Sustainable Fashion: Marissa Heyl, Founder of Symbology Clothing

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Marissa of Symbology Clothing

Every day new brands are combining beauty and ethics to bring responsible fashion to the mainstream marketplace. Symbology is one such success story. Founded with the ambitious goal of making fair trade sexy, Marissa Heyl has built a brand that blends ancient artisan techniques with fashion forward designs. We recently sat down with Marissa to learn more about the business, her somewhat reluctant love affair with the fashion industry, and her international life.

Symbology was launched with a very ambitious goal of making fair trade sexy. Tell us the story behind your brand. What was the inspiration for Symbology and how did you get started?

My journey of starting Symbology began in high school, during a trip to Ten Thousand Villages, where I fell in love with the vivid colors and unique designs from global artisans. I remember seeing a poster featuring an artisan who made a beautiful pashmina, stating that she was able to provide for her family through orders placed by Ten Thousand Villages. I was intrigued.

I loved that idea that my shopping habits could actually be leveraged for the greater good. It became the premise of my anthropology thesis, in which I visited artisan groups in India to assess how fair trade empowers women. I interviewed 50 artisans in slums and villages who specialized in different crafts and I witnessed the great impact that an alternative business model that combines business savvy with social impact could make. It was in a remote village, watching a young woman block print a tablecloth, where I had my aha moment. I envisioned the piece as a fabulous dress. There the idea for Symbology was born—a perfect combination of my love for fashion and my passion for human rights.

You’ve thought a lot about fashion, its flaws and its impacts. Talk to us more about the fashion industry - your love/hate relationship with the space, why you finally decided to participate, and the opportunity you’ve seen as a result.

I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer, but decided not to pursue it as a course of study because of its exploitative and superficial reputation. It was through that incredible opportunity in India that I knew ethical fashion was my life calling.

I visited Cambodia and the Philippines on a fellowship with Ten Thousand Villages, where I envisioned similar opportunities to transform centuries-old textile arts into fashion forward pieces. Working in the fair trade field, I saw an opportunity to expand market potential through strong design and branding. I started Symbology to utilize the best aspects of fast fashion—high quality design and fit—with the ethics and transparency of fair trade. It’s been a tough but rewarding journey the past four years. Our customers are amazingly supportive, and I love that we’ve built a community of women worldwide committed to ethical fashion.

However, I think there is a long way to go for the mainstream industry to buy in. That’s why it’s imperative that customers start asking questions about where their clothes come from and the ethics behind the brands they shop. Only then will we start to see a real change, to make ethical the norm rather than the exception.

While fashion is your medium for change, your company’s impact reaches far beyond that.  What impact can your customers expect to have when they purchase Symbology clothing or accessories?

Each Symbology dress is handcrafted by a master artist, providing customers with a one-of-a-kind piece that tells a story of empowerment. The purchase of the dress directly supports the woman who made it, along with her family. We have recently partnered with the Looma Project to include a label on each Symbology item that connects customers to the creative process behind each piece and actually allows them to send artisans messages directly.

Symbology’s collections fuse ancient art forms with fashion forward trends—creating a wearable piece of art. Our goal is to ensure that these threatened art forms don’t become obsolete, but thrive. We do this by focusing on fabric design, colorways and silhouettes that make these arts commercially viable (aka fashionable) in the U.S.

You’ve clearly worked very closely with many of the women employed by the brand. Tell us a story of transformation. How has a life been changed because of artisan’s partnership with the company?

From a big picture perspective, we have increased orders by 300% since our launch in 2012, providing steady incomes to 10 artisan women month after month.

Our master printer Asha Chippa, whose husband passed away, is the sole breadwinner for her four children. Through our increased orders, she is able to not only provide the basics for her family, but send both her sons and daughters to quality schools.

In Bagru, where our block print artisans are based, many young women are pulled out of school in 8th or 9th grade so that they can help their families around the house. They are then married at a young age and have children, without an opportunity to get an education or pursue their dreams. However, through the help of Symbology’s orders, Asha’s youngest daughter Sweta now has the opportunity to go to college to study finance. She has the agency to make her own decisions about her life, which is our mission at Symbology.

It is also a fundamental human right.

Your commitment to those rights is refreshing. How have the values you’ve built into your business influenced other areas of your life?

Great question. As my husband says, to be American is to consume. I believe that we have great power in our purchasing decisions to influence global markets. I buy fair or direct trade coffee and organic produce and support my local cafes and restaurants. I have also become much more selective in what I buy, focusing on quality products with a story. My closet and our apartment are full of artisan made pieces from our travels. My husband and I have made a pact not to buy any gifts from big box retailers, but rather to buy pieces that carry stories and meaning with them. They make much better gifts anyway.

Running an international business with production in two countries and customers in so many more is no small feat. What does a day in the life look like for you as a traveler and entrepreneur?

When running a startup, there is no dull moment. Every day brings with it new opportunities and challenges to dig deeper and create better designs for our customers.

I visit our artisan partners in India every year for about one month, and most recently for a week in Chiapas, Mexico. I love these artisan trips, which give me time away from my computer and smartphone to connect with artisans, with nature, and be inspired for our next collection. I love collaborating with the artisans to create new designs and really try to push the envelope in ethical fashion. Being immersed in beautiful arts, surrounded by my creative business partners with a good chai, is an incredibly special experience that I try not to take for granted.

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?

I am so encouraged to find more brands that are doing fair trade beautifully, without compromising on design or quality. The aesthetic and fit of the garments is one of the most important things to me, so I look for unique pieces that have an artistic feel and great fit.