Oct 2, 2012
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Style with a conscience at Maiyet show in Paris

Oct 2, 2012

PARIS - The silk was from Varanasi, the jewellery from Kenya, and the look right on trend as Maiyet -- a socially-conscious new luxury brand -- showed its latest ready-to-wear line at Paris Fashion Week on Monday.

Maiyet - SS 2013 / Photo: PixelFormula

Embroidered silks, block prints, fluid pants, coloured little leather jackets and exquisite jewels, Maiyet's spring look felt both feminine and contemporary, sent out by its US designer Gabriella Zanzani.

Named after the Egyptian goddess of harmony, Maiyet bills itself as a new kind of luxury brand, discovering and partnering with craftsmen from around the world to cater to a savvy global fashion market.

The two-year old firm is the brainchild of South African human rights lawyer Paul Van Zyl.

After working on the post-Apartheid truth and reconciliation commission, Van Zyl spent eight years travelling the globe, working in countries trying to build similar initiatives.

"I saw that the artisans in these countries had an incredible skill, and I thought that skill was underused. It was trapped in the local market," he told AFP ahead of the off-calendar show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

So he hit upon the idea of a fashion brand that would harness that potential.

To do so he teamed up with social entrepreneur Daniel Lubetsky and fashion industry veteran Kristy Caylor, and together they travelled the world, visiting 25 cities in six months, from Indonesia to Africa, Peru or India.

Today Maiyet employs 250 artisans worldwide, sourcing textiles in India, hand-knit sweaters in Peru, horn, bone and hand-poured brass in Kenya -- where its 15 local artisans were until now churning out salad tongs.

"Our philosophy is: 'You have an amazing skill, and if somebody can give you some more training, and more design direction, then it gives you the opportunity to sell your products at a higher price'," explained Van Zyl.

-- The weavers asked for a subscription to Vogue --

In the Indian holy city of Varanasi, for instance, this meant working to improve the conditions of traditional weavers, in partnership with the non-profit artisan training and development organisation NEST.

"When we first met them they wove everything at home. When the monsoon comes the roofs leak, the water drips onto the loom, and they can only work for a few hours a day."

Maiyet - SS 2013 / Photo: PixelFormula

Maiyet started by building a modern air-conditioned facility for its artisans to weave under, and offered training to teach them modern patterns better suited to the global market.

According to Maiyet's figures there are 90,000 weavers out of work in Varanasi, their traditional business flawed by cheap competition from industrial Chinese-made silk.

"Our view is, these people have an incredible skill but if they have to just hand weave at home the industry will die," said Van Zyl.

The net result, in Varanasi, is that from an initial 50 metres Maiyet has been able to increase its seasonal order to 600 metres, having sent in a Swiss expert who helped the weavers drastically improve their silk quality.

Maiyet asks its workers to set their own wages, with NEST acting as a monitor to ensure fair standards. It is also unusual in that it observes a principle of non-exclusivity with its artisans.

"Because we genuinely want you to be empowered," Van Zyl explained. "If somebody else comes and wants to source with you, we say fine."

That said, the label's founders are quite clear this is no charity.

"It has to be about the product first," said Caylor. "Even though we are doing the most beautiful thing with the people we work with."

Caylor tells a little story that sums up the spirit of the scheme: when a pair of Maiyet silk shorts were pictured in Vogue, they showed the page to the head of their team in Varanasi.

"He was so excited, he showed the Vogue article to all the weavers," she said. And when Maiyet came to ask him about his training needs, he was quite clear on the three things he most wanted:

"English classes, a new computer and a subscription to Vogue."by Sandra Lacut

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