Paul van Zyl: Transforming artisanship into a luxury brand

Paul van ZylThe sun sets in gold, orange and pink on the Ganges River where weavers in the 500-year-old silk tradition of Varanasi gain inspiration from the primordial luminescence of the land. But in this ancient city, the spiritual capital of India, the looms sometimes sit idle, unable to compete with cheap knock-offs from the Far East.

The world cannot afford to lose these gorgeous, handwoven silks or the cultural knowledge of the artisans who produce them, according to human rights activist and social entrepreneur, Paul van Zyl. 

Follow the inspirationVan Zyl is the co-founder and CEO of Maiyet, a luxury designer brand with a global conscience. A former South African lawyer, he now operates from the epicenter of the fashion industry in New York, where he hopes to protect the livelihoods of skilled artisans by making “covetable” the culturally-unique objects they create.

Maiyet’s strategy is to turn some of the world’s oldest cultural productions into luxury items demanding price points that acknowledge their unique worth: “Luxury is all about artisanship, and as long as we have a sense of refinement and culture, we are going to want to have objects made with great skill.” 

To help preserve disappearing artistic traditions, Maiyet has partnered with Nest, a nonprofit that provides infrastructure and training to improve working conditions for artisans while keeping them profitable and socially conscious in a global marketplace.  

“We felt that there are a spectacular group of artisans around the world whose work is being undervalued,” van Zyl explains. “Some forms of artisanship have a deep heritage and artisans will have to position themselves as precisely that in order to survive.”

Maiyet, according to van Zyl, fills a gap in a market that did not have a single luxury brand with a social mission at its core. 

The brand is grounded in the philosophy that shared economic interests strengthen associations among diverse people. Muslims and Hindus in India have a better chance of establishing a peaceable co-existence if they see themselves as a unified group producing a valuable and respected commodity like Varanasi silk.

“If you get that identity shift to occur,” van Zyl explains, “it becomes much more difficult to tear those communities apart with religious demagoguery. There are a thousand ways in which you can privilege and strengthen more tolerance and more interactive forms of civic life, and there a thousand ways in which you can undermine it.”

Having lived through the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, van Zyl understands communities in conflict. He describes the “dual reality” of his own stable, middle-class life in the white suburbs while poverty, deprivation, oppression and violence were meted out against the majority of citizens. 

“Growing up as a white South African puts a particular onus on you to think about how you use that privilege to broaden opportunity and correct injustice,” he says.

Van Zyl was the executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid-‘90s, actively participating in the struggle against Apartheid and has since advised other countries on how to transition to peace after periods of great violence.

“In my lifetime, good prevailed over evil,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the case that that happens. I’ve seen how an extraordinary amount of energy, sacrifice, courage and ingenuity can, in fact, make a very significant difference when things seems hopeless and insurmountable.  Everything I’ve done in my life has been about that.”

Van Zyl now brings his humanistic vision to the global market. In the next five to ten years, he predicts, businesses will be assessed not just on profitability but on the way they achieve social impact. And this “new norm” will be driven by a basic economic pragmatism: industries that give back will simply be more sustainable.

Starting a luxury brand with a deep social mission is a “gigantic challenge,” van Zyl acknowledges, but he is confident that Maiyet will help bend the forces of the market toward benevolence. The company has already brought the shimmering palette of the Ganges sunset to an exclusive clothing line at Barney’s New York. 

To achieve such far-ranging social entrepreneurship, van Zyl recommends high optimism and some old-fashioned pluck: “Throw yourself at the more challenging and tricky problems in the world with the hope that you can overcome them.”

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