In this series, we introduce you to the designers behind some of the leading brands at POOL. Gain an exclusive look into what it takes to build a brand and the tips to breaking into the biz.
We sat down with Jonit Bookheim, Marketing Director at Mata Traders, to discuss fair trade, personal expression, the POOLTRADESHOW happy hour, and more!
1. Tell us about Mata Traders. Mata Traders is a fair trade fashion company. Our clothes and jewelry are handmade by women’s cooperatives and artisan groups in developing countries that pay fair wages and provide safe working conditions. Our designs mix old-fashioned processes–such as hand loom weaving and hand block printing–with fashion-forward silhouettes and contemporary color palettes. Mata’s mission is to bring fair trade to the forefront of the fashion industry–and to bring fashion to fair trade.
Our unique garments and accessories empower both the women who make them and the women who wear them. To us, fashion is about self-expression and being able to be yourself. How clothes look is key to that, but so is how they’re made. Through your purchase of fair trade fashion, you can express your beliefs and worldview, too. We want to give women that option. Our philosophy is that women shouldn’t have to make trade offs between style and ethics.
In Hindi, mata means “mother,” and our products are a tribute to the female shakti power in all of us.
2. How has your business evolved since day one? We are three best friends who started traveling together after college and got hooked. After a year working in Australia, we came back to Chicago and saved up our money for a round-the-world trip, which included four months in India. We fell in love with the colors and textiles there, and, between temples and fortresses, spent a lot of time shopping. Maureen loved it so much that the following year she went back on a buying trip, importing everything from tapestries to leather sandals. She crashed on her cousin’s couch that summer and sold her Indian wares at an outdoor market in Martha’s Vineyard, where several people asked her if her goods were fair trade. She looked into what that meant and found out the fair trade futures conference was going to be in Chicago that fall. As much as we love traveling and being immersed in other cultures, seeing the widespread poverty gets you thinking about why that is happening and what you can do about it. So when you’re starting out as a trader and an answer like fair trade pops up, you jump on it. Next trip to India Maureen sought out fair trade producers to make some clothing, a women’s cooperative that we still work with to this day. Here’s an excerpt from an email Maureen wrote to me and Michelle on that trip. A year later, Michelle joined Maureen and Mata Traders was incorporated. They spent several years building up the business by selling at Chicago’s summer street festivals and holiday fair trade bazaars. They also started wholesaling by going on road trips and stopping in to show the line to shops. Pretty soon they were attending trade shows and the number of wholesale customers grew quickly. Now we are eight people who love working with the cooperatives and making fun clothes and jewelry.
3. Any advice for emerging designers looking to break into the industry? Follow your passion and do what you’re good at. It is possible to start small and grow organically. Initially, Maureen and Michelle were able to support themselves with a seasonal job: selling posters on college campuses with Beyond the Wall.
4. Tell us what tool or technology you use every day. We use a lot of free or low-cost apps to run Mata Traders. Our e-commerce website is from Cubecart and our blog is on Wordpress. We use Sugar CRM for our sales database where we keep track of our accounts and leads. We are still able to use Quickbooks for our accounting, but it’s not the best for companies with a lot of inventory. Our designer uses Photoshop and Illustrator, but for photo editing I use Gimp for free. Basecamp is a good tool for project management, and there is a free version called Freedcamp. We are also users of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.
5. What does fair trade mean to you and how does it manifest in your business? Fair trade is a global movement to end poverty by increasing equity and transparency in global trade, and a ‘fair trade’ product or company designation signifies a commitment to the fair treatment of producers.
As a fair trade company, we source directly from four fair trade cooperatives in India and Nepal, which employ hundreds of artisans. The cooperatives that make our products work in rural and slum communities with women who have little or no education, many can’t read or write. Because of their work, they can afford to send their children to school and pay for necessities that they couldn’t before. The cooperatives are really amazing, supportive organizations that are social service programs as much as they are employers. There are social workers on staff, and members are provided resources such as on-site daycare, paid maternity leave, medical check-ups, health care, vision testing and glasses, and retirement pensions. To promote social mobility, the women are offered classes in literacy, financial literacy, and computers. As fair trade organizations, the cooperatives pay their members a living wage in the local context and monitor working hours, with overtime being compensated accordingly. In addition, our groups ensure a safe, clean, well-lit and well-ventilated workshop environment and that no child labor is used.
6. Returners: Favorite POOL memory? Our favorite thing about POOL is the fashion! We’re always impressed and inspired by the cool and unique style we see - in fact, last year Maureen wrote this blog post about it. Besides that, we’re fans of the happy hour!