Goods Doing Good: Sustainable Luxury at Maiyet

Maiyet is paving the way for sustainable luxury through partnerships with artisans around the world.

When looking at this photograph from Paris fashion week:

Maiyet Paris Fashion Week 2013

… not many of us think of this:

Maiyet Silk Factory

I will be the first to admit that despite my love of (and occasional indulgence in) design and luxury goods, I rarely think about where these items originated. In what country were they made? How were they made and in what conditions? Who made them and how are they being compensated for their work? Where did the artisans learn these specialty techniques? Enter Maiyet:  a relatively-young luxury fashion label that partners with artisans in emerging economies around the world to create unique, high-end designs while at the same time promoting sustainable business practices and growth.

Maiyet was founded in 2010 by Paul van Zyl (Co-Founder and CEO), Kristy Caylor (Founder and President), and Daniel Lubetzky (Founder). Between van Zyl’s background as a lawyer and human rights activist, Caylor’s prior life in retail goods and socially-conscious missions therein, and Lubetzky’s experience as a lawyer and serial social impact entrepreneur, the team was well-positioned to disrupt the traditional luxury fashion operating model. (Please see attached video for more on Maiyet’s origins:

Let’s start with the artisans. Human capital is central to Maiyet’s deeply-interdependent operating and business models; without the artisans, there is no Maiyet. The team has a process in place to identify and back craftsmen and women in communities where they can scale up, drive positive change, diminish poverty, and empower workers, women in particular. So far, Maiyet has partnerships in India, Kenya, Mongolia, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, Thailand, and Indonesia, and continues to source more opportunities globally. The firm prides itself on its creation of an operating model where it can bring renewed awareness to ancient techniques like batik, bone carving, handloom silk weaving, and block printing. To preserve and enhance its human capital, Maiyet works with artisans to create short- and long-term training and development programs, and after providing fair wages to employees with advance deposits, the firm reinvests a meaningful portion of its profits back into these programs. The firm’s ability to vertically integrate down to the local regions where these crafts are produced has allowed Maiyet to effectively execute and control its core quality and social impact missions.

Stepping back to consider the broader mechanics of the organization, a key driver of Maiyet’s business success is attributable to its integration of key partnerships and collaborators into the business. Maiyet works closely with its non-profit sister organization, Nest, which is dedicated to building sustainable businesses amongst artisans in developing economies, and to helping partners measure double and triple bottom lines through the creation of social and environmental evaluation metrics. Nest brings valuable infrastructure to Maiyet, aiding them in implementing everything from formal reporting and operating systems and processes, to training and leadership development programs for artisan workers. In many of Maiyet’s partner communities, artisans were previously working in deplorable conditions, often from home, which not only was unsafe, but also affected product quality and consistency; Nest and Maiyet have worked together to build several small factories where workers are protected and have access to abundant resources to execute their craft, resulting in increased collaboration, creativity, and consistency in product quality. Each of these workshops is tailored to the specific needs and artisanal techniques of the region, whether that be metalworking in Nairobi, batik-dying in West Java, or jewelry-making in Kenya. See below for a picture of Maiyet’s most recent project, the construction of a silk weaving workshop in Varanasi, India. The design of the building (which, for the record, is also environmentally-friendly) offers artisans not only the resources to produce high quality crafts, but also the space to establish a community and enhance their quality of work and life.

Maiyet New Silk Workshop India

Maiyet’s operating systems have allowed it to connect back to the world of Paris fashion week and luxury goods through partnerships with groups like Warby Parker, projects with Karigars in Mumbai and with FAIR Cashmere in Mongolia, and an exclusive retail partnership with Barneys, raising continued awareness that then feeds back into the intricate system they have built. To expand on this awareness and engage with the broader global community, including individuals like myself who would otherwise be unaware of the mechanics of an operation like this, Maiyet maintains a blog, spreads word through social media, and releases videos that offer insight into the creative process behind its product offerings (please see video below).

Maiyet’s ability to source the right artisans and provide them with the operational infrastructure necessary to effect change in their lives and communities, coupled with its use of processes to streamline output while continuously measuring and expanding social impact, have led to the firm’s successful execution of its business model. Maiyet is a unique outlier, and hopefully continues to be a major influencer, in the world of high-end fashion.




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Student comments on Goods Doing Good: Sustainable Luxury at Maiyet

  1. I enjoyed reading this Selin, I was not aware of Maiyet! Managing to align a business and operating model that is truly focused on a double bottom-line in an industry, where, like many others, the trade-off is often made in favor of profit maximization over sustainable business practices that create true economic value for those at the bottom of the supply chain. Maiyet is definitely challenging the status quo by showing that a luxury brand can make a profit and make an impact doing so, something that more businesses that rely on cheap labor in harsh working conditions in less regulated markets around the world should emulate. This is a very pertinent issue as the world becomes more aware of the pervasiveness of exploitation driven profit maximization and perhaps the transparency of brands like Maiyet will put more pressure on industry peers to adopt better supply chain practices or at least equip customers with the knowledge to demand fairly traded products.

  2. Hi Selin, agree with Sheila on being unaware of this brand prior to your post so thank you for shedding light into it. Reading about their business and operating model reminds me of Gone Rural and a couple of questions come to mind. Given that artisan pieces are so intricate and their value stems from long standing, labor intensive practices I wonder how the scalability of these businesses works out in the long run. If demand catches up to them, how can they ensure that they will be able to source enough artisans within a village or region to mass produce? Also, you mention that Maiyet provides the artisans with operational infrastructure and so I wonder what the right balance is of providing machinery to make artisans’ work easier and more manageable but still allowing them to integrate their long standing techniques and practices in making the product (as we know this is what allows them to charge a hefty price for their goods)? On another point, I am glad that their social reach seeks to create awareness and transparency into the production process of luxury goods. By positioning themselves as an honest company with a social mission and an undeniably high quality product, they are well positioned to gain popularity amongst luxury consumers and maybe even push the industry to follow their business model of socially responsible fashion.

