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"We've got a limited time here, we should leave an impact."
1 April 2013

Paul van Zyl does ethical fashion

Interview by Imogen Carter
Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

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.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

 It’s a fascinating journey you’ve taken, from being an activist in apartheid South Africa to setting up a luxury fashion label in New York. Your parents were white Afrikaners opposed to apartheid. How did that manifest itself during your childhood?

There are two recurring images in my mind. The first was that my father, a professor and head of television and dramatic arts at a major university in Johannesburg, wrote a very well read newspaper column reviewing television. Doing that in the 1980s, you could either cover Bonanza and The Brady Bunch – all the imported American sitcoms – or you could write a commentary on state control of the public broadcaster. My dad’s column became the latter. So from a very early age I recall the nine o’clock news coming on and my dad saying, “this newscast is filled with lies and propaganda” before taking a cushion and throwing it at the television. That obviously influences you as a child.

Both my father and mother would have very long arguments with my grandparents whenever we went to visit them. I remember lying in bed and hearing them shouting at each other until the early hours of the morning about the nature of the society we were living in. So I suppose I grew up with a very strong sense in the home that ours was an unjust society.

But that was all very academic – I still grew up as a relatively privileged white South African. I think the real shift came when I went to university. I was 18 when I arrived at university in 1988. State of emergencies had been declared across the country, tens of thousands of people were being detained without trial, stripped of their habeas corpus rights. My professors were assassinated. The black students I was meeting on campus – one morning they just wouldn’t come to university. They had been picked up in the middle of the night, arrested and dragged off to detention, where they were tortured and badly mistreated. I joined the student anti-apartheid movement then, because the expectation was – both in my own mind and in my parents’ minds – it was the right thing to do. The university had 20,000 students at that point of which 15,000 were white and 5000 were black and of the 15,000 white students only about 100 were politically active, so I was obviously in the minority.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

The whole idea of the horrors of the apartheid state went from this abstraction, as a “bad thing” to very vivid, very real and very tangible.

You were sheltered from the reality of apartheid before you got to university?

Yes, the opportunities for engaged activism as a 16-year-old white kid in South Africa were scarce. The place where you encountered activism was university. The police would march on to campus with shotguns, rubber bullets and dogs and arrest people. I suddenly realised that people die opposing this.

I was elected on to the student government and led a campaign to desegregate white schools. Because of falling population rates, really beautiful schools in white suburbs were actually sitting empty. You had schools with incredible facilities, beautiful soccer fields, cricket pitches, swimming pools and then eight kilometres away in a township were schools that had 100 kids in a class, no electricity, no running water. One of the things we did was to take young black school kids to these empty white schools and say something very simple but also rather subversive: ‘Please can we come in and get educated?’ The state really didn’t like it because it couldn’t defend it internationally, but to agree to the principle would really begin to erode the whole system of apartheid education.

I started getting phone calls, death threats, people calling me up in the middle of the night saying, ‘If you continue with this campaign we’ll kill you’. I was getting followed. On the bus on the way to one particular court case I attended – in which a group of people were facing the death penalty – people opened fire with semi-automatic weapons on the side of the bus and blew up the tyres. It all started becoming much more real.

You were still a teenager at this stage, or at least in your early 20s. Did you ever think, Yes, I have these very strong feelings and I don’t want to live in this unjust society but hold on this is all too real, this is too scary?

Every activist will tell you that at some point you have fears and are confronted by doubts and are called upon to be courageous. To be clear, white South African activists were afforded a much higher level of protection than our black counterparts. The state did kill white people, there were white activists from my student movement who were arrested and detained and held without trial. Precisely because we were white the state regarded us as particularly subversive and troublesome; they expected black people to be rebellious but they didn’t like it when white people were. But in contrast, because of the perverse racism of apartheid, we were also offered greater levels of protection.

I was always very mindful that the kind of courage required of us was a different order of courage than that which our black colleagues had to display.

To what extent do you feel your activism was predestined?

From as early as I can remember I always said that I would be a lawyer. I think I wanted to become a lawyer for two reasons: firstly, from a young age I was relatively precocious and articulate and I thought that’s what lawyers should be [laughs]! Secondly, I lived in this monstrously unjust society and a lawyer seemed to be the thing that was best suited to resisting the injustice. It would’ve been weird to be a businessman or… well, the interesting bridge between that world and the world that I’m currently in is that I suspect that had I not grown up in apartheid South Africa I might’ve been an entrepreneur from the get go. I have this very strong entrepreneurial drive, which during the 80s and 90s was invested in fighting a great evil as opposed to building a great business. Now, with Maiyet, there’s a wonderful confluence of my entrepreneurialism on the one hand and my very strong social instincts on the other.

