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VOL. 41 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 8, 2017

FASHIONABLE creates jobs in Nashville, beyond

By Vicky Travis

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FASHIONABLE’s flagship store is at 5022 Centennial Blvd. in Nashville.

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They don’t want our charity. A woman who has overcome harrowing circumstances needs a dang job and one that pays a living wage.

Empowering women at home and internationally is the mission of FASHIONABLE, a locally owned e-commerce and wholesale fashion business with a flagship store in a redeveloping area of west Nashville.

The company, which started as a charity in 2010, switched to a for-profit model in 2014. It’s gained national attention of stars and celebrities and was recently featured in Google’s annual Economic Impact Report: http://bit.ly/2rMWkY7

FASHIONABLE employs about 43 women (more than half of them full time) at the Nashville store and offices. About 300 women around the world have jobs because of FASHIONABLE, says Barrett Ward, founder and CEO.

The company made $600,000 in revenue during its first year as a business, Ward adds.

Since then, revenue has grown by more than 100 percent and is on track for the same this year. Seventy percent of its business is e-commerce. The other 30 percent is sold at its flagship store in Nashville and wholesaled to 250 stores around the country.

“The marketplace is ready to hear about a business that’s not only charitable but is creating jobs,” he explains.

“Consumers want to buy a story,” explains Rick Cottle, assistant professor in the Textiles, Merchandising and Design department at Middle Tennessee State University.

‘We need a job’

FASHIONABLE’s story started with Ward and his wife, Rachel, who lived in Ethiopia during 2008.

She ran an adoption agency, and he led Mocha Club, a non-profit he started after a mission trip changed his life trajectory. In Ethiopia, they saw the reality many women faced.

“With 45 percent unemployment in the capital city, what would you do for your children?” Ward recalls.

He says many women turned to the sex trade and prostitution, one of the few ways to make money for women in some parts of Ethiopia.

“A lot of these women have to make extraordinary sacrifices for their families, and it’s not their first choice,’’ he adds.

In rehabilitating these women, Ward says they were grateful for the healthcare and the childcare that the organization provides, but at the end of that road, the biggest issue was there was a lack of jobs for women.

Having certain kinds of aid were important to the women in the program, but without job prospects, lives wouldn’t be changed.

“It was a seminal moment for me to hear these women say, ‘We need a job,’” Ward says.

The Bezuayhu scarf woven by women in Ethiopian.

With the purpose of creating something sustainable for these women, the Wards worked with a business there to teach the women to weave scarves.

Launched online at the end of 2010, they had sold over 4,000 scarves within a couple of months.

“We realized this is something consumers identified with. That is, empowering women,” he points out.

Scarves were trending high in fashion at the time and are now a smaller part of the business. The next product was a leather clutch made in Ethiopia that went viral in 2013, then a tote bag in July 2014, which took off with the help of star-power. Actress Julianne Hough blogged about the bag, and other stars were spotted with it.

“That little bag has changed a lot of lives,” Ward adds.

Manufacturers they’ve worked with have tripled in size, two businesses started because of the demand, and a woman they knew while living there has started her own business.

Two years ago, FASHIONABLE added local jewelry-making by graduates of Nashville’s Magdalene House, a ministry of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking or addiction and from the Nashville Rescue Mission.

Changing the tide

As “fast fashion” and “consumerism” earn a bad-word connotation and consumers pay more attention to ethical sourcing of their clothing, FASHIONABLE and other similar businesses may have hit the market at just the right time.

While MTSU’s Cottle notes that the sustainability flag was being raised as early as the mid- to late-1980s, the idea is now beginning to make it into the mainstream.

“Consumers want to know what you are doing socially,” Cottle explains. “As younger consumers begin spending their own money, they force the industry to change.”

Nashville Fashion Alliance released its first Economic Impact Study in January 2016 and pointed out trends shaping the industry.

The report stated that retail customers increasingly demand ethically-sourced products, and the business model will shift from fast fashion to a quality approach.

That’s where Ward wants to be –changing an industry.

Changing the fast fashion tide means changing thinking. Do you buy a $60 quality garment or a $15 garment to replace it in a few months?

“The exposure to reality is that your cute top was made by another human,” Ward adds.

Did that human earn a decent wage?

Partnering with ethical manufacturers is a critical part of FASHIONABLE’s business model.

“It’s the deepest part of why we do what we do,” he says. Dissatisfied with what he saw in some social enterprises that make ethical claims with no real proof, Ward is creating a framework to measure it to launch this fall. Called Accountable, he says it will demonstrate impact.

“Wages of women are exploited all over the world,” he says. “We will be the first company [of this type] in the world to publish wages.

“We want to make sure all of our labor makes a living wage so they can meet goals and provide for their families in a meaningful way.”

This August, the company will launch a denim line made in Mexico. “I visited the factory recently and was very impressed with how they work with people,” he notes.

FASHIONABLE sells shoes and apparel from Peru, leather and soon, denim, from Mexico, woven and leather products from Ethiopia.

It’s developing an apparel line from Kenya and has sold small collections from Zambia and Madagascar.

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