waking up. Before, you were quirky if you spoke about organic milk, but now everyone wants to know if the meat on their plate is antibiotic-free, so it's gone mainstream. People are increasingly concerned about the ethics of the supply chain and feel the social mission attached to what they're doing, eating, and buying. It doesn't make building a company any less challenging, but every brand from Nike down is having to think about how to reconcile these changes."
Semaine: How can shoppers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds be conscientious consumers?
Paul: "It requires some thinking, but there are a lot of brands at a lower price-point which have great social missions baked into their business model. We did a very successful collaboration with Warby Parker, which was affordable and inexpensive eyewear, and then there are brands like Tom's shoes which is even cheaper, but still has great ethics at its core. I probably get an email a week from a new brand saying that it's inspired by Maiyet’s principles and would I be available for a conversation to help offer some guidance on adopting a more socially-sound business model. As much as I can, I say ‘yes,’ because I think that we can all effect change more easily with the generosity of others."
Semaine: What do you see as the fashion industry's biggest challenges moving forward?
Paul: "The fashion industry is going through a real revolution. Profoundly disruptive forces are changing the way that it works and multi-brand boutiques are really under siege. The move to online retail has changed the way that people shop and the recent buy-now, wear-now phenomenon is making the antiquated four season runway system look like it doesn't make any sense. We started Maiyet six years ago and all the rules from then have already been re-written. If you don't adapt as a business, you die, so everyone from Ralph Lauren to Macy's is having to readjust and redefine to remain relevant to the new generation of consumers. In some ways it's scary and in some ways it's exciting, because rules being re-written allows for seismic change."
Semaine: What's next for Maiyet?
Paul: "We will continue to embrace as many collaborations and artisans as we can. In particular, I'm really excited about our work with Turquoise Mountain, which sources jewelry from Myanmar in Burma. We have already released a small range of rings and bracelets called The Good Karma collection and I'm looking forward to deepening and pursuing that partnership. They source rare spinel stones and hand forge gold into ancient symbols meant to bring good luck to the people who wear them."
Semaine: Are you concerned or optimistic about the future of fashion?
Paul: "We live in an entrepreneurial moment: People are coming together and harnessing their powers to incubate a series of really amazing changes—in the fashion industry, the human rights world, and beyond. If we all try to live a life which maximizes opportunities for others, withstanding all challenges, real change is in our grasp. In the last 50 years of human history that's not always been the case, so I am excited for the future."
By Elsa de Berker for Semaine.