Definitely, it seems like the perfect marriage. What do you think the building blocks of that entrepreneurial spirit are?

I actually think that courage is a really important aspect of entrepreneurialism. Setting up a company out of the blue, getting people to believe in you, getting people to invest in you, running a business, making sure it doesn’t run out of money, doing things that are unlikely and hard to execute requires a kind of courage – though one that’s incomparable to the kind of courage it takes to fight an evil system.

The other is a conviction that you can change the world. And I feel very strongly that everybody can if they properly apply their energy and attention. We’ve got a limited time here; we should leave an impact. What gets me up in the morning is the combination of, There is a hill. We’re going to try to go over that hill and in so doing we’re going to try to make the world a better place. Those two things animate me.

What strikes me about you is that you manage – and I don’t think there are a lot of people that do this well – to have a very strategic brain, that can, for example, go to a country struggling in the aftermath of war and help put structures and systems in place, while at the same time having an extreme sense of compassion.

That’s a very interesting insight because I also lecture in law and one of the recurring themes throughout my course is how improving the world is a very interesting conversation between a deep moral conviction of what the right thing to do is and why you do it, and, on the other hand a very dispassionate strategic sense of how you get from A to B. If you’re governed by your emotions in that second endeavour, then my argument is that, more often than not, you fail. The world is filled with people with incredibly good intentions and strong convictions that either fail or do more harm than good because they don’t see the path from A to B.

How do you switch off your heart when your head needs to take the lead then?

By keeping my eye on the prize. On the justice front, when terrible crimes have been committed and nations are struggling with how to deal with them, your instinct can be that every person that’s responsible for every terrible crime that’s been committed – often tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people – should be prosecuted with the fullest extent of the law. But there’s no example in the course of human history where in response to mass atrocity we’ve ever managed to hold more than a handful of people fully accountable because courts are slow and deliberative and it’s really tough to prosecute even 10 people. What you’re confronted with is, I can’t do what emotionally and as a matter of principle I think is required, so you have to develop a whole range of systems which do what you can do. You prosecute and punish some people but then you have to invent strategies to deal with that deficit that you can’t properly manage.

It’s about being pragmatic about what can be reasonably achieved. The second principle is about being clear about what you don’t know. It’s abundantly clear at Maiyet that I couldn’t possibly have done this if I didn’t have my co-founder and business partner Kristy alongside me because she’s a fashion genius. We really built the company together.

You’ve always been very focused – lately that’s driven you to set up Maiyet and ensure the label thrives – but at age 24 it led you to take your ideas about how South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be run directly to its chairman: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then when he employed you, you helped the commission take statements from thousands of victims and perpetrators and organise televised hearings across the country in which 2000 people testified publicly.

Well, let me be clear, the route went this way… During my activism at university I met a range of people who were subsequently assassinated or disappeared and I came to know their parents, particularly their mothers. Through that I helped to establish and work with a nationwide group of victims called Khulumani, which in Zulu means “speak out”. It was really an attempt to give people whose loved ones have been killed and disappeared an opportunity to tell their stories and campaign for some degree of justice. Through the transition it became clear that South Africa was not going to be able to adopt a Nuremberg approach for dealing with the crimes of the past; that there would have to be some kind of middle path. So myself and many other people-I don’t want to claim exclusive credit for this by any means-worked on the idea of establishing a truth commission and I actively participated in the policy debate, testified in parliament and helped to work a little bit on the legislation establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then when the commission was established I worked in a policy think tank, which helped to propose some ideas about how it could be run in an effective way. When Desmond Tutu was appointed as chairman I went to him and his deputy Alex Boraine and made a bunch of proposals on how we could run the commission. They liked that and then hired me as the executive secretary, which was an absolutely amazing job. I was there at the very beginning and helped play a role in shaping the commission and how we executed its work for the next four years.

Where do you think that focus came from? Yes, some people in their late teens and early 20s are activists or have set up companies – but there are more 20-somethings that are still partying, travelling, who are more concerned with their personal development.

