Maiyet, a women’s ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags and jewelry collection named after the Egyptian goddess of truth and harmony, has a pretty impressive team in place, for a label that no one’s heard of.
Lori Goldstein is styling the show, slated for Oct. 2 in Paris, and Barneys New York has agreed to launch the spring line. And two weeks ago, Daria Werbowy was posing seaside at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn for the brand’s online campaign, shot by Cass Bird.
This story first appeared in the September 27, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We are pioneering a new luxury in the way that we make our products,” said Kristy Caylor, Maiyet’s president and chief merchandising officer, on a Saturday morning in the company’s headquarters. “We celebrate the rare and the unexpected, and in doing so have a very significant impact on the world.”
Maiyet’s mission is to create a design-driven fashion line that works with craftsman in areas of economic and political conflict, like Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, South Sudan and South Africa, and build their businesses.
The showroom is a sunny minimalist space located on lower Broadway. Caylor describes the collection’s aesthetic as “if Celine and Dries van Noten had a baby.” Silhouettes are simple with delicate details. There are silk dresses done with a hand-blocked print in Varanasi, brass and horn pendants in the shape of fish that were hand-cast through sand and sugar molds by craftsmen in Kenya, who are still learning the finer points of the trade.
For instance, Caylor recounted how a white Indian blouse was coming out green. “We realized they were using green soap to wash it. So we said, ‘No, just use white soap,” she said. “It’s little things like that.”
The collection will retail for $600 to $2,500.
Maiyet doesn’t have a big name designer. Instead, it’s a team effort. Talent has been recruited from Ralph Lauren, Celine and The Row. Paul van Zyl, Maiyet’s founder and ceo, and Caylor like to say that they have 75 years of experience between them. Caylor has worked for various fashion houses, big and small, most recently as president of Band of Outsiders and previously managed Gap’s Red campaign.
South African native van Zyl’s expertise is from another world entirely. He’s a human rights lawyer who spent the better part of the Nineties as executive of Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which deals with post-apartheid issues.
He then moved to New York and started the International Center for Transitional Justice. He was named a young global leader for the World Economic Forum. Along the way, he’s picked up numerous accolades and cash prizes, including the $1 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2009.
He’s highly skilled at raising capital, including what appears to be no small amount for Maiyet. Van Zyl declined to name his investors but said there are several who wrote checks when he came up with the idea for Maiyet.
“I’ve spent 20 years with mothers whose children have been assassinated, and then went around the world consulting heads of states in countries that had genocide, war crimes,” said van Zyl. “So when I came to do this, my main goal was to say, ‘I don’t want to go to countries all around the world and be there after there has been these terrible sense of conflict and violence.’ You always come in after as some sort of ambulance chaser. What I wanted to try to do is find small artisanal businesses in these communities, so that they have more employment and more value.”
Eighteen months ago, van Zyl and Caylor set off on a world tour, traveling to 25 cities in six months to look for artisans and craftsman off the beaten path — specifically in areas of conflict — who had skills that could be honed for the modern luxury market. Each artisan provides a service and the clothes come back to be assembled and finished either in India or New York, or Italy for shoes.
“Our strategy overall is to get the artisans to do what they’re particularly good at and have the experts do the rest,” said Caylor.
They’re prepared for a little skepticism. Without seeing the production sites firsthand, it’s difficult to grasp how expensive merchandise sold at Barneys can resolve a bloody, cultural conflict between two warring factions, such as Kenya’s Luos and Kikuyus.
“This terrible conflict almost brought the whole country to a stop five years ago,” van Zyl said. “[We work with] a cooperative that employs people from all those different ethnic groups. When the violence occurred in Kenya, the rebels came to the gates of their factory, the people from that ethnic group came up and said, ‘Don’t touch us.’ We find those people, but they have to have a rare and amazing and beautiful skill. These people previously were selling jewelry for $29.99.”
Van Zyl and Caylor are only interested in working with partners who already have a formal business structure. Maiyet has entered a partnership with Nest, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to training and developing artisan businesses.
Representatives from Maiyet’s team visit each partner company at least once each production cycle, for at least a week. They also have liaisons in each region to regulate production.
“It’s a very deep relationship,” says Caylor. “It’s not, ‘Make me a blouse and I’ll see you in five years.’”