By  on May 9, 2013

Let’s circle back to Maiyet, the indie fashion label that materialized on the high-fashion scene for spring 2012 with a curious backstory. Maiyet resolves to institute social change in underdeveloped countries through the sale of luxury merchandise. Immediately, it had all the right steps in place, securing an exclusive with Barneys New York, a spot on the Paris Fashion Week calendar and a campaign with Daria Werbowy, with KCD handling public relations.

The improbably high-profile intrigue for a virtually unknown label is increasing. Tonight, Maiyet and its nonprofit partner Nest are holding a dinner, cohosted by Freida Pinto, Wendy Schmidt and Barneys, at the Consulate General of India in New York, to reveal their latest endeavor: a “facility” — otherwise known as a factory — in Varanasi, India, designed by no less a star architect than David Adjaye. Ground is scheduled to break this fall, and the building will house a minimum of 25 Varanasi silk weavers, with room for up to 100 once the business scales. In addition to upgrading and centralizing operations for the weavers, who typically work from home, the complex will bring together craftsmen from neighboring Muslim and Hindu villages, and address the gender needs of Muslim communities, in which men and women do not work alongside each other. All of these points were drilled home by Maiyet founder and chief executive officer Paul van Zyl and president and creative director Kristy Caylor, along with Adjaye during a series of phone interviews earlier this week.

For the uninitiated, Maiyet’s tony, bohemian-minimalist designs are the result of a core belief that the luxury world can turn to the third world for its craft and artisan skills but only in a symbiotic way. In cooperation with Nest, Maiyet works with craftsmen in areas of economic and political conflict, like Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, South Sudan and South Africa, to build their businesses. Nest connects the craftsmen with a client — in this case, Maiyet — who then work together to create a long-term business plan, thus nurturing community, economics, etc., on a local level. One of Maiyet’s pet resources has been Varanasi silk, a 600-year-old tradition particular to that area of India, that van Zyl and Caylor maintain would die out without their help.

It’s purely coincidence that the news of this upscale Indian facility, which will ultimately be owned by Nest, comes as the Bangladesh factory catastrophe has brought the disastrous working conditions of India to the forefront of Western conscious. Maiyet and Nest work exclusively with artisans, which are, as van Zyl pointed out, by definition the opposite of mass production. “What we’re trying to do with this facility is say there is an alternative model to a hyper-exploitative, squeeze-people-for-every-penny approach to apparel production. This is predicated on trying to find ways to add value instead of squeeze out efficiencies,” said van Zyl. “There is a place in every industry for mass product. That doesn’t absolve people who are involved in mass from the responsibility of paying living wages and allowing people to work in humane working conditions.” He added that Nest audits the craftsmen they source from to establish living wages and assess the value of their skill so they can compete in a global luxury market. 

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Maiyet’s collection retails from $600 to $2,500. Given that artisan wares at any level are not known to be major moneymakers, the factory project, and Maiyet in general, raises a few questions. Number one: Who is paying for it? The answer is some very impressive people. Van Zyl disclosed that Schmidt, wife of Google’s Eric Schmidt; Richard Branson; Jochen Zeitz, director of Kering, and the venture capital firm Double Bottom Line are among Maiyet’s primary investors. As for Nest, it is a fully philanthropically funded venture with major contributions coming from the Swedish Postcode Lottery. Connecting it all is van Zyl, a South African who found his way into fashion via an unusual path. A former human rights lawyer, he’s worked as an executive of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which deals with postapartheid issues. He started the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York and was named a young global leader for the World Economic Forum. He has deep experience in bridging high-profile worlds to achieve results — and get attention.

Van Zyl brought Adjaye on board through a mutual friend who had worked with the architect on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. A meeting was arranged and six weeks later Adjaye was touring sites in Varanasi with the Maiyet and Nest teams. Finding a plot of land proved a feat itself, requiring negotiations — some of which are ongoing — with 19 different land owners to get the desired location, according to Nest founder Rebecca van Bergen. 

“It isn’t just building a functional utilitarian workshop, because that’s not in keeping with the spirit of Maiyet,” said van Zyl, who notes that the enterprise is grounded in preserving an ancient craft. “We can use this opportunity to build a shrine to this way of making silks, to celebrating the skill, and there’s no better person on the planet than David Adjaye to do this in a smart and appropriate way, and put it on the map.”

In addition to designing glamour projects such as the private homes of Alexander McQueen and art collector Adam Lindemann and his wife Amalia Dayan, as well as the Proenza Schouler store on New York’s Madison Avenue, Adjaye is drawn to jobs with a civic agenda. “In light of visiting a lot of commercial spaces, which are usually put together almost as though you’re doing a favor to the workers in these environments, it was shocking and thrilling to me that we could make something that was a place of community,” said Adjaye. “[We wanted to] create a common destination between these villages. My work is very interested in how social and cultural issues are negotiated.”

He is presumably also interested in making the building aesthetically pleasing. In considering the way male and female spaces would be laid out, Adjaye came up with a model that uses separate verandas and courtyards. The look will be influenced by the local architecture of the Hindu and Muslim villages.

If all goes according to plan, the factory will be completed by summer 2014. A press release drew attention to some of the project’s highlights, including its use of solar power and renewable energy resources and being a source of clean water for multiple villages. It is “not just a factory, but a space to provide social services such as day care, health clinics and healthy lifestyle classes,” the release noted.

All of this sounds timely and essential, particularly in light of the ongoing problem in Bangladesh. But the story does not end with erecting a clean and relatively luxurious workplace — there must be business to sustain it. Maiyet’s volume is tiny — Barneys New York and Net-a-porter are its main retail partners and the collection is carried in about 40 doors globally. In its first season, Maiyet ordered about 50 running meters of silk from Varanasi weavers, a figure that’s currently up to about 1,000 meters a season. While van Zyl and Caylor are dedicated to growing Maiyet’s collection (Barneys is promoting an exclusive capsule line of Varanasi silk pieces in its stores now), they are also invested in working with Nest to link the factory with more clients. Nest also works with Feed, Reef, Timberland and Lord & Taylor.

“It’s not sustainable if you invest in this infrastructure for people who make things that nobody buys,” said van Zyl. “The real power of the model is saying that what these artisans need is a little bit of training and support. Then Maiyet will support them by buying from them and then the circle of philanthropy will kick in.”

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