By Stacey Gualandi
Heatherjean MacNeil says she’s on a fashion mission. This 30-year-old former pre-med student could have started with a simple idea. But no. She created Proxy Apparel, an ethical clothing line whose cause is to employ and empower women throughout the world thus the name Proxy. In Spanish it means one who is empowered!
“I always envisioned that I would either start a non-profit or run a business that focused on women.” Heatherjean
While Heatherjean is new to the fashion scene, she sees a sweatshop-free, fair trade world in her future. Her Boston-based accessories and apparel line launched online last year, and she is already making a name for herself among the social entrepreneur set.
Proxy partners with existing women-owned “cooperatives” in developing countries to help create pieces in the collection. Visitors at last month’s SXSW/Style X got a sneak peek at her Spring “Peacock” Collection.
The entire line will be on display at Proxy’s Earth Day Gala and Ethical Fashion Show April 21st in Boston.
Heatherjean sums it up simply: “Wear the change you seek in the world”! I wanted to find out what this “change” was all about and caught up with her right after Proxy’s successful debut in Austin, Texas…
EYE: Define what social entrepreneur means to you?
HEATHERJEAN: It’s creating business solutions that address social problems.
EYE: Has it always been your plan to combine a social cause with your own business?
HJ: Yes it has. I always envisioned that I would either start a non-profit or run a business that focused on women. Fashion really became a vehicle for that. During my travels through rural parts of South American, I observed the fashion supply chain: from cotton to fiber to spinning to knitting and then to sewing.
There were ample opportunities for job creation for women. I actually grew up on an organic farm. My family has always lived sustainably and as social entrepreneurs.
“Our mission drives our profit and our profit drives our mission.”
EYE: Proxy is an alternative to the current marketplace. How difficult is it to maintain this business model?
HJ: It’s a learning process, a work in progress like a lot of social enterprises and social entrepreneurs. Our mission drives our profit and our profit drives our mission. But the relationships that we have with our suppliers and the cooperatives that we work with are much more time and resource intensive than it would be if we were working in traditional factories.
EYE: You travel to and work directly with the co-operatives in South America. Is this the rewarding part of the business?
HJ: Oh most definitely. What’s great is I get to work and spend time with the co-ops. I love the product development. It’s really rewarding to do economic development work in impoverished areas of the world.
It’s a gift to be able to do the work, but at the same time, there’s the marketing and the sales aspect of the business. It’s fulfilling and demanding in a completely different way than the mission aspect of what we do.
EYE: Do you build and support co-ops?
HJ: My initial and larger vision is to eventually establish co-ops in impoverished areas where women lack employment. We definitely support existing co-ops and right now are working with ones that have a track record. We’re becoming a major support system.
We also support a worker-owned co-op in North Carolina that produced our tutu dress and is going into production with some new pieces.
EYE: You have frequent contact with the women at these co-ops. They must be so grateful to you. How does that make you feel?
HJ: It is so gratifying. It’s what drives me to do the work. I was just there for two weeks. They are so humble, grateful and inspiring. I’m always reminded how entrepreneurial the women are continuously in their everyday lives.
EYE: The theory goes that empowering women around the world will make this a better world. Why does this idea speak to you so much?
HJ: I served on the Peace Corps in Honduras. I wanted to focus on sustainable agriculture, and I was stationed in a very rural area. From my personal experience, I started working with women because they were more receptive and motivated to engage in my projects. I realized especially in Latin culture, women are really the caretakers and nurturers of the family.
They take care of the household, the children, and the men as well. But they are powerless in that whatever income is generated in the home, they often times don’t have access to it. There really aren’t that many employment opportunities especially for women.
So I started organizing and working with women’s groups, and I realized that this economic empowerment would lead to education, healthcare, and all these other areas.
“I saw there was a real lack of fashionable fair trade products…“
EYE: Being socially responsible doesn’t mean that Proxy can’t be fashionable, right?
HJ: I think what inspired me to start Proxy was that I saw that there was a real lack of fashionable fair trade products. That was a huge market opportunity for consumers in the U.S. who want to be socially responsible. But at the same time they want to express themselves through fashion and accessories. I saw the perfect market opportunity to create as many jobs as possible.
EYE: Did you have any fear or hesitation at all in starting Proxy?
HJ: I didn’t. I do feel lucky. It’s been really challenging to start a business. It almost wasn’t a choice. Once I had the vision and was able to combine all these passions that I have, it felt like-and continues to feel like-what I’m meant to do.
