6 Must-Read Entrepreneurship Tips from Alice & Whittles Co-Founder Sofi Khwaja
Alice & Whittles sounds like the name of a whimsical pair in search of adventure, doesn’t it? The romantic moniker belongs to Ethica's first shoe line. These aren’t just any shoes, though. These are espadrilles, famously favored by the likes of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. It's small wonder why, since the artistic simplicity of an espadrille—it’s made of canvas, jute and rubber—is a welcome comfort for doing just about anything, especially traveling.
Alice & Whittles elevates the concept with incredibly transparent and thoughtful sourcing and production methods. After launching via a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in April 2013, the company continues to forge ahead with its model of sustainable production. So how exactly do you turn a passion for ethical fashion–or for anything, really–into a business? We caught up with co-founder Sofi Khwaja to ask her about what it takes to build a socially responsible company.
1. Connect the dots between so-called disconnected parts of your life—you might find you’re actually working toward your true calling.
Sofi says: “My partner Nick and I were working with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Tunisia, shortly after the revolution. I’m also a lawyer. After years in the system, trying to clean up pieces of a mess that’s made over and over again, we started asking ourselves, ‘Is this the right way to affect massive issues of poverty?’ We thought about what industries had the potential to balance the inequities of the world. Clothing is a human necessity. Economically, production takes place in regions that are unregulated, affecting billions of garment workers around the world."
2. Make something that fills a gap in the market. Something that you’d love to wear yourself.
Sofi says: “We traveled a lot for work. 90 percent of what was in our suitcase was clothing. We thought about the items you could take to India and on vacation in St. Tropez. We came up with espadrilles. We wanted to make amazing, high-quality espadrilles that are beautifully crafted by the people of a region, and give back to those people at the same time.”
3. Freaking out about the competition? Don’t. Because you can do it better.
Sofi says: “Tom’s One for One model, which gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased, might have brilliant marketing behind it. But a company like Tom’s is missing the point. The truth is, mass-production on this scale isn’t sustainable. If you’re using exploitative labor, it doesn’t discount the negative impact you’re having. The charity model doesn’t work. It’s killing economies—basically you’re dumping all these free shoes in local communities. Now where are all the local shoemakers going to go?”
4. Do extensive research and tap into local know-how.
Sofi says: “We decided to go to the country that has the longest legacy in the garment industry: India. We spoke to policy makers, factory workers and slum garment factory owners. Then we decided to think outside of the box within the textiles world. We landed on a rural NGO, Khamir, which works to preserve the cultural ecology of the Kutch region of Gujarat. We work with brilliant people doing extraordinary things. We chose Kutch because we wanted canvas, and this region’s cotton was perfect. The artisans had the knowledge of the material we wanted to use, because the same canvas was used to make tarps in their farming communities.”
5. Practice what you preach.
Sofi says: “We provide fair trade for the labor behind Alice & Whittles. We give our artisan workers advance payment, health insurance, training, and there’s a commitment to full transparency about our business. From the organic cotton farmers’ seeds to the hand-weavers who make our shoes—we’re sticking to the principles we believe in. We’re not trying to make people feel guilty about what they buy, we’re trying to make a product that’s about workmanship, craftsmanship and quality. We want the shoes to be affordable and facilitate change on a grassroots level.”
6. Remember: Sacrifices can lead to the unexpected.
Sofi says: “Alice & Whittles is our baby, a reflection of both Nick and me. We don’t have anyone else but ourselves to do this. It’s our insides, our livelihood. Even for our wedding, we kept it very small because we spent that money on getting our business together.
Fear holds people back, and I had to shake off my ego and go against the grain of the family and culture I grew up in. But after I told my mother I was leaving the U.N. for fashion, she went upstairs to get a massive binder. In it was a coat of arms contract for my great-grandfather’s company, Alison & Co. They made clothes for the Raj, and the name was derived from the British mispronunciation of Ali & Son. We came up with the name as a play on Alison & Co. and Whittles, Nick’s mother’s family name. There’s so much love here, it’s so very meaningful to us. This is the best decision I ever made.”