By K. Binkowski | September 2016
Meet Tavie Meier of MadeFAIR
Living abroad is so often a catalyst for personal growth. Tavie Meier’s story is no exception. Living and working in Cambodia inspired a transition from the non-profit industry to the launch of a thriving social enterprise, MadeFAIR. Tavie has studied anthropology, had a successful nonprofit career, run a Cambodian guest house, and now launched a thriving fashion boutique that partners with ethical fashion labels from around the world. In our short time with Tavie it became clear just how passionate she is about bringing transparency and responsibility to the global market place.
You have built an eclectic line of clothing and accessories that not only inspire high fashion but also reflect admirable ethical standards and social impact. Needless to say, we are so impressed. Tell us, what was the inspiration behind MadeFAIR?
Thank you! The attention we’re getting from people I’ve admired before MadeFAIR started never ceases to amaze me. Long story short, MadeFAIR emerged from the traveler’s lifestyle, but we’re focused on sensible fashion an expat would keep in her wardrobe. She could be in Saigon one week, fly home to Denver for Christmas, then have a girls holiday in Ibiza a few months later, all while holding down a full-time job that requires a business casual wardrobe.
We won’t sell the dreamy idea of “wanderlust” that’s been marketed to death by mainstream brands. It’s inauthentic. If you’re running a business that truly respects the world, then why are you exploiting its natural resources and appropriating its diverse cultures? My goal in any city is to be asked directions on public transport; to me, that’s the Holy Grail of traveling. That’s immersion. That’s authentic.
Your story is so unique. How did you transition from the nonprofit industry into ethical fashion? What skills were you able to apply and what new capacities did you have to develop in order to be a successful entrepreneur?
I left my last non-profit job totally jaded and ready to find a real job, keep my head down, and save money so I could go back home. However, life and love interrupted that plan. The idealism that originally led me to non-profit turned into pragmatism, because Sihanoukville, Cambodia is like the Wild West. It’s a free-for-all with few barriers to entry. It soon became plainly obvious which industry can do exponentially more good. Which is better for children living in poverty in Sihanoukville - donating cash for a free lunch, or grabbing a drink at an establishment that employs that child’s parent thereby allowing them provide meals for their own family?
So, being in Cambodia where our cost of living is so low, I could start a high-risk business – one we could take with us when we eventually leave Cambodia, while also leaving a lasting, positive impact on my adopted community long after I’m gone. I like fashion, I understand design, textiles, construction, exporting, and I witness the global wealth gap on a daily basis. I can build a website, work on a tight budget, and create the marketing materials. Ethical fashion checks so many boxes for what I can do, it just made sense.
I learned my skillset at my work-study jobs while I studied Anthropology at CU Boulder – a major that doesn’t provide practical skills. I learned SQL, Excel, financial analysis, administrative filing systems, and very basic graphic design. I’m by no means a jack of all trades. I can make a detailed Excel spreadsheet, but sometimes I still count on my fingers. However, the things I can do created a skillset that’s greatly lacking from the non-profit industry becausein my experience so many professionals prefer higher paying jobs in for-profit businesses. What differentiated me from my co-workers was that I never had a drive to make loads of money. My dad spent his twenties working as a country director based in refugee camps in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Somalia, while my mom is a seamstress and designer who taught me to sew. Everything else – marketing, web development, customer service, fashion buying – came after MadeFAIR launched, through trial and error.
Rather than produce new products, you curate a thoughtful collection of responsible brands. How do you choose whom to sell and what standards do you have for the products you carry at MadeFAIR?
The first things I look for are material and design. It troubles me that so many brands equate ethical fashion with minimalism, and minimalism is defined by monochromatic, shapeless silhouettes. To me, that’s not timeless, it’s trendy. It’s what will define the early-mid 2010s. I’ll seek out classic silhouettes that would fit into any decade in the last century, or something so surprising that it triggers the “I MUST have this” reflex, like our Nadine Capelet Crop Top or The Asymmetrical Top. We steer clear of any ethical reproductions of something trending on Pinterest. From there, every raw material’s supply chain can be reduced its bare bones. There are two things to look for when determining ethics and sustainability: country of origin and materials used. For example, if I’m presented with something “made in Cambodia” by a small workshop, then I know it was made from either hand-woven textiles or factory remnants (aka surplus).
With so many brands and each with its own ethical standards, what impact can a customer expect to make when they purchase a product at MadeFAIR?
Our ethics begin with a simple question: “What will happen to this in a generation?” Will it be in a landfill? In the ocean? Will the makers’ children be living in poverty or even die before they grow up? Or will this piece biodegrade? Will the makers’ children have the opportunity to go to school, learn a trade, and support their own families someday? We won’t perpetuate poverty, and are constantly working to help close the global wealth gap, little by little. If an item leaves any negative, long-term impact on people or the planet, then it’s a non-starter.
We are aware of the fact that ethics can fluctuate with new information, and are highly personal. We began MadeFAIR selling leather, but we’re now phasing it out after next season because there are more non-petroleum based alternatives being used in surprising, design-forward ways – like cork or, my new favorite, pineapple leather. There’s no longer an excuse that good, long-lasting shoes and bags must be made using animal skin.
We don’t have illusions of infallibility and are painfully honest about our oversights. Like, one of our cork bags had nylon lining. After losing sleep over it, I said, “Okay, tell people on the product page and we just won’t buy it again.” Despite being an online store, we’re humans, not algorithms. We make mistakes, often, so if we’re transparent about everything from the get-go and make a bad decision based on dated information, we’ll tell you and try and make it right.
That honesty is certainly admirable. MadeFAIR is clearly born of a desire to marry beauty, design, and social impact in a single brand. But if we know anything it’s that no social entrepreneur turns off at the end of the day. So tell us, how are the values that you’ve engrained in your business reflected in other aspects of your life?
This question has made me realize how much I work. Even now, I’m answering this as I work the 3-11 shift at our guesthouse (still my day job). Ask any guest who’s stayed here and tried to negotiate a $4 A/C dorm bed down to $3. I will always respond with “Okay. We’ll just take a dollar off our staff wages for every night you stay.” I’m VERY aware of money and how it’s distributed through a business, so I never negotiate anything even if I know a tuk tuk driver added a dollar to his usual price. To me, that dollar means nothing. To that driver, it’s lunch or insurance he’ll make it through low season.
We don’t have trash pick-up at our house, so anything we throw away, we have to burn. Witnessing the end of a product’s lifecycle really shifted the way I look at new stuff. Everything looks like trash. Even the wrapper on a lollipop or a straw gets me up in arms because all I can think is, “I’ll have to burn that.” Our son was potty trained a week after he turned two because we couldn’t cope with the diapers anymore.
Now, when I go to a mall in the United States, I don’t see stores stocked with my future dream wardrobe, I see stores full of trash. It’s why I’m so meticulous when curating my own wardrobe, and by extension, MadeFAIR.