I finally got the chance to hear and share the story of a brand right here in our neck of the woods! ABLE, which is located in The Nations neighborhood of Nashville has grown from a non-profit company selling scarves meant to create sustainable jobs for women in Ethiopia to a full collection of apparel & accessories.
In keeping with their roots, they continue to empower women both locally and abroad. Part of their mission is not to focus on charity, but rather to make an impact in the lives of women by giving them the ability to provide for themselves and their children in a much more positive environment than what was available prior.
We got the chance to visit their storefront and office in the beautiful old Belle Meade Hosiery Building that dates back to 1925, while hearing from various team members along with Barrett Ward who founded ABLE. After all, it was his experiences living in Ethiopia with his wife that started this whole endeavor. Scope out the interview below to learn more.
Starting with hand-woven scarves and now offering a full assortment of apparel and accessories, it seems like growth has been non-stop for ABLE since 2010, was this always part of the plan?
Team ABLE: No! Honestly, we never set out to be a fashion company. We really started because we were a non-profit and we wanted to help a group of women we were working with in Ethiopia to find a sustainable job opportunity. And then we sold over 4000 scarves in that first couple of months and we realized people really grabbed onto the idea that the products they buy can directly impact the person on the other end. So, we slowly began adding more categories and countries, with the hopes that now people think of ABLE for all of their clothing + accessories.
When you know where & how your clothes and accessories are made - you gain a sense of pride and self-assurance. This true confidence comes from within, and what follows is the freedom to look & feel your best.
What was the main goal of that first assortment of scarves?
Team ABLE: The main goal was to create a beautiful product that people actually wanted to buy - not because they felt pity, but because they really loved the product. And then the fact that it gave a woman a job and made her ABLE to feed her kids, feel confident, find dignity…that was what sealed the deal.
Coming from a different professional background can you speak to that and what challenges you faced entering the fashion industry? Do you think not having a traditional view of the industry worked to your advantage?
Barrett: No one from our team at ABLE had come from the fashion industry. Had we been a typical fashion company, I think this would've hurt us.
However, because we are trying to do something completely different and radical with our mission, approaching everything with fresh eyes and an unorthodox strategy, being outside the fashion world was critical to our beginning. That allowed us to create a disruptive foundation before we started bringing in fashion world talent.
In the early stages of design and development in Ethiopia were you setting up facilities from the ground up and/or what was the overall strategy to empower women in that region?
Team ABLE: It was a mix, and it represents our current model well. When we started off in Ethiopia, we worked with local women to start a scarf production business, and then also partnered with an existing company in the area, run by a female businesswoman.
To this day, we focus on two primary strategies for our global sourcing: partnering with entrepreneurs who are aligned with our mission, and working with existing manufacturers already doing great work with women in their community. This allows us to continue to grow and create jobs while meeting our sales demand.
It’s incredibly rewarding to talk with an entrepreneur and hear how many people they’ve been able to hire for our orders, and we’ve also seen great progress with existing manufacturers. We had a mid-size manufacturer send us a photo of their first all-female production line last year; that was such an exciting moment! For true industry change to be affected, we believe we need to work with both new and established voices in the industry.
It’s important that the brand is uplifting women in poverty rather than focusing on charity so have you found that there is a great deal of training needed to do this and if so how is this incorporated into your workflow?
Team ABLE: We have seen some need for training with our partners, but overall have been impressed with the rapidly growing knowledge of our partners who have started businesses.
The biggest need for training we’ve seen has been the alignment of quality expectations. We’ve taken several steps to address that issue; for example, in Ethiopia, we have an in-country rep that works with our manufacturers and have done extensive training with partners both through that rep and our design team, who travels to manufacturers once or twice a year.
It’s imperative that our quality exceeds the expectations of our customers, and our manufacturing partners have been happy to learn and grow in that area. It’s also forced us to make sure we have clearly communicated our expectations for quality, which ultimately created scalable processes for us.
Growing from scarves into full apparel collections have your ideals evolved or changed?
Team ABLE: Our original mission of “creating sustainable business” hasn’t changed — but it has evolved. As we’ve expanded into more categories, that’s meