BY K. BINKOWSKI | JULY 2016
Meet Ava Darnell of Slumlove Sweater Company
How many of us can point back to that single moment that inspired our career? I can’t remember the first time I picked up a pencil to scribble some words on a page, I have no real recollection of the first story I wrote on my path to become a writer. That isn’t the case with Ava Darnell, founder of Slumlove Sweater Company. Ava can trace the inspiration for her career back to a single family trip to the slums of Kenya where she was inspired to combine her love for fashion with her desire to make a difference in the world. The passion that was sparked in that moment is still alive today and it was a joy to connect with Ava and learn more about her path from inspired volunteer to successful social entrepreneur.
You have built a successful and beautiful clothing line that is creating a social impact around the world. Tell us that story. What was the inspiration behind Slumlove?
First off, thank you for the kind words. I’ve always been passionate about social issues, specifically in East Africa. My parents took me on my first humanitarian trip to Tanzania when I was just 4 years old, and it has always been a huge part of my story. Growing up, I traveled all over the world working with different people groups and serving under-resourced communities, and I knew it was something I would continue to do for the rest of my life. When I was 19, I traveled to Kenya with my family and some friends to work in one of the world’s largest slums called Kibera (located in Nairobi, Kenya). We spent a month volunteering in a school, living alongside the people, and working with local leaders to brainstorm ways we could provide opportunities for people to escape the cycle of poverty.
During my time working for a nonprofit in Kibera, I headed up a project that worked with local knitters and seamstresses to provide new school uniforms to children in the slum. It was my first glimpse at this thriving industry in Kenya. Sewing and knitting are skills that many people living in East Africa possess as there are millions of school-aged children required to wear uniforms in Kenya. I had always had a passion for fashion, and for many years wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry. My heart was torn between humanitarian work and fashion, and I was never sure how those two things could become one (this was before the era of Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, Krochet Kids Intl.). After working on this uniform project, I started to understand how my love for working with under-resourced communities and how my love for fashion could be combined. In 2012, I began working with a knitter in Kibera named Claire. Her and I partnered together to design and create Slumlove’s first sweater collection that launched in 2013 and the rest is history!
You could have launched this business anywhere in the world. Why Kenya? And how have you managed to overcome the challenges of building an international business, especially in on of Africa’s fastest growing cities?
My heart is in Kenya, it’s that simple. While Kenya does have beautiful craftsmanship, skilled artisans, and a booming knitting industry, none of these are the reasons why my business is there. Having our products made in Kenya wasn’t necessarily a financial or business decision, but a choice made purely out of love.
Running an international business is interesting, to say the least. One of the biggest challenges is the time difference! While I’m sleeping, it’s daytime in Kenya and our knitters are hard at work. I wake up with an inbox full of emails and messages, typically with fires that need to be put out (not literally, thankfully). I don’t get the luxury of waking up slowly and peacefully, but from the moment I check my phone I’m scrambling to solve whatever problems have arisen while I’ve been sleeping. I have to work quickly in the mornings to get anything necessary or time-sensitive finished before the workday is done in Kenya. Thankfully, we have great local leadership on the ground in Nairobi that handle things so well. I couldn't do it without them. While it can be crazy, I love getting to be in contact with Kenya everyday.
You’ve thought a lot about fashion, it’s flaws and impacts. Talk to us about the social and environmental impacts of the traditional supply chain as well as what Slumlove has chosen to do differently?
Socially, the fashion industry has profited off of people in vulnerable and desperate situations. The reason clothes can be made for so cheap is because garment workers are being paid next to nothing. They are willing to work in unsafe and unhealthy situations because they are desperate to provide for their families, but more often that not, their pay isn’t enough to put food on the table. Environmentally, fashion is the third most polluted industry in the world. Americans alone throw away more than 15 million pounds of clothing every year, most of which is far from the end of its life. Factories and dye houses use harmful chemicals that runoff into rivers and streams, further hurting the communities around them.
While Slumlove started as a social enterprise and tends to focus more on social good (safe working conditions, fair wages, giving back), I wanted to have a positive environmental impact, as well. I think if you are wanting to put the label “good” on your company, you really have to focus on both aspects. I work directly with all of our suppliers and personally source all of our materials. We only work with organic and sustainable companies, using natural and eco-friendly materials, from the yarn that makes our clothing to the packaging we ship our products in. We try to think through every piece, from start to finish, and make choices that are responsible and ethical.
