Behind the Booth with Indigenous
Behind the Booth with Indigenous
Matt Reynolds and Scott Leonard, co-founders Indigenous, have been on a 20-year mission to improve the planet and help eliminate poverty through fashion. Their business model begins with a network of artisans in South America. Reynolds says, “Our path has been chosen. We make clothing that honors both people and the planet through our own socially just, fair trade, organic, cottage industry production model.”
Two Friends with One Obsession
Friends since the 7th grade, Reynolds and Leonard share a passion for the environment and social good. After college, Leonard was a successful entrepreneur with an eco-surf shop in Santa Cruz, CA. Reynolds was a buyer for a department store as well as a business developer for a chain of home furnishing retail stores which used harvested woods and a national recycle program. Later, Reynolds traveled the US as a drummer in a rock band before moving to Germany.
A Double Dose of Serendipity
Leonard was jogging to work, deep in thought when he accidentally knocked a pedestrian into the street. He says:
This gentleman’s books and groceries flew all over and he fell to the ground. People were honking horns. It was chaotic. I helped him up and we sat down together to re-group. He happened to be a socially minded, creative individual from Ecuador, and our post-accident conversation was actually the energetic spark that got the concept of Indigenous up and running.
Shortly after this incident, Leonard found himself at the wedding of a close friend from high school where he reconnected with his old buddy, Matt Reynolds. This encounter was much less painful, but Leonard says, “It was equally serendipitous.”
Reynolds and Leonard quickly bonded again over stories about their lives. Reynolds was living in Germany and had begun to notice organic cotton in fashion. He had recently talked with his father about emerging markets and how he felt there would be great opportunity in the USA for organics. The conversation then became about Indigenous, and Reynolds and Leonard decided to work together.
The Mission Begins with the Artisans
On going to South America, Reynolds says:
It was incredibly empowering to meet the artisans. It made me never want to give up on our mission. We met very talented women who had been knitting for generations, but made so little money that their young children had to work for others. There were other women who carried alpaca wool down steep hills for miles for barely enough wages to feed their families. Also, cotton farmers working in the fields paid high health consequences for working with harsh chemicals and pesticides.
Now, 20 yrs. later, we are very proud that we are leading a fashion brand that stays 100% faithful to organic materials and fair trade values. Initially, we started meeting people one by one and aligning with talented artisans. Today our network has over 1,600 artisans who earn fair wages, receive training and the opportunity to grow.
Indigenous has offices in South America and the co-founders travel there three to four times a year. Leonard oversees production and design. Artisans work in small co-op workshops of 5-20 within their neighborhoods. If one of the artisans his or her own workshop, Indigenous encourages that by offering 0% loans to help with materials and supplies. All of the brand’s knit sweaters are done by hand or lap loomed by hand. Indigenous takes the talents embedded in the artisans’ culture and teaches them how to finish with high-end, modern finishing techniques.
Revolutionary Business Model
We created a unique manufacturing production model that is one of the most equitable models out there, birthed directly from sustainability. Everything we do is around people and our planet. Transparency in sustainability is at our core. All of our cotton has always been certified organic. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) are followed throughout our entire supply chain.
Indigenous prides themselves not only on their organic and sustainable supply chain, but in all social indicators, as well. Leonard says:
We are proud to be a founding brand of B Corp. Managing our supply chain with fair trade, human rights and creating opportunity. We are a catalyst, well beyond our brand, for much larger companies to utilize our model in helping to solve very serious problems that the fashion industry has helped create; our waters, carbon footprint and humanity issues.
Putting Fashion First
People need to love our product before understanding the impact that the are making with their purchase. We do this by creating the best fashion first; with design, feel, fit and color. It is important that Indigenous have those fashion standards in place first. We have to be careful about how much we want to load people up with the state of the world. People don't always want to hear about it.
Indigenous’ biggest frustration is that they don't get to tell their story enough. Reynolds says:
It’s hard to do at a trade show in a quick conversation, and retailers haven't found the best way to share our story, either. A corporate buyer loves the story, but at the retail level, the story can easily get lost. We even offer a digital tool kit to help retailers’ staff learn our story and connect the customer to our emotional element. We also created a talking hang tag that a customer can scan with their smartphone to see the artisan, a map of the origin of fibers and the social impact, but not enough people are using it.
Eileen Fisher is a big fan of the Indigenous manufacturing process, and uses their supply chain with some of her own designs. Leonard says:
Eileen Fisher has been amazing to work with; they have a bandwidth for social consciousness like no other company we have seen. It’s a testament of our quality that a brand like Eileen Fisher sells our products in high-end retailers like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales and Saks.
Our Indigenous label is in over 500 premium boutiques, specialty retailers, spas and resorts. We have created a healthy, profitable business model that provides high quality fashion, living wages and respects the environment.
Their Story Can Now Take Center Stage
After 20 years, Indigenous has proven themselves in the fashion industry. Now they are ready and excited for their mission to be synonymous with their brand. Indigenous is optimistic that they can continue to shift larger brands and the general public to move the needle on the importance of their mission.