We’re not the type of girls who’ll jump on any trend just because it’s “fashion for a cause,” but the inspired story (and perfect summer-ready style) of Mohinders is something we can get behind.
Founder, Michael Paratore, came across this traditional woven leather sandal after he quit his job and traveled through India, where he fell in love with the hand-crafted culture and the idea of bringing some piece of it back home. A Kickstarter, a blog and a site launch later, and his dream of landing this ethically made shoe on international fashion radars is alive and well.
We asked Michael to share some of the lessons he’s learned in the process of building a business that aims to stay true to it’s local, ethnic roots and serve the people it employs just as well as it’s customer…
Lesson One: Hunting down a product in another country requires being open to talking to people, and being comfortable figuring things out as you go.
It feels almost unfair to call this a challenge, because these are two traits that come naturally to me. When adventuring through India in search of the source of the mohinders city slipper, I never really had a plan – no hotel reservations, no return plane ticket, not even an idea where I was headed next. So when I started my trip in Mumbai and heard from several locals that I should check out a city called Kolhapur, I was able to hop on an overnight train to Kolhapur.
Lesson Two: Having someone you trust on the ground is crucial.
Unless you plan to move to the country where your product is being made, you need a person on your team living locally to oversee production. I wasn’t ready to uproot the family and move to India, which is why Abbas, based in Mumbai, joined my team. It’s extremely difficult to find a great partner for this role, and my connecting with Abbas happened completely by chance. I was wandering the Colaba Causeway, a busy avenue in Mumbai stocked with vendors hawking everything from T-shirts with Bollywood stars’ faces on them to antique compasses, and stumbled upon a small shoe shop carrying handmade leather shoes. I struck up a conversation with the owner of the shop, we hit it off and kept in touch, and he began helping me with mohinders. That was Abbas, a third-generation shoe peddler, who took over the store from his father, who had taken it over from his father before him, now also playing the role of our production manager.
Lesson Three: Making changes to an existing product is difficult.
We started with an existing shoe design that our artisan partners had been making for years, and it was very difficult to get the artisans to make the changes I thought necessary to turn it into a really high-quality product. It’s understandable: The artisans had been making the shoe a certain way for years, and it held up well. Then this foreigner shows up in their village, talks about wanting to create a new brand selling this specific shoe, and asks them to make specific (and not always easy) changes to the product. The reluctance I faced is one of the reasons I ran a Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. I wanted to place a really significant order to show the artisans that we were committed to working with them. I hoped they would reciprocate the commitment by investing to make the changes I requested. They did.
Lesson Four: Designing by trial and error can work.
If you don’t have any experience in design, do it by trial and error. I’m usually not sure anything I want to do with our shoes will work, and I haven’t had much help from experienced footwear designers. When I have ideas around how to improve the product, I prototype them as quickly and easily as I can. Whether it’s doing some leather working myself, experimenting with natural dyes in my backyard, or commissioning a few prototypes from our artisans, I get the new models and put them on the feet of friends and family, and myself, of course, to beat them up and test them out.
Lesson Five: Confirming your sourcing is ethical takes effort.
It’s near impossible to ascertain whether you’re sourcing ethically without spending a lot of time with your producers themselves. Myriad third-party certifications exist, and some companies just trust suppliers that say they follow ethical practices. But for me, there were two things that made me feel confident and comfortable with our sourcing: one, I spent a lot of time in the homes of artisans themselves, witnessing firsthand how they live and work, and I grew comfortable that we were supporting a great working environment; two, I found a group of artisans organized into a cooperative overseen by a local NGO. After extensive diligence of the NGO, I grew to trust them to provide ongoing monitoring and ensure me the artisans continue to be paid and treated fairly.
Lesson Six: Facing stereotypical cultural miscommunications, and subsequent delays, is inevitable.
I like to think of myself as both “worldly” and a strong communicator, which is why I naively thought I could avoid the stereotypical cross-culture problems. When I first discovered the cooperative, I placed an order for 120 pairs of shoes. The manager of the cooperative said it would take about a month to complete the order. After one month, I checked in with the manager. All was good, no problem. After two months, I checked in with the manager. All was good, no problem. The same thing happened for a couple more months. Finally I decided I had to go back to India to figure out what was going on. In a face-to-face meeting with the manager, I was able to learn that the delay was caused by an increase in the price of local leather. They were afraid to contact me to quote a new, higher price for the shoes because they were concerned I would think they were trying to cheat me. So, rather than tell me what was going on, they decided to wait, and wait, and wait, until the price of leather went down. Rest assured that our line of communication is much more open these days, however, I’m no longer naïve enough to believe that something like this won’t happen again in the future.
Lesson Seven: Importing is not something to stress over.
It sounds daunting to have to figure out how to get a bunch of shoes from a village in India to the U.S. What should you do about duties, tariffs, customs, etc.? It would cause quite a bit of stress if you had to do it all yourself. The good news is you don’t. There are a bunch of great logistics companies out there that can help you with shipping, customs declarations, paying duties and tariffs. (I use Laufer International. They’re great people, and they make this part of the business easy.) The same goes for any other part of the business that terrifies you. If it doesn’t cost too much money to have someone else take care of it for you, then take it off your plate.
Lesson Eight: Taking probiotics and grapefruit-seed extract pays off (I think…).
If you’re doing something that requires you to go to a remote village in a developing country, be prepared to eat potentially unsafe food like an unidentifiable, yet delicious, curry straight out of a plastic baggie. I take probiotics before and during my trip and take grapefruit-seed extract after every meal. Foolproof? I doubt it. But because I feel like I’ve put in place a line of defense, I’m less susceptible to anxiety attacks from some stomach gurgling after a sketchy meal.
Lesson Nine: Staying organized on the ground is key.
While in India, I tend to get tired quickly from over-stimulation, heat and a million other things that go on in the village. Therefore I rely on incredibly detailed checklists to ensure I get everything done. There’s nothing worse than having an unproductive trip when it takes 30 hours by plane, 12 hours by train, and a few hours by car to get where you’re going.
Lesson Ten: Using Skype and WhatsApp is game-changing.
I speak to Abbas regularly on Skype and we text daily on WhatsApp. The platforms enable us to feel closely connected, despite the decreasing frequency of my visits to India. In particular, having the video chat option is really beneficial when I communicate with suppliers in India. Seeing each other’s faces helps minimize mis-communications due to language barriers and humanizes the experience.
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