EYE: You’re first collection debuted last May and your latest was a smash at Austin’s SouthbySouthwest/Style X in March. How was that coming out party?
HJ: It was fantastic! It’s a pretty amazing place to be as an emerging artist. As an entrepreneur, there’s creativity everywhere. The networking has its own culture. It was a great opportunity for us, and we got to attract the population that attends SXSW who were really interested and aligned with what we’re doing.
EYE: So you had good feedback?
HJ: Definitely from a mission AND design standpoint. The Austin Chronicle named us one of the three standout designers of StyleX, so we created a buzz around our products. I feel like we really stood out because of our mission.
EYE: Describe the new collection?
HJ: We call it an “upcycled” accessory line. We have a bunch of new products made out of recycled soda can tabs. The belt is a popular item. We have a couple of spring garments with them as well. It’s a win/win. We’re essentially making great fashionable products out of recycled materials.
We have about 20 pieces to this collection. Most of our co-ops are used to producing handicrafts. They come from a more artisan standpoint. It’s easy for us to create new accessories with them.
So we are continuing through that process as we slowly start to grow our apparel collection and as we strengthen our supply chain and have more resources available in the business.
EYE: Why name this the Peacock Collection?
HJ: We use a lot of bird symbolism. The hummingbird is our logo and our fall collection was named for the national bird of Guatemala. It inspired a lot of bright colors and was primarily produced by our co-operative partners in Guatemala.
The kickoff of this Spring Peacock Collection started with a feathered headband and hair clip. It has a peacock feel to it. The color scheme and powerful symbolism behind the peacock inspired it.
EYE: Everything in your collection will be revealed by Earth Day. How are you celebrating this occasion?
HJ: What we’re doing this month is having a count-down to raise awareness around it. We’re teasing one product from the collection each day on our website. It will culminate with a big fashion show. We’re inviting other sustainable businesses from in and around the city of Boston to come and expo and educate the public how to be more socially responsible.
EYE: Best Actor winner Colin Firth’s wife Livia walked down the red carpet at the Academy Awards® this year in an eco-conscious couture gown made from 11 1930′s era dresses. This put upcycled fashion front and center. What did you think of this ethical clothing exposure?
HJ: It’s important at this stage to continue educating consumers about a) why it’s important and b) that you don’t have to sacrifice fashion to dress sustainably. I think as much as exposure to raise people’s awareness in general is great.
EYE: What resistance, if any, do you hear about this fashion trend?
HJ: People worry about price, especially younger consumers in their 20’s, and having access to fashions that they want to wear. I think that availability is another issue, but that’s changing and there are a lot of emerging sustainable and fair trade brands. Now it’s becoming really hot and a fashion trend that people really want to be a part of. This is definitely exciting for Proxy.
EYE: You just started the “You Name It” campaign. You like to keep busy!!
HJ: Haha. I’m really excited about the YNI campaign. We’re always looking for ways to deepen and further our mission and to get the word out about us. What’s great about the YNI campaign is that it has a democratic fashion element to it.
“We want to expand our reach and work with co-ops in other regions of the world.”
People can actually name our collections, and they can name them to honor a woman in their life who is working toward a social cause.
EYE: What is your vision for Proxy’s future?
HJ: I think the big vision is to be the go-to online socially responsible lifestyle brand. From a mission perspective, we want to expand our reach and work with co-ops in other regions of the world. We’re planning to put some tendrils down in the Middle East, Africa. We want to expand on our apparel collection so we are starting to build and strengthen relationships with sewing co-ops.
EYE: You’re responsible for handling fashion, promoting socially conscious issues, supporting women in other countries, and fighting to end poverty. Do you ever feel like you’ve taken on too much!?
HJ: I feel mostly like bring it on! I’m young so we’ll see… ha!!
EYE: Do you think you have the makings of a revolution here?
HJ: I hope so. But you can’t build a city overnight…
“Life is short. You have to live your passion.”
EYE: Do you have time for a love-life?
HJ: Ha. Yes. I’m lucky to have a very supportive boyfriend!
EYE: Would you recommend other people take your lead?
HJ: Yes, definitely. Life is short. You have to live your passion!!
EYE: Thanks Heatherjean!! Time to do a little on-line shopping. Save me a belt!! And good luck with your Proxy revolution!