When Piece & Co. founder Kathleen Wright cold-called Mickey Drexler in the hope of getting some much needed advice, she never expected him to actually respond. But to her surprise, the J. Crew CEO answered her request for help; as did Paolo Riva, the CEO of Diane von Furstenberg, and Rebecca Minkoff.
“Cold-calling the fashion industry wasn’t the most favorite time in my life,” smiles the 33-year-old business graduate. “In the beginning, about once a quarter, Mickey would let me go into J. Crew and tell them the progress we had made, and he would give me his reactions.” Wright, whose aim was to end global poverty by providing female artisans with employment worldwide, quickly realized that there were, in fact, dozens of designers and fashion industry executives who wanted to “make a difference”—they just needed an easy solution. Fabric, she decided, was the answer.
Wright first left her job in business development in 2008 to join a startup non-profit that provided micro loans to female artisans in Africa. But despite falling “in love” with the artisan sector and the developing world, giving loans, she learned, was not making the kind of impact she had hoped for. “Access to capital wasn’t what was preventing the women from creating a better life, it was actually access to customers and access to a model that would really bring their product to the Western market. At the same time, I was seeing trends in the fashion industry where brands were looking for ways to differentiate their products. The stars were aligning for a business that could bring sustainable fabrics to large fashion brands and retailers.”
Wright set out to focus on making artisan fabrics in Guatemala and India, where she felt she would know “every single woman in the supply chain.” But it was clear that global access was what designers really wanted. “So we made a decision early on to go broader,” says Wright. “It slowed us down a bit in the beginning because we had to set up operations in 16 countries, but having a much more global perspective with our fabric collections is much more interesting to designers.”
Since launching in 2011, Piece & Co. has supplied fabric to the likes of Nike, Diane von Furstenburg, Supreme, Opening Ceremony, Veronica Beard, Mara Hoffman and Shopbop. The company now employs more than 5,000 artisans at local co-ops in countries from Bolivia to Zambia, where, through a customized training program, the women learn to manage their own finances and establish independence.
“I learned in my non-profit days that there’s nothing more impactful to these women than knowing they’re going to have three-to-four months of work,” she explains. “It’s that mental shift when they know they’re not going to be living hand-to-mouth for the next six months. Non-profits struggle to bring orders like that, so it would be a lot of hope and excitement created around giving them a loan, but when there’s no tangible way to get their products to market, it just kind of fizzles.” Right now, 75 percent of Piece & Co.’s supply chain is made up of women. “We don’t exclude men,” says Wright, “but it is important that women are in leadership roles within the co-operatives, which enables both the artisans and their production to flourish.”
“There’s nothing more impactful to these women than knowing they’re going to have three-to-four months of work.”
Wright jokes that learning to understand how the fashion industry works was more difficult than figuring out how to build a business in the developing world. “It took me two years to understand the fashion calendar completely and what sort of time frames we would need to be able to produce fabric in, and when we would need to be selling to people,” she says. “When I was first out there talking to brands, no one was really that excited to talk to me and I couldn’t really figure out why. I didn’t understand that there was very specific times in the calendar that they would be looking for fabrics.” But her persistence paid off. The demand for ethically sourced and produced products is soaring, and Piece & Co., acting as catalyst for positive change in the fashion industry, is able to deliver.
“We realized really quickly that we could scale faster and impact more women if we really focused on what the women were amazing at—which is creating beautiful fabrics—rather than having the burden of making finished goods,” says Wright. “Our whole hypothesis in the beginning was that, if there’s no designer that we can hire who is going to be more talented then Veronica Beard, then let’s get these fabrics to Veronica Beard in a way that makes it really easy for her to use them, really easy for her to have an impact, really easy for her to build more sustainability into her supply chain.”
Wright’s ultimate long-term goal is to have every designer in the fashion industry using Piece & Co.’s handmade, sustainable fabric. “Those are our two big pillars: empowering women and making fashion more sustainable. It’s about world domination of the good kind.”