  3. This will be a huge surprise to you, but I know next to nothing about high fashion. This was a fascinating case though. When I first started reading I immediately thought of Gone Rural as Montero mentioned, and I do see a lot of similarities in the business model. Both focus on the business as well as the social, and ultimately do more than simply providing a wage or better working conditions, but empowering the workers and teaching them how to effectively manage their own business. What is really interesting here is that Maiyet seems to compete at a much higher level of fashion. Many organizations like this provide authentic goods or trinkets, but it’s really quite remarkable and speaks to their procurement strategy and assessment that they are finding these workers capable of producing with the best in the world. I wonder how scalable this is when so much rides on the individual producers, but perhaps that is their secret sauce and they have developed standard criteria for what makes a successful artist.

  4. Selin, thank you for such an interesting article! I have not heard of Maiyet, which is surprising because I actually love shopping online and know most of the online retailers. From reading your post, I believe Maiyet has an operating model that allows it to win in high fashion going forward: a unique source of craftsmanship that is unfortunately becoming more and more rare in the world today, a strong component of social impact and community development, and lastly a wide-reaching channel for artisans to share their story. However, I do wonder why it is that I have never heard of Maiyet, and hence have questions around how Maiyet is marketing itself and whether its current positioning as ultra-luxury is the right one. As I scroll through the merchandise that is available on the Maiyet website, it is striking how expensive some of these items are, and my main concern would be that the price point offered only caters to a very exclusive group of consumers. While I do think that it is important to position these artisans’ work as luxury items, a $500+ price tag for a tank-top may deter most shoppers from purchasing it, and hence it is critical for Maiyet to pressure test whether its current positioning is detrimental to both its business model and the social impact that it is trying to deliver.

  5. Selin – I’m jumping on the bandwagon here because I had also not heard of Maiyet and so appreciate your profile! Like the posts before, my immediate thoughts went to scale and managing the growth of the line. For that reason, the “factory” component was definitely interesting and I’d love to learn more about how Maiyet is pairing its training with its infrastructure investments (e.g., how is it choosing locations, what kind of “buy in” do artisans have to offer to become part of the program, and how/by whom are these sites being managed). This could certainly be an interesting business model to challenge the status-quo in a highly competitive industry that is often cited for such poor working conditions in unregulated markets. I hope that the profile of the company can rise in order to bring more attention to what is possible.

    My other thought here is on the pairing of a for-profit and non-profit. Two quick thoughts come to mind: (1) How important is it to be in the ultra-luxury segment? (2) Why does Nest need to be a separate non-profit instead of one integrated organization? On the first point, I would just be curious to investigate how much the profit margin on some of the items, as Cynthia alludes to above, is the only way to make this model functional and therefore perhaps the very thing I hoped for in the first paragraph wouldn’t be possible. On the second, I think this comes back to an initial question Mitch asked us about the role of business vs. philanthropy or public sector. If Nest exists in order to receive and implement philanthropic dollars that could not otherwise flow into the for-profit Maiyet, then I definitely understand. If it is separate just to separate profits (and potentially losses in the non-profit), I would love to challenge that idea to hope that we could prove sustainable and fiscally responsible double bottom line companies are truly possible. It certainly seems like Maiyet has the possibility to do that.

    Thank you for sharing, Selin!

  6. A number of “socially conscious” brands have come under scrutiny for giving money away in Africa but making their products in China, so I love the “teach a man to fish” model here — it’s fantastic to hear about a brand empowering and creating work for those it’s trying to help, rather than merely giving them money / food / things.

    It’s also wonderful to learn about a model that is working hard to sustain local craftsmanship (often dying trades) in various parts of the world. But I think some really pertinent questions have been raised in some of the comments around scalability and price, and thought I’d throw in my two cents.

    I actually think the luxury price-point is an intriguing one and probably where their business and operating models are best aligned. They are offering scarcity and uniqueness, along the lines of Dries Van Noten etc, along with handmade luxury using traditional techniques which puts them up against fabled fashion houses such as Hermes, Bottega Veneta etc. Only difference is the artisans are in Kenya or India rather than French ateliers. The intricate, handmade nature also creates scarcity value, which again makes the most sense at a high price point. But very fair point that since Maiyet is not relying on a legacy brand or designer of its own, it certainly needs to do a better job marketing what it is doing – which is relying on the legacies of the artisans and craft traditions in the regions it’s tapping into.

    The scarcity point is also where I wonder how this all truly breaks down for the artisans. Maiyet has, perhaps, the luxury of not having to worry about scale — by staying firmly in the high-fashion realm, they are incentivized to keep supply low and prices high. But are their incentives actually aligned vs the artisans who may benefit more from slightly lower quality with greater volume? I wonder how Maiyet thinks about fair compensation in this regard.

  7. Hi Selin,
    I have never heard of Maiyet, but this is very interesting business/operating model! I am particularly interested in how to retain artisan globally because it would be one of the important key success factors for Maiyet. On the other hand, I got also curious about how sustainable it is. Good business models will be copied quickly by peers. Can Maiyet keep its competitive advantage? How can they guarantee it? Also, as others mentions above, I think the segment can get broader than luxury. I want to know more about how closely business model (especially value proposition) and operating model are aligned with each other.

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