I guess it came from the very unusual circumstances of my coming of age.

I came of age at a time when there was this monstrous injustice and then I had the great fortune of living through a period where good triumphed over evil.

That’s a very rare blessing to be given by history and you have to seize that moment because it doesn’t repeat itself often. Being a white South African in a very small minority of people who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement gave me an opportunity to contribute when the change came. If you had worked on something with a great degree of focus and passion for some time then you really had skills to offer.

So after 20 years working in human rights activism and law you’ve moved to fashion. That’s quite a leap! How did it happen?

After working for the commission in South Africa I came and studied in the states and later co-founded an organisation called The International Center for Transitional Justice and in the course of doing that two things happened: I won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and I was chosen as a young global leader and started going to Davos for the World Economic Forum. In both of those settings I encountered people who were using business and entrepreneurship to try and achieve important social goals including Daniel Lubetzky, a pioneer in this field. Through deep conversations with Daniel – who later became one of the co-founders of Maiyet – I had this idea that we could create a brand that worked with small businesses in developing economies to achieve developmental goals and help build stability in societies that I’d worked with all around the world, which were coming apart at the seams. I had this conviction that if you found a way of giving people the dignity of work and something to do that earned them an income, you would put food on their tables, giving them that sense of dignity and sense of cohesion in the community.

But why fashion? That’s the surprise element, given your background.

Daniel and I converged on fashion through a series of conversations. We went through all these fields – should we do it in agriculture, should we do it in fashion, should we do it in flowers? What was the industry where there was the greatest opportunity?

I always think of the fashion industry as being a rather closed-off world with – according to its portrayal in popular culture anyway – rather scary types. Was that a feeling at all for you?

Yes, but I think there’s a sort of blissful ignorance that comes with a certain kind of entrepreneurialism. You go, Here’s the idea, there’s the castle to be conquered, I’m getting on my horse and off we go. If you knew all the obstacles and pitfalls in advance, some people would do it anyway, but a certain calibre of more rational person might say, There’s no way I’m doing that, it’s way too hard.

I realised right away that if we were going to go into battle on this I’d better have someone by my side who had fought before, because there be dragons in this industry and you’ve got to know where they are, how to tame them and how to slay them.

So I did a global search and found Kristy and she really had all the qualities that I thought were incredibly valuable.

When I first heard of Maiyet, its business model struck me as a really brilliant idea but at the same time I had a sort of “of course” moment and wondered why this way of doing business isn’t happening more.

Let me give you the one answer why it’s not happening more: because it’s incredibly hard [laughs]! There’s a reason why people like to take production to gigantic factories and churn out a large amount of stuff, because gigantic factories are sometimes, quite literally, well-oiled machines. The way we work is more difficult, but it’s what makes the product more covetable, more special, more desirable and it’s also what improves the planet.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment; both in your previous roles and at Maiyet you’ve carved a career helping people from the most unstable backgrounds – some of them victims of some form of oppression or exploitation. You’re now dressing people from very affluent backgrounds, who may, partly, have made their money through some form of exploitation.

We live in a highly unequal world in which there is an enormous concentration of power and wealth in the hands of few. Meanwhile, we have a very powerful, rapidly growing luxury market. I really think that what we do by producing a highly designed, covetable brand is find ways of driving greater value back to places that need it most. There’s nothing inconsistent about it. On the contrary it’s a way of maximising social change and impact. There are an enormous number of people in the luxury space who are looking for a brand with transparency, with integrity and with meaning. But first and foremost, they are looking for a brand that is beautiful; that you would want to wear and that wins in the fashion world on its own terms regardless of its cause.

In other words, you don’t need to hear the story behind the label to want to wear it. Or as UK Vogue put it: “Maiyet is that fashion anomaly – an eco brand that your gut, not your head, urges you to part cash with.”

In fact, frequently people discover our social mission after they have fallen in love with our products. I think that’s an enormous win. It’s one of the things that our designers and Kristy herself continue to stress: if you want to use a business to achieve social change then your business has to win in the category that it’s in regardless of your social mission. If you rely on your social mission as a crutch, then I would submit you’re in trouble.

Just as there’s no point selling ethically sourced food if it tastes like crap because people just aren’t going to come back, no matter how much they want to support your cause.