At the core of what you do, Slumlove believes that fashion can be a force for good. What impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase Slumlove clothing? Why did you choose to focus on high school scholarships?
It’s important to me that every aspect of Slumlove is responsible. I have my hand in everything, from sourcing our materials to shipping out products to our customers. I do this because I want to be able to look our customers in the eye and guarantee them that the piece of clothing they just bought is making a difference in the world. I personally know all of our knitters that make our products, and I know what having a good job that pays a living wage means to them. I want our customers to believe that their choice to purchase from an ethical fashion company is changing lives, because it really is!
We focus on high school scholarships because we believe this has the biggest impact in the Kibera slum. Education is not free in Kenya, and for children living in the slum, being able to attend school (especially high school and college) is not common. Without an education, these kids will never be able to leave the slum. The cycle of poverty is real and its hard to escape. We believe education is the key to these students being able to have a successful job, provide for their families, and escape the poverty cycle.
How have the values you’ve built into your business influenced other areas of your life?
When I first started Slumlove, I would tell people they should purchase from Slumlove because it was a fair and responsible fashion company. I would write blogs and post pictures talking all about the benefits of ethical fashion and the difference it makes, but, to put it simply, I wasn’t practicing what I preached. I realized I was telling people all about ethical fashion so they would want to purchase from Slumlove, but it wasn’t something I was living out, and I was deeply conflicted by this. In August of 2014 I made a commitment to only buy clothing from ethical and sustainable companies. At first it was difficult (I was a borderline shopaholic), but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve learned so much about the fashion industry and have discovered so many wonderful companies doing great things in the world. I care deeply about social justice, and I feel like my style now accurately reflects these values in my life. I love that I can talk about ethical fashion, not because I am trying to make a sale, but because it is something I truly believe in. Educating others about the fashion industry and promoting ethical fashion has become a new aspect of my job that I love.
Tell us more about that. With so many options available to us, the choices and considerations can be very overwhelming. Tell us, what do you look for when you’re trying to purchase clothing and accessories responsibly and ethically?
Only buying from ethical companies has definitely changed my shopping habits, and I do pretty much all of my shopping online! There’s so many wonderful companies selling products that are making a difference in the world, and with the internet and rise in online shopping, we have all of these products right at our fingertips! I go to ethical fashion websites or blogs for resources and lists of companies that are doing good. I have a few go-to’s, but always love finding new brands. I try not to impulse shop anymore, and really think through all of my purchases (buying ethically also means buying minimally). I’ll bookmark pieces that catch my eye, and give myself a few days to think about them and how they’ll fit in my wardrobe. More often than not, I’ll only go back and buy one or two things, as I usually discover I already have something similar in my closet or that it wouldn’t really fit my style. I know it may sound boring, but I love shopping this way! I rarely have buyers remorse since I think through every purchase, and I love all of the pieces in my closet. And the best part is that I don’t even have to get out of bed to shop!
Running an international business with production in Kenya and customers all over the world is no small feat. What does a day in the life look like for you as a traveler and entrepreneur?
I wake up and immediately check my phone to see if there are any production emergencies that need to be attended to. These can be issues with a supplier or a shipping problem, or sometimes just a question a knitter has about a design. I check in with our on-the-ground manager in Kenya to get an update on production, like what has been completed and what still needs to be done. My workshop in Kenya also produces apparel for a few other ethical fashion brands, so I’ll check-in on whats going on with them, as well. I sew on all of our tags and labels at our office in Austin, Texas, so often you can find me at my sewing machine doing that. All of our orders are boxed up and shipped out of Austin, so that consumes a good part of my day, too. Social media is also a huge part of running a business (especially in the fashion industry). Planning photo shoots and creating content for our social media accounts are done several times a week. Depending on what we have going on, each day can look different! I design all of our products, but typically the process of actually sketching and designing only happens a few times a year.
On top of that, I try to be in Kenya 2-3 times a year. My absolute favorite part of this business is getting to work with our women in Nairobi, it’s the whole reason I do what I do!
Photography by Katie Jameson