Until December 2, FASHIONABLE sold all their fair trade bags, scarves, and towels through their online store and various retail stores. But on that Friday evening, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood actress Minka Kelly and FASHIONABLE's founder, Barrett Ward gathered in Nashville, Tennessee to open the sustainable company's flagship store.
FASHIONABLE's business model is unlike typical socially-conscious or fair trade businesses. And Ward says that was intentional since the beginning. When he started the company in 2008, when he and his wife were living in Ethiopia, Ward wanted the purpose to not follow a charitable model of business, but one of empowerment.
Ward says he got the idea for FASHIONABLE while he was living in Ethiopia. Up until that point, he had known about the sex slave industry, but he actually experienced it and saw it in that country. "And all the sudden, I see all these young ladies and even girls, that are forced into this prostitution. So we wanted to help them. And we started by working with them in rehabilitation," says Ward.
The problem, Ward found, with offering charity was what happened after the rehabilitation was over. The women were able to get out of the sex industry and receive help for HIV/AIDS, pregnancies, children, and trauma, but they did not have a job. Because of a lack of income, many women would return to the sex industry. To Ward, that was the moment he realized he needed to provide the women more than charity — they needed jobs.
And obviously it worked. In the first two and a half months of existing, Ward reported the company sold over 4,000 scarves.
Now, eight years later and moving from scarves to socially-conscious, durable bags and accessories, FASHIONABLE moved from online sales to their first physical location. And they didn't have to do it alone.
In 2008, Minka Kelly sought Ward out after her mother died and before the company was named FASHIONABLE. "I was at a time of my life where, I had just lost my mom. I knew I needed to be of service to recover from that," says Kelly. "This is the collateral beauty. And what Barrett was doing, in particular, spoke to me, just because a lot of the women he was working with reminded me of my mom."
Kelly's mom was actually involved in the sex industry, as a dancer. The same year she lost her, Kelly had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia with Ward. And she says she instantly felt a connection to these women, most of whom didn't even speak the same language as her. By the end of her trip, Minka said that we needed Africa more than Africa needed us. "When you go to a continent like Africa and you spend time there with these women who have nothing and they live in the slums and you see how much they take care of each other and you see how little they really need, that’s a lesson that we all could use when we’re hear consuming and competing and striving for more," says Kelly.
To Ward, Kelly is not a typical celebrity endorser. Aside from sticking with the company for over eight years, she has bonded with Ward's family and the entire staff at FASHIONABLE. She contributes to the design ideas, new business ventures and "screams the brand from the mountaintop," according to Kelly.
Right now, the company has no further plans of expanding their stores. But they do have plans of expanding their products. When Ward and his family moved back to Nashville from Africa, they realized sexual injustice was happening in their backyard. He began working with women in Nashville that were also coming out of addiction, homelessness and/or prostitution to make FASHIONABLE's jewelry line. And in 2017, the company (including Ward and Kelly) have plans to travel to Peru to create a clothing line. Without giving too much away, Kelly said next year, the store may need to expand to include dressing rooms.
No matter how many products they sell or how many items they add to their online store, Ward says they ultimately never want to forget their mission of empowerment, or confuse it with charity.
"What’s always been important to us is the maturity of our product development does not exceed the maturity of our missional impact. We don’t want to lose that focus," says Ward. "While we're going to be launching into several new categories of products, the most exciting thing is we’re going to be launching into some new missional impact metrics for how we measure the efficacy of our work. And that’s the most exciting thing."
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