Q&A Interview with kate spade CEO Craig Leavitt and CCO Deborah Lloyd

Deborah in Rwanda

Craig and Deborah in Bosnia

Back in February, I moderated a panel at FIT on Creating Sustainable Futures: Empowering Women through the International Fashion Industry.  Panelists included, Craig Leavitt and Deborah Lloyd, CEO and CCO of kate spade new york.  I recently had the opportunity to do a Q&A session with the visionaries behind kate spade on their successes and challenges of working with social enterprises in developing countries. "It's kate spade's mission not only to broaden our work and impact, but to inspire colleagues in other companies to find ways to participate in the effort to empower women through economic independence." - Craig Leavitt

BACKGROUND ON THE SOCIAL ENTERPRISE PARTNERSHIPS:

How did the partnership with Women for Women International ("WFWI") originate?

DL: The founders of our brand had been working in a very small way with some women from the program in Bosnia, doing hand knit goods.  When we started looking around for an organization to support, we realized we already had one- we just needed to make the program more formal and robust.

What made WFWI an ideal partner for ksny over other non-profits and/or social enterprises doing similar work?
CL: As Deborah said, we were already working with them in a small way, so this felt like the logical next step.  We also realized that this is a cause that not only resonates with our consumer, but it really resonates with our internal teams around the world.  When Deborah and I met Zainab Salbi, the founder of W for W, we were smitten.  She really is an incredible force in this movement and is such a dynamic and engaging individual.
How would you quantify ksny's social impact to date?
CL: We have employed over 400 women in Bosnia and Herzegovinia, 250 in Rwanda, and over 150 in Afghanistan.  We have also produced over 23,000 units between all of those countries.

How many years have you been producing social enterprise-made products?DL: Like I said earlier, the brand has been making a few pieces for some time before Craig and I came to the brand, but our formal agreement with Women for Women started in 2009 when we founded the Hand in Hand program.

What % of ksny's product line is made by the Hand in Hand program?
CL: That changes every season, but we try to make sure we are producing a few key pieces in each country every season.
What have been the most successful products in the Hand in Hand line? Why? DL: Our knitted goods from Bosnia are always a hit.  We also did a collection of straw bags from Rwanda which did very well.  At the end of the day, they did well because they were desirable product that fit well within our brand DNA.
How much has the program/product grown since inception?
CL: Well, we started out in one country and now we are in 4.  Our goals for the program have gotten bigger as well.
PROGRAM DELIVERY / OPERATIONS:
How did you build the supply chain? What was the most difficult part? How do you mitigate the risks of producing internationally?
CL: It has been different in each country.  In some places, we will partner with an existing company or organization, in others we have started from the ground up.
What are some of the materials and methods utilized for creating the product line?
DL: In Bosnia and Kosovo- we have used wool and straw.  In Afghanistan, we have used semi precious stones for jewelry and cashmere for knitted goods.  In Rwanda, we have used straw for bags and beads for jewelry.
How has the program been received by members of the local community? How does this collaboration affect the traditions and ways of life of the artisans and their communities?
DL: We have been welcomed with open arms everywhere we have worked.  Our goal is to provide sustainable income and employment for these women, so it has been wonderful to go back to places where we have been working for a few seasons and to see the effect that these jobs are having on the women.  One is able to put all of her kids through school, one was able to buy a cow and some chickens and was then able to feed her family and sell milk and eggs to her neighbors.  One woman was able to buy a home and then another small home and she became a land lady - renting out the second home.
Define success. Is the program / business profitable?
CL: I think it has been a success so far, but we have a long way to go.  The business is not profitable and ideally it will be eventually so that we can keep doing it.

DESIGN / CREATIVE INSPIRATION:

Where do you find your greatest source of inspiration? Is there anything that stands out in your mind?

DL: We were just in Rwanda in December and the colors and the way women mix these brilliant bright colors and bold patterns was so inspiring.  I loved the way that they‘d be wearing 3 crazy bright contrasting patterns all at once- one on their skirt, one on their top and one on their head wrap.  It was jaw dropping.  Really beautiful and so organic.

Is it necessary for designers to be intimately involved in order for pieces to be appealing to a Western market? If so, to what degree?

DL: Yes- absolutely.  We often send members of our design and production team to the countries, to help train the women and to ensure a certain level of quality.

How do you inspire and give creative direction in different social contexts?

DL: I really just try to take in my environment- wherever I am. I am constantly inspired by what is around me and then I share that with my design team and our women artisans.

KEY CHALLENGES:

How did you gain buy-in / build the business case for the program?

CL: Both Deborah and I felt so passionately about this project, that it really didn’t take much convincing for the rest of our team.

From my experience, merchandising dept. is most difficult, because there are competing interests.  What are your strategies to gain buy-in from that team?

DL: Luckily, our head of merchandising is equally passionate about this project personally, so it wasn’t too hard.

What is the most challenging aspect of implementing the social enterprise sourcing program / business? Cost/pricing/profit margins? Compliance? Capacity? Capabilities? Resources?

DL: There are so many things that we have found to be difficult.  Sourcing the raw materials in country has been very difficult, quality control is tough.  We struggle with our costing and margins as well.  It’s all hard- but worth it!

What were your biggest mistakes?

CL: I think we underestimated how much we would need to invest in marketing the program and educating the press and consumers about the collection.  It really is tricky and you need to put the time and the resources behind making sure your message is clear.

What advice would you give to other brands looking to explore social enterprise sourcing?

DL: Don’t be afraid to get on the ground and really dig into the communities to find out what their real needs are.

THE WAY FORWARD:

How has the industry changed or advanced since the beginning of your involvement? What needs to change?

CL: Because the manufacturing industries are so young in most of these countries, any advances we make felt like leaps and bounds.  So yes- they are changing, but there is still a long way to go.

What has surprised you the most?

DL: How ambitious most of these women are.  They are driven and they want to work hard and to provide for their families.  They are also incredibly positive- true optimists, despite overcoming horrific circumstances.

What's next for the business / program?  Are you looking to expand production to other developing countries?

CL: We are looking to evolve our program and are in the process of doing so now.  No news yet - more to come!