SAfrican anti-apartheid guru debuts luxury line

AP News
Posted: Oct 02, 2011 6:50 PM
SAfrican anti-apartheid guru debuts luxury line

Launching a luxury fashion label could seem like a bizarre career choice for a lawyer who at the tender age of 25 helped his native South Africa heal the wounds of apartheid.

But for Paul Van Zyl, his evolution from executive secretary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to co-founder of Maiyet _ a new fashion house with price points hovering between $500-$2,500 _ makes circuitous but perfect sense.

Launched Sunday with a runway show during Paris fashion week, Maiyet aims to promote development through high-end consumption, by tapping into the skills of artisans in developing countries to churn out sleek, desirable luxury clothes, handbags, shoes and jewelry.

The debut collection was basically an edgy urban wardrobe with an added touch. Khaki trench coats were embellished with a fancy but discreet flourish of embroidery in the same shade; the spring-summer 2012 season's go-to staple _ high-waisted shorts _ were served up in sumptuous silks hand-printed in Indonesia; a bubble dress was made from hand-loomed Indian cotton.

The concept _ shop to help the poor! _ is hardly a new one, but Van Zyl and the label's president, Kristy Caylor, stress that what sets them apart from other do-gooders with similar goals is the quality of their goods.

"We don't want to be a pity product," Caylor told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's not sustainable. It lasts a couple of seasons and then the customers stop coming back.

"We are about making things that people genuinely desire, regardless of whether they're 'good' or not," she said.

Maiyet, named after the Egyptian goddess of truth and harmony, is currently working with groups of artisans in five countries: India and Indonesia for textiles and embroidery, Colombia for silver jewelry, and Kenya and South Africa for accessories carved out of bone and horn.

"We don't tell them, 'do this faster and cheaper,'" Van Zyl said ahead of Sunday's show. "We say, 'do it slowly and carefully and better and we'll put it on a rack at Barneys.'"

Final products are put together in small factories in Italy, the Mecca of the luxury industry.

Because artisans in the developing world often don't have the tools or training necessary to churn out luxury products that meet international standards right away, Maiyet is working with an organization called Nest that provides training to help craftsmen and women hone their skills, Caylor said. She added that artisans in three additional countries _ Liberia, Togo and Mexico _ are undergoing training and could soon be contributing to Maiyet.

The idea for the label grew out of Van Zyl's experience of being named a "Young Global Leader" by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2008.

"I found myself in the company of people who were using market mechanisms to achieve their development goals, whether it be getting clean water to women in Africa or bringing Muslims and Hindus together in India," said Van Zyl, who is also co-founder of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that has applied the lessons learned in South Africa to 35 conflict-wracked countries around the world. "I became fascinated by the idea of using entrepreneurship to build peace and stability in developing countries."

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After a grant provided initial seed money, Van Zyl went searching for people with top fashion pedigrees. Enter Caylor, a merchandising executive who had worked at the Gap, Banana Republic and the L.A.-based fashion label Band of Outsiders, among other leading brands.

The two spent the past year recruiting a six-person design team of confirmed fashion industry talent and zigzagging the globe to identify artisans. By tapping into their networks, the two targeted countries which _ despite long traditions of craftsmanship _ have a hard time tapping into the international market.

Caylor said additional funding for Maiyet came from private investors, though she declined to provide any further details.

Deals are in the works for the brand to be carried at some top retailers in the United States, including the exclusive New York department store Barneys.

Meanwhile, Van Zyl is dreaming big.

"I want it to be an absolutely gigantic success," he said, with a grin.