Imogen Carter on Paul van Zyl
With his wide, boyish grin and a warm conversational style, Paul van Zyl radiates positivity. When he describes something as “amazing” three times in quick succession during our conversation, it’s clear he simply can’t help himself.
Born in South Africa, Paul was an active opponent of apartheid from a young age and trained as a human rights lawyer. He moved to America and by 2001 was named one of the top 15 lawyers under 40. While an impressive command of language and persuasive personality are the tools of his trade, Paul comes across not as a consummate salesman, but as someone whose lust for life runs through his blood – even after 20 years confronting human rights abuses and helping countries deal with the aftermath of atrocities.
When we speak, Paul is freshly returned from Varanasi in India and it’s obvious – even over an unreliable Skype connection – that the trip has left him buzzing with energy. In his latest role as founder and CEO of ethical luxury fashion brand, Maiyet, he has been visiting a group of silk weavers with whom the label are collaborating. Critically acclaimed since its creation in 2011, Maiyet works with artisans in developing economies such as Kenya, Peru and India to help alleviate poverty, promote peace and empower women.
The group, Paul tells me, are upholding a tradition of hundreds of years – all of the Royal sari silks were once made here – but the artists hand-weave in the most rudimentary circumstances and are therefore unable to compete internationally. But, in partnership with non-governmental organisation, NEST, Maiyet is developing a major facility for the group: a modern, well-lit, clean, climate-controlled building located between a Muslim and Hindu village. Weavers from both sides will work under the same roof. It will be designed by none other than leading British architect David Adjaye – the man chosen to design a 500 million dollar museum in Washington DC. Paul doesn’t do things by halves.
No matter what direction our conversation takes, Paul keeps returning to the Indian weavers. Over the years he’s rubbed shoulders with the great and the good; aged 24 he served alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa’s reconciliation commission; while working at a New York law firm he was frequently called from his day job by the US state department and other groups to help rebuild nations; and now, with his Maiyet co-founder Kristy Caylor, he’s dressing stars the likes of Kate Moss, which is not as divergent as it at first sounds. He’s won countless awards, been made a TED Fellow and has been honoured as a leader by the World Economic Forum. But from talking to him, it’s clear that the ingenuity of the Indian weavers and countless communities like them surviving against the odds is what most impresses and animates Paul, fuelling his desire to create and overcome whatever challenges he meets.