The Big Picture: IOU Project/Kavita Parmar

By Regina Connell.

There are people who talk a good game. There are people who change the game. And there are people who chuck the game out completely and start again.

Such a game chucker is Kavita Parmar, co-founder of the IOU Project, which has the potential to up-end the apparel industry in the same way that FedEx changed the face of logistics, e-commerce, and pretty much everything else. The IOU Project website (brilliant) and clothes (yes, great designs) provide ample evidence of how this might be done.

In a nutshell, Kavita’s figured out a way to bring the artisan back into the apparel industry–at a price point everyone can live with.

Now this isn’t about the bold but naive ideas of some wide-eyed innocent. Kavita is an industry pro who combines canny smarts and a generosity of spirit that just won’t give up.

Born in India, now residing in Spain, Kavita started as a fashion designer and entrepreneur at an early age, acquiring the Indian license for Osh Kosh B Gosh. She opened 14 stores, and sold the business two years later.

She founded her own fashion line and grew it globally…but along the way, she had some epiphanies. There was, of course, the recognition that traditional mass fashion apparel business is profoundly exploitative (sweatshops, inhumane factories, nasty environmental impacts, and the disappearance of artisan skills and jobs). But the even more profound insight was that this exploitative system was also deeply inefficient. (Think deep discounts, outlet stores, the massive amounts spent on marketing.)

So Kavita, refusing to think small, created the IOU Project. It’s a great example of systems thinking, of not just looking for a feel-good solution to a problem but tackling the really tough stuff. And by creating a platform she’s enabling others–even Big Apparel–to change the way they do business. And that’s the Big Idea we’re so excited about.

How did IOU come to be? The current fashion system does not nurture Big Design (not just making pretty things but truly designing the ecosystem around their production methods to make them sustainable).

Nor does it protect excellent craftsmanship or artisanship.

It was about making things faster and cheaper, not better. So we decided to do a small experiment in our own flagship store in Madrid by creating a collection which was made keeping in mind the needs of the artisans and at the same time creating a unique product that would give the client something really well crafted just for them.

How does IOU work? We work with artisans who hand weave the fabrics, and have created a system whereby each fabric is traced back to individual artisans who are part of the project. These fabrics are then turned into unique individual pieces by craftsmen in Europe.

When a customer purchases and then receives the piece through the IOU Project site, they’ll find that each piece has a QR code. Each code takes the final customer back to the artisans involved in making that piece. Using the code, we encourage the customer to upload their picture wearing that piece to complete the story. (Real life example: an artisan in India weaves fabric…and a woman in the US buys an IOU scarf made out of that fabric. She posts an image of herself wearing that scarf in front of the White House on the IOU site. The textile weaver becomes local heroine. Bring out the hankies.)

IOU has also been rethinking commerce, too. Commerce is not just the buying and selling of goods but also a way to bring together people who celebrate uniqueness, artisanship and good design. So you can also apply to become one of our Trunk Show Hosts and select pieces for your virtual trunk which you can share with your friends and followers on social networks. Each piece sold gives you a sliding commission (20%, 15% 12.5%) that you can keep for yourself, offer as a discount to friends or give back to the artisan who made the piece. And you support the prosperity cycle.

What’s in it for consumers, clothing companies, and the artisans? Customers get an authentic, unique product at a great price point. And you are no longer just that a consumer but what we call part of our involved community. You don’t just know where your item was made, you know by whom. You can see how your buying the piece affects these peoples lives and you can further get involved by talking about and curating the collection as a trunk show host.

For clothing companies and artisan communities, this gets them access to the customer and to each other. New collaborations are possible that before–due to the rigid and opaque structures of the supply chains–were impossible.

We love that you’re making it possible for small scale artisans whether in India or Japan and elsewhere to participate in a scalable global industry, and we love that you’re raising awareness of the hand behind the product. But how important do you think that is to consumers? Do you really think of your consumer as only the ethical consumer–who can be tempted to be a little less ethical in a tough economic market? Does that really help the artisans, in the long term? The idea behind the IOU Project is simple. We are rethinking about how the clothing industry should be structured today with the tools at hand and with the problems to be solved right now.

Should we still be making things by following the hundreds of years old industrial revolution standards, a system whose main focus was on quantity and not quality, which has lead to the production of more and more (whether or not we need or really want it)? It’s destroying its own resource base. I think most of us have realized that the branch we are sitting on is the one we are axing away.

Work, or the lack of it, is a big issue in our times. I cannot speak about America but in Europe where I have lived for the last 10 years unemployment is a big issue and its not because young people are not qualified enough. It is that pretty much all products are outsourced (faster and cheaper to consume more) and not all these young people will become softwear engineers or graphic designers.

We need to encourage other options and those can only happen if we allow for craftsman/artisans to collaborate and flourish, have access to the market and compete with large corporations wherever they maybe,  New York or New Delhi.

Technology today allows for transparency and traceability which are fundamental for real collaborations to take place.

So I ask if the consumer (and I hate that word–let’s use customer instead) gets a fair choice, each with its real methods of making easy to access and verify (real transparency) will they really want to choose the mass produced unsustainable option over the unique sustainably crafted one? I think not.

And you’re not alone. You’re talking to some BIG, BIG companies about doing some collaborations with them. What’s been the reaction, what’s their biggest surprise about working with you? The IOU Project was born out of the spirit of collaboration and the belief that human progress depends on our ability to do so.

We offer the IOU Project´s prosperity chain to other designers, artisans/craftsman and small and big brands. We don’t want to be like a traditional fashion brand and hide our sources. We believe in sharing our technology and systems so that this idea of complete transparency becomes the standard.

A lot of companies have contacted us to explore collaborations. In 2012 we will be announcing some very exciting ones.

What surprises them most is our approach to the entire process. It is about Big Design and not just making a cool looking product. Its about redesigning the entire system to ensure that it works for everyone involved. That it is about making profit while making a great product and making the people involved proud and happy about what they do.

At the consumer level, what’s the very coolest thing you’ve seen happen as a result of the IOU project? These last 6 months have been amazing. We have had people contact us from all over the globe, customers, artisan communities, factories, fashionistas–even students. There are over 200,000 blog entires about the IOU Project and we have spent not a single penny on marketing or PR. Clients have gone out of their way to reach out to us and the artisans.

What gets you inspired? The chance to make real change happen, to be able to tell my children a good story about the journey.

If this journey of the IOU Project were a movie, what movie would it be? It may sound incredibly cheesy but I would say ¨Its a Wonderful Life¨. I have felt like George Bailey at times when things have gotten real tough. This is such a BIG idea that a lot of people believe we have bitten off more than we can chew, and that people don’t really care. But let me tell you, after just 6 months PEOPLE DO CARE.

What’s the first thing you reach for in the morning? I am ashamed to admit that it is my iPhone.

Details

www.iouproject.com

All images courtesy of IOU Project


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