Soraya Darabi on Ethical E-Commerce, Storytelling, and Zady.Com
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mother and daughter who just love Italian fashion, and who partnered with a fourth-generation tannery in Northern Italy that uses vegetable tanned leather and craftspeople, expert makers, who have made bags for luxury houses all over Italy.
The Lucy jeans line by Imogene + Willie ($145-$218) is hugely popular. Again a great story: The founders are Carrie and Matt, a husband and wife team from Henderson, KY. They met in the fifth grade at a pool party and Matt said that Carrie was his first taste of freedom at age 10. Twenty years later they reconnected, got married, moved to Nashville, and with their family opened a denim line called Imogene + Willie, named after her grandparents. They refurbished an old gas station into a really cool shop. You can walk in as a tourist, as I did very recently, have a glass of lemonade and watch the jeans being made.
X: Describe how you’ve built out your business.
SD: For the first nine months of business, we did not spend a cent on marketing. Instead we used the stories of the makers to get the word out about all the different products, as well as creating our own original content on Zady.com. We publish stories that don’t necessarily push products, but rather speak to our brand ethos and our mission—our mission being the “slow fashion movement” and the idea that items made well and made to last is what we should be buying— buying fewer but better things.
Then partnerships emerged. We were able to, through a partnership, take out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal declaring “Fast Fashion is Fast Food,” and it became a trending topic on the East Coast and Twitter.
X: Your products come from all over the world. How do you maintain your high standards for validating worker safety and sustainability and these other hallmarks of high quality that pervade your marketing?
SD: More than 50 percent of our products are made in the U.S. Quite a few are made in Europe, Northern Asia, Latin America. We only partner with nonprofits, cooperatives, or companies with fair labor laws. So you won’t see products typically from countries that don’t have those laws in place.
We’ve partnered with companies [and suppliers] that seem to really believe in our ethos of craftsmanship and high quality. We carry bags from Italy, cashmere scarves from Nepal, beautiful products from Zambia through the Bootstrap Project [the nonprofit partner that receives 5 percent of all Zady sales], gorgeous homemade alpaca hats from Peru. We’ve visited companies in Milan, in Dutch Country Pennsylvania, in California.
X: How many staffers do you have?
SD: We’re a team of seven [all in New York.] We also use quite a few consultants and five interns.
X: Has it been possible to visit the source of every product you sell?
SD: No, it’s impossible to visit all. As much as possible, we try to get some documentation. We find products that we believe are made fairly and ethically and locally, and we give these brands certificates of authenticity to sign. We ask them to cite where the raw materials for the item come from, where the item was designed, and where it was manufactured. Then we ask them to follow up with photos of that process, and we include those photos in the brand stories that we appear right on our website.
After we begin working with a brand and develop a relationship, we use every travel opportunity to visit them. Here in Southern California, we have four brands, which is why I’ll be visiting all four brands while I’m here.
X: Can you talk about your approach to networking?
SD: Networking is definitely a strength for both Maxine and me. We feel really good about networking, but also we have to be selective about it. It’s important for us to meet with people who either help us create more partnerships, secure new brand partners for our company, or with people who just help us spread the word.
I try to make it authentic and not too opportunistic and to network without an agenda. But it’s important to follow up and ask for a business card, and to try to be helpful to the person you’d like to get to know before you ask for help. That’s something I strongly believe in. Two-way relationships, reverse mentorships, beneficial networking. Whatever you might call it. I firmly believe in not just asking for something from someone I’ve just met, but in being helpful to them in their career and their path because that’s how the more genuine relationships form.
X: We’ve talked previously about the Sheryl Sandberg book Lean In. Do you see much difference in the challenges women face in a structured workplace, like a big company versus entrepreneurs? How is it different for women entrepreneurs?
X: Sheryl Sandberg’s book is phenomenal. I’ve read it twice. Maxine, my business partner, is in a Lean In circle and she’s read it twice. It’s definitely a book that comes up in conversation a lot. I think it’s a hugely valuable book for women in business, at any stage of their career. The second reading was more important than the first for me. The second time I read it the larger message came through, and that was to commit to your goals and not be fearful of them.
From personal experience, I see a lot of women making decisions out of fear and not confidence. There’s so much to be learned from Sheryl’s book, but the most important thing to think about is to release fear and to embrace your career and to have strong goals that you stick to and to understand that things have a way of working themselves out.
X: Do you see a difference, though, for women as entrepreneurs?
SD: Yes. It’s tough. When we’re talking about venture-backed businesses, it’s still only 3 to 6 percent of VCs are women, and that’s just abominable, and don’t even get me started on how many venture capitalists are minorities. A lot of this stems from the origins and roots of how many women can access capital because it’s fundamentally more difficult for women to raise money from folks who may or may not understand their sphere of business. With that being said, more and more investors are investing in women because their businesses are perceived as so profitable and having such great returns for the investment portfolio, and also women are just kick-ass entrepreneurs in general.