By Kathleen N. Webber
Social entrepreneur Jason Keehn, CEO of Accompany, worked in fashion brand strategy for most of his life. Mid-career he felt he was missing a sense of purpose. He went back to graduate school to study global ethics but knew policy work and academia weren’t for him. How could he combine ethics and fashion in an entrepreneurial venture?
“I asked myself: Why wasn’t I currently an ethical fashion shopper? I shopped ethically for food,” he says. In 2013, he set out to create a socially responsible brand that he calls a Barney’s-meets-Whole Foods e-commerce site selling curated high-end apparel, accessories and home goods from around the world.
On Accompany, you can buy everything from a baby alpaca fringed poncho dress made in Peru or a windowpane woven dress from India, to a black horn inlay bracelet from Kenya, a beaded clutch from Guatemala, or a leather backpack from Ethiopia. The products are artisan made, fair trade and also serve a philanthropic or humanitarian need.
The traditional craft techniques used in making the products on the site are reflective of the cultural heritage of a community. “People are looking for brands that are sustainable and related to human values. We have 125 brands impacting 43 countries that are stylish and do the most good, “ Keehn explains. “The idea of supporting people and communities inspired the name Accompany.”
The Accompany design team comb the world looking for items for their shoppers who are fashion forward, words not normally reserved for eco/fair-trade. Some are contemporary fashion labels like Lemlem, an Ethiopian line of handwoven clothing found in high-end retailers like at Barney’s. “At Lemlem, for example, we are simply picking from their line of sheets, knowing they produce ethically and fit our conscious sourcing model,” Keehn explains. With other brands, his team works closely on creating exclusive designs for Accompany that are often a design shift or color change of an existing style. “With other partners, we are creating products from scratch for the site.”
Everything Keehn and his team does comes back to human impact. Merchandise they choose on the site supports artisans with indigenous craft, often in remote regions without market access; or fair trade workshops focused on paying above-average wages, good working conditions, training in underprivileged areas and capacity building. Keehn believes consumers are looking for a “return to humanity” in their shopping choices.
“In our modern techy world, with so much digital impersonal communication, and faced with large, opaque corporations steering our lives — people are, in response, really appreciating things made by humans for humans — the maker, the artisan, cultural authenticity, handcrafted items that are special and not mass produced, but rather made with intention and with a unique personal touch.”
In three years, Accompany tripled the number of brands it works with. When creating original items with artisans, it’s an interesting balance to make sure the company respects the craft and traditions of the “maker” community, while at the same time giving the products a modern twist to make them marketable. “I think it’s in the intersection of modern trend and the timeless tradition of the crafts and ethnic influence — the tension between the two — where the products become truly compelling,” Keehn says.
“It’s a respectful collaboration and co-creation,” he continues. “Many of the artisans appreciate the outside push to try new things, get them out of their comfort zone a bit more, shake things up artistically. And at the same time, we don’t want to simply be commercializing their heritage of craftwork or appropriate their culture. It’s a balance – respect and representation should always lead the exercise.”
While initial research shows visitors to the site are mostly from the New York metropolitan area, the company’s scope is expanding as consumers learn more about ethics and sustainability in fashion and hear about Accompany through social media and press.
“Consumers are now becoming educated, and therefore guilty, about making the wrong choices,” he says. “And at the same time, they love the positive stories of making a difference, knowing that something on your body was made intentionally by a person with local skills in an overlooked corner of the world, who is appreciative of the fair work and environment. It feels nice to know that as you wear your clothes, and tell that story when you’re asked about it.”
For the same reason, gifting is a huge area for Accompany. “It’s so great to give a special, unique item that has a positive impact,” Keehn says. “We are all aware that we have too much ‘stuff’ and overly commercial, mass-produced items don’t have the same meaning that they used to, compared to something made by hand, influenced by a remote local culture, and authentically different than everything else you see.”
Images courtesy of Accompany
Kathleen N. Webber is a veteran journalist and academic who teaches Magazine Writing, Writing for Interactive Multimedia, Multimedia Storytelling for the Web, and Press History at The College of New Jersey. Outside of the classroom, she has written about design as a staff editor and freelance contributor to national, regional and trade publications. For the past three years, she has researched how fashion brands can be more ethical and sustainable in their supply chains in order to clean up the global industry. She also explored the re-shoring of garment manufacturing in the U.S.