December 12, 2013

MBF PROFILES: Maxine Bédat

As the onset of a more conscious consumer and curated shopping experience takes over the retail world, the ethically-minded e-commerce site, Zady helps combat the rise of fast fashion to help bring the slow-fashion movement back into style. This platform is dedicated to indulging in the story and heritage of a brand, connecting and creating authentic relationships, and truly recognizing the value in quality craftsmanship and innovative design. So today, we'd like you to meet Maxine Bédat, co-founder of the site and a key leader revolutionizing the way we sell and shop.

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MBF: Please tell us a bit about your background. How did your e-commerce side concept come about? What are the thoughts behind it?

Maxine Bédat: While I have always been interested in fashion and art, my career prior to The Bootstrap Project and then Zady was in international law and development.

The concept for The Bootstrap Project was first developed in Tanzania where I was working at The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the court set up to try the Rwandan genocidaires.

The tribunal work seemed so far off from the people with whom I lived, that I took every opportunity to visit the surrounding areas. This meant that I saw a lot of markets. I soon realized that many of the products, even those pieces that looked “African,” came from half-way around the world. And as I spoke to the people at the markets I learned for the first time how local craft was systematically dying out. While for hundreds of years prior a mother would pass down her skills to her daughters, the chain was forever being broken as cheap imitation imports flooded the markets. The products that were left were shoddily made, created with inferior material and did not represent the local culture.

During this time, I was also lucky enough to meet a woman named Rose. Rose was both a cunning entrepreneur and a highly talented artisan. She still carries on the craft traditions of her family. I instantly fell in love with her work and the idea dawned on me that if I could just expand this woman’s market and connect her with folks from around the world who would appreciate her time-honored skills, she could seek out a more sustainable future for herself and her children.

It was then that The Bootstrap Project, the non-profit helping artisans in the developing world was born. While much of the work of Bootstrap is in training programs, helping artisans train a new generation, and teaching business skills, a significant part of our work is telling the story of the artisan to the international market. I was so moved by the story of Rose and her incredible beautiful work that I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to meet her, or at least feel that they had.

While I was setting up the ecommrece chanel for Bootstrap I reconnected with a high school friend Soraya Darabi. We both were moved with storytelling and together we became very interested in product supply chains. We had built such a close connection with the Bootstrap Project products that we wanted to have that same connection with all of the things in our closets.

As we dug into the research, we began to realize the horrible implications our fast-fashion ways were having on society – from a health, environmental, not to mention worker rights perspective. At the same time however, we saw an emergence, introduced first by Whole Foods and the slow food movement, of our society’s deep interest in connecting with our things. And since there was no destination that we could find that curated beautiful products where we could build a connection with the makers, we decided to make it ourselves.

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MBF: Zady is an ethical minded e-commerce site. What is the core mission and what does ethical minded mean?

MB: The core mission of Zady is to build a connection between maker and consumer. We are developing a slow-fashion movement, where focus is on quality over quantity. It’s interesting since moving away from fast fashion, my wardrobe is now much more highly edited. I have a better sense of my own style, each piece that I own is much higher quality than I ever had, and with all of that I end of spending much less than I did before. And that is all due to the switch from fast fashion to slow fashion.

MBF: You are working with an amazing brand portfolio. Can you tell us about the vetting/curating process?

MB: Thank you! The beginning of every conversation with a brand starts out with where the product is made. You would be shocked to know that the vast, I mean vast majority of brands, do not know where their product is made. So we always begin with this, because if you don’t know, down to the atelier or factory, then we’re not going to be interested. However, those that do know, tend to get so excited about the process of manufacturing and the care that is put into production, and you can so clearly see it from the products themselves, they just look more beautiful.

Everything that we do is aesthetic driven, we care about the factory because we care about the quality of the design and of the end product. We as ourselves for every piece, would be comfortable wearing this for over a decade. If the answer is yes, then it's a fit.

MBF: You launched on August 27th of this year and were immediately successful. What is the recipe?

MB: I know this is not a glamorous answer, but just plain hard work is a big part of it.

MBF: What differentiates Zady from other e-commerce sites? Do you see your company as a niche market? Who would you say are your competitors?

MB: We’re developing a whole new way of purchasing and interacting with products. We’re developing a brand that is being built with our community and we are presenting a lifestyle, through product but also more importantly through engaging content that is quite different from brands of the past. In that way we don’t see ourselves as having competitors. There are brands like Whole Foods and Patagonia that we admire, but do not compete with.

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MBF: Do you experience that the consumer is becoming a more conscious consumer who demands transparency, integrity and beautiful design? Can you give us an idea of who your customers are?

MB: It has been a lot of fun having our pop-up shop at the airport because we have been able to get a really solid understanding of exactly who our customer is. It’s not an age range or even a socio economic bracket. What we are seeing are those folks who you can tell just by how they are dressed care about each item that they purchase. Even in the way they interact with the sales associates, they are looking to build a small connection. They are thoughtful, stylish people.
MBF: Storytelling is such an important part of marketing and branding nowadays. What is your way of storytelling?

MB: We have stories of each of our products and tell stories through our Features section. The features are articles that have nothing to do with product, but speak to the Zady lifestyle. We’re also looking to expand into video storytelling, which can be so powerful, as well as other more dynamic forms like google hangouts, where we can connect our community directly with the makers.

MBF: Zady is a curated personalized e-commerce site. What metrics are you using to harness the data and analytics to not only grow your customer base but also to anticipate what your customer is looking for?

MB: We focus on metrics, of course, but more importantly at this stage is the qualitative data. We’re looking to build an engaged community and that means asking them questions, listening to their responses and acting for them. For example we asked right at the outset what was missing, product wise, from our site, and of all things we were asked for a sustainable brand for pets. We went out and searched for that brand, and now those pieces are doing phenomenally well. We would never had known if we hadn’t just asked!

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MBF: You launched a pop up shop at La Guardia. How is that going? Would you consider any other brick and mortar ventures in the near future? Anything in the making?

MB: We are having the best time at La Guardia. Airports are a completely overlooked and amazing opportunity to meet people from across the country and around the world. Since New Yorkers tend to segregate themselves by neighborhood, the airport provides a great melting pot to gauge customer reactions from a broad range of people.

Engagement has been terrific and it is beyond all of our expectations. We have learned an enormous amount and will apply those learnings to our next brick and mortar experience.

MBF: Is there a demand from the consumer side to take the Zady experience into a physical shopping experience – similar to what for example Warby Parker, Bauble Bar and Etsy have experienced?

MB: Smart brands have learned that the best experience for the user is omnichanel. The digital world and the brick and mortar world should be seamless. For example, at the airport some folks want to do all of their holiday shopping at the store, but they don’t want to carry it with them on their journey. We make it easy for our customers to make the order in the store and we pack it up and ship it for them.

The brick and mortar experience adds another layer, another dimensionality to the online experience. Customers want to have that level of engagement.

MBF: What are the biggest challenges you encounter to take your company forward?

MB: As we grow our team, we want to make sure that our hyper-active, thoughtful, passionate culture stays with us. That will be a top focus of us going forward.

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MBF: What is the most amazing item on your site right now?

We can’t choose our favorite child, but our Mischa Lampert hats have drawn a lot of attention both online and in the store.

Our MBF Profiles ends with a questionnaire that follows in the footsteps of Proust's Questionnaire and American TV show host James Lipton's "10 Questions".

MBF: Your favorite swear word?

MB: Putain de mere, somehow if it's in french I dont really feel like I’m swearing.

MBF: Your least favorite word?

MB: Moist (shudder).

MBF: Your favorite word?

MB: Pamplemousse, which is grapefruit in french. Doesn’t it sound lovely, pamplemouse.

MBF: What turns you on?

MB: People who are passionate about whatever they are doing.

MBF: And of course, what turns you off?

MB: Constant negativity.

MBF: What sound do you love?

MB: Crackling fire.

MBF: If you could pick any profession – what might you be?

MB: Astronaut.

MBF: If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?

MB: Right where I am.

MBF: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

MB: You can go back now, heaven doesn’t need you.

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