Maxine Bédat and Soraya Darabi bonded in high school in Minneapolis over their shared international background — rare in the Midwest. After high school, the two split ways; Darabi pursued a career in digital and later worked at Condé Nast and The New York Times before co-founding the site Foodspotting, which was acquired this year by Open Table.
Meanwhile, Bédat worked in international development, and during a position at the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal, saw first-hand how beautiful craft was being squashed under globalization. She started the Bootstrap Project, an organization that helps keep traditional craftsmanship alive.
Now Bédat and Darabi are combining their skills to launch the new shopping site Zady. Customers can peruse gorgeous clothing and accessories, plus learn about where they were made, what they were made of, and by whom. Imagine a mother-daughter duo making purses from Tuscany leather or coats made in Massachusetts from Canadian wool.
The company is starting with 35 carefully selected brands for the launch, and will be adding more makers from there. It’s all part of the conscious-consumer movement, a backlash against the rise of fast fashion, clothing that falls apart after the first wear, and working conditions like those at the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April. The upside is that every product you find on Zady is impeccably constructed to last so long, you’ll someday reverently pass it down to your granddaughter.
We sat down with the two well-dressed, do-good entrepreneurs for a chat about the shot they’re firing across the fashion industry’s bow.
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SD: "We came up with the idea over coffee in Minnesota when we were both visiting our families for the holidays. Over the next few months, we started emailing each other articles back and forth. We were really excited to dig into the world of supply chain and understand why, since our parents’ generation, has 95% of production been moved overseas."
"We saw a problem to solve. We were looking for stylish-but-also-sustainable clothing to buy. We had outlets for it, no doubt. But it was a little bit here and a little bit there. We decided to make a hub for women like ourselves, and also men, and make it accessible, so that the products appeal to a really wide audience. Even though they’re fashionable, they’re not necessarily on the cutting edge of fashion. They’re classic, beautifully constructed pieces that can live in your closet for years."
How hard is it right now to find and buy ethical clothing?
MB: "There are those pockets of beautifully made product that still exists, whether it’s in Nashville, Tennessee, where they’re making jeans, or Pennsylvania, where they make beautiful shirts, or Italy, where Alice*D bags are made. It’s just a matter of finding them and bringing them on board."
There are other ethical boutiques online. What distinguishes Zady from these other sites?
MB: "We’re putting style first. When we think something is stylishly made, it’s going to last in your closet longer. You’re less likely to throw it out, and it’s less likely to end up in a garbage pile somewhere. If something is stylish, it’s made from the best material. It’s constructed well by people who have been honing their craft tradition for generations. So, the style drives the ethics. That’s where we differentiate ourselves."
How do you choose the brands you want to work with? What do you look at?
MB: "A bunch of things. The first is the style. Do we think it complements the Zady look? For women that’s 'continental chic,' and for men it’s 'urban rugged.' The next question we’ll ask a brand is, 'Where is your product made?' That’s where about 99% get cut off, because they won’t know, or it will be a really vague answer. And, then for the brands we ultimately choose, they’ll sign a contract with us stating where their raw materials come from, where they manufacture, and where they are located. In terms of what we’re looking for in the product: Is it made from the best material that it can be made from? Is there a handmade component that makes it particularly special? Is it locally sourced? Is there some other green component like organic cotton or vegetable dyes?"
Tell us more about the Bootstrap Project and how it relates to Zady.
MB: "We see the Bootstrap Project as a sister organization and part of the same movement. For any of our brands and our makers, we’re really looking for pieces that have these traditions that have been passed down for generations. And on the Bootstrap side of things, we’re working with artisans in the early stage, trying to revive their craft traditions and teach other makers so that traditions can continue. And 5% of proceeds on Zady go back to the Bootstrap Project. The one really fuels the other. The customers can feel really good about the fact that they are contributing to other artisans around the world."
People charge that ethically made clothing is more expensive. Is that true?
MB: "It’s more expensive than fast fashion, but that’s only something we’ve gotten used to in the past five years. At Zady, we’re thinking about cost per use rather than what the tag says. If you can wear something a 100 or 200 times, the cost per use makes it a much better deal than the $5 T-shirt."
SD: "Certain prices will be comfortable. We sell these beautiful shirts from Small Trades made in Dutch Country Pennsylvania that are $60. They’re hand sewn, made from Made-in-America knitting machines that are 40 years old. They’re so durable — I could live in this striped shirt."
"There are items are at a higher price point, but they’re a better alternative. Our Alice*D bags are made in Milan by a mother-and-daughter duo, Alicia and Donatella. The leather is Tuscan, the softest leather you’ll ever touch. We sell the bag for $425 to $450. But when I wore this in New York for the first time — because these aren’t sold in the U.S. yet — a woman stopped me and asked me if it was a Céline tote."
So, you think consumers are willing to pay more for ethically made clothing and accessories?
MB: "I think particularly in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse [in Bangladesh], people are beginning to wake up and feel really uncomfortable with the current state of fast fashion and are looking for a change."
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SD: "A year ago Maxine and I decided to become what we jokingly refer to as clothetarians. (We really, really need a better word.) We needed to know where our products came from. We either sold to vintage shops or gave away to friends items in our closet that we had question marks around. Since then, we’ve probably bought less but bought better."
MB: "The experience of shopping now is so much better, because I don’t go into a store because I’ve had a bad day. Fast fashion was the equivalent of a Diet Coke, which tastes good but doesn’t make you feel great later. You could pick something up and bring it home and feel good for maybe an hour, but clothes would just amass in your closet and you have no where to put them. Instead, now when we do buy things, it’s a really positive experience. We feel like we’re curating our closets for the long haul."
Have you given up on trying to keep up with trends?
SD: "Yes and no. We might love that, for instance, grunge is making a comeback — so says all the September issues. We love the look of a good men’s flannel shirt on a woman. But that’s also a classic. We sell those shirts, and men can wear them for years, and years, and years, and you can just borrow that from your brother or boyfriend’s closet and throw it on. But, when it comes to, 'tomorrow it’s neon gold and the next day is navy blue,' we’re probably less concerned than others about that immediate fix."
How do you keep yourself from cheating and buying something that you don’t know where it comes from?
MB: "You know, I just walked into a fast fashion retailer — I was early for a meeting — and everything looked like plastic to me, whereas before I thought everything looked so cool. So, actually, I’m not good at holding onto a diet or not eating candy, but staying away from fast fashion has been easy."
What brand are you wearing over and over right now?
MB: "There’s one brand I’m excited about wearing as soon as it gets colder. That’s Cashmere Revolution. Beautiful, beautiful cashmere sweaters out of Italy, in classic but modern shapes. And, I love our Peace Treaty scarves."
SD: "I love my Small Trades shirt so much. We sell them in four different designs. I wear those on rotation; they just work so well. You can dress them up and dress them down. Six generations of one family have been overseeing this factory, so I wear those shirts with pride."
Where do you see the fashion industry going in the next five or 10 years?
SD: "We wouldn’t be starting this business if we didn’t think we were just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of different pockets of communities of people who are becoming increasingly conscious. We want Zady to be the destination for those people, but we think there will be multiple destinations."
MB: "Certainly, for fast fashion retailers to survive in this environment, they’re going to have to change. Or be irrelevant."