Friends since high school, 31 year-old Maxine Bédat and 29 year-old Soraya Darabi had always admired one another’s determined, entrepreneurial spirit. In the years after graduation, Darabi became a rising star in the digital realm, first managing social media at the New York Times and then founding the app Foodspotting, while Bédat formed the nonprofit fair trade organization The Bootstrap Project to assist artisans in the developing world. They reconnected and went on to create the website Zady, a destination for consumers who want to purchase ethically sourced and manufactured products without sacrificing style. The site, launched this week, tells a story about each brand while awarding badges of authenticity that speak to the clarity they believe consumers are seeking: locally sourced, handmade, high quality raw materials, environmentally conscious, made in the USA, and a product of The Bootstrap Project. Bédat and Darabi chatted with TIME about what it means to be a “clothitarian” and why they hope to become the Whole Foods of the fashion world.
How did your experience with The Bootstrap Project propel the creation of Zady?
Bédat: The idea with The Bootstrap Project was to revive the craft traditions and bring employment at the same time.
Darabi: For a long time I admired the work of nonprofit organizations like Kiva for lending microeconomic loans to artisans, often women, in the developing world, but Maxine seemed to pick up where microeconomic loans leave off by helping the artisans build up their basic business vernacular and skills and access better raw materials. Her organization trains one master artisan to teach other local artisans how to make the craft, so that ultimately something that deserves to be preserved isn’t lost entirely because of globalization. We discovered thereafter that we both had this fascination with supply chain and the way things are made.
Bédat: We weren’t born or innately interested in that. We had always shopped how the rest of our generation shopped—fast fashion and things like that. But once we dug into this story and understood that it takes, say, Rose in Zambia thirty hours to hand stitch this piece and what the symbols of it mean to her, we turned to other facets of our life and said, what about the T-shirt or the pants we’re wearing? We care so much about it in our food but in our clothing we just didn’t know. So that’s the seed of that interest.
How are you working to make the manufacturing process more transparent?
Darabi: We were introduced to the major trade shows in the U.S. where brands from all around the world come to exhibit the products they make. What we’ve learned from doing this is that 99.99% of the brands that come to these massive expos are made overseas.
Bédat: You go to these massive halls and it’s just an endless supply of clothing. It becomes very real—in six months’ time these will be sold and in a year’s time these will be thrown out. We asked each brand, where are your products manufactured? A lot of them gave us just a blank stare. Some of them would guiltily say offshore. And there’s some people whose response was “the Orient.” So that was an indication to us of the state of the industry. People don’t know; they can’t narrow down by the continent. What we’re trying to do is for each product that we carry, we have a map associated with it. You can click on the map and it shows where the company is headquartered, where the raw materials are sourced from, and where it’s manufactured. We have each brand sign a certificate that attests to those three points. It seems like it’s basic, but in the world of apparel, it’s revolutionary.
Darabi: Then we begin a process where we ask [brands] to go really in-depth about why they chose certain materials and why they chose their factories. We give each brand certain badges of authenticity, and then we write up a piece describing the brand and the products. So if we’re talking about Imogene + Willie jeans from Nashville, Tenn., we tell a story of Carrie and Matt, the husband and wife that started this company. They met in the third grade at a pool party and reunited about 20 years later, married, and started a denim company together. They believe in using the best raw material in the world, including the best cotton from Texas. They believe in using the best denim that’s sewn together in Greensboro, N.C. at one of the four remaining denim manufacturing mills in the country. And they believe in putting a lot of heart and soul into every pair of denim that they sell.
Bédat: That’s speaking to our general idea that the more you know about the things that you buy and the more that you get an appreciation for it, you’ll want to invest in those pieces, and have fewer but higher quality pieces in your wardrobe. Soraya and I made this commitment a year ago to become “clothitarians.” We have no better word for it at the moment, but it’s to only buy clothing where you know the origin. Since I’ve done that, the clothing that I’ve bought has maybe been a little more expensive, but I’ve actually found that I spend less on clothing. The things that I buy I really love and wear all the time.
When you heard about the recent factory tragedies in Bangladesh, did that reinforce your mission?
Bédat: When you’re buying a T-shirt that costs $2, you just have to wonder what conditions created this $2 T-shirt. It’s such a tragic event, and if regular folk like ourselves don’t change our behavior, we’re going to see more of that. There are great people out there fighting the fight, and what we’re trying to do is just provide an alternative.
How widespread do you think this conscious consumerism could become?
Darabi: Sensationally large. The organic food movement took the world by storm, and it really began with a small subset of people who wanted to feel healthy and feel good. In addition, there was a smart businessman from Texas who recognized that there’s an aspirational lifestyle associated with people understanding where their food comes from. That struck a nerve, and I think a lot of people became devoted, loyal customers of Whole Foods because they did offer that information and that story behind product. We think that same movement could spark a zeitgeist that we’d like to be a part of, whether you call it ethical fashion, sustainable fashion or just conscious consumerism. It’s only a matter of time before people decide this is a healthier and more fun way to live.
What would you say to someone who feels that they can’t afford to shop anywhere except for fast fashion chains?
Bédat: It feels good to wear clothes that are good. I’ve worn this shirt probably 200 times. And I put it in the wash every time that I wear it, and it’s lasted. There are so many people, us included, who turn to their closets and they are overfilled with stuff, and yet you have nothing to wear. It’s both the right thing to do economically on a global perspective, but economically for yourself as well, if something’s going to last longer and you’re going to feel excited about wearing it for longer too.
Darabi: For us luxury means something a little bit different. It’s not luxurious because it has a famous name or a really expensive price tag. It’s luxurious simply because of the craftsmanship and construction.