Exactly. What I really love about the way we debuted is that we were in the windows of Barneys in New York’s Madison Avenue between Celine and Givenchy. When Mark Lee and Daniella Vitale – the CEO and the COO of Barneys respectively, both previously at Gucci – came to look at our product they first said, ‘we love your product’ and then they said ‘we love the fact that you have a social mission’. It has to be in that order because the other way around you can’t build a sustainable and successful business.

You spent decades in your former career flying in to countries that had been torn apart. Did the founding of Maiyet coincide at all with a feeling that you’d reached a stage in your life where you wanted to come from a more positive starting point?

It’s really important to underscore that what I’m doing now is not a criticism either explicit or implicit of my prior life or of human rights work or of NGOs.

I am as filled with admiration for that world as I ever have been. That being said, I do like the part of this job that has a direct, measurable, positive impact on people’s lives. I like that we can build a facility for these weavers in India who are currently working in very difficult circumstances and materially improve their lives.

Those years experiencing or hearing about countless human rights violations must’ve been emotionally harrowing and utterly overwhelming at times. Were you always able to control your emotions in pursuit of the greater goal?

No, I found it overwhelming all the time. During university everybody had ulcers and sleep disorders. It was a very stressful time. Then doing the truth commission was profoundly distressing, listening to 24,000 people give their testimony about really unimaginable suffering, the worst things that you can imagine happening to you as a human being: losing a child, losing a spouse, being tortured, assassination attempts. So while I think the commission can be seen as this incredibly thoughtful, healing moment in our country’s history, it was a period of enormous pain and suffering as well. I don’t want to underplay that at all. It was profoundly both redemptive and traumatising for the victims themselves but secondarily it was deeply traumatising for the staff.

How did you get through it without letting it tear you apart?

I had a wonderful relationship with a woman who is now my wife. That made a huge difference. Being happy at home, having a loving and supportive family, makes a big difference. I’m a great believer in being attentive to those dimensions of your life. They’re the things that give you ballast, give you balance and give you perspective. Those are very hard things to juggle, trying to run a successful company, improve the world, build a family and maintain the rudiments of a normal life. There’s a lot going on.

Definitely. I’m actually on maternity leave at the moment with a six-month-old daughter and, I know people always tell you, but it’s amazing how the experience of becoming a parent completely blows your world apart. I was struck by how much you’ve achieved, in the face of the great horrors that you’ve seen, while still managing to be a well-balanced person with a family.

This is your first child?

Well, we now have three and it gets easier, [laughs] but my wife who has a very active career herself as an incredible documentary film-maker has played a really crucial role in keeping things together and those are really important balances to strike. Nobody can claim to getting them right, it always tilts in one direction and then in another, but if you’re at least aware of them you have a reasonable shot at it.

And how has the experience of becoming a father changed your perspective on what you do, and the world generally?

I think fatherhood expands your emotional range.

Before you have children your emotional range goes from zero to 10 and then when you have children it goes from minus 10 to 20.

You can experience much more sadness, anguish and concern and then much greater degrees of elation because children just impose that on you.

Then when you travel around the world and you arrive in a place and see a mother preparing a loom or doing some cut and stitch work and there on her knee is a two-year-old and she has a four-year-old and an eight-year-old and she is grappling with how she puts food on their table and have them educated, in circumstances which are completely incomparable to your own, you have a much greater sense of urgency about addressing her needs because you know it not as an abstraction, you know, My god it’s really tough raising a family even out of relative privilege.

That’s such a good way of putting it.

And you know the thing about those people, they don’t want handouts, they want opportunities and it’s not beyond our ingenuity and ability to give them that opportunity. That’s the part that both fills me with a wild sense of frustration but also this great sense of opportunity. It’s great to have a challenge that’s doable.

How do you stay so optimistic? It must be easier now at Maiyet. But I wonder how through the years you have maintained your optimism.

Because at the core I have this belief that humans are capable of incredible depravity and enormous evil but we’re also capable of greater good. If you start from that assumption then it just inclines you to optimism. You keep seeing our better angels and what we’re capable of. You look at those weavers in India who can make such incredibly inspiring silks that lift the human heart and inspire you with emotion. You see people in Kenya able to hand-carve bone and hand-pour incredible jewellery and you think, In that is the essence of the human spirit; that in circumstances of great difficulty you can make incredibly beautiful things and, making those incredibly beautiful things, holds the key to transform your life. Humans can do terrible things but they can do better things. If you start from that assumption you keep having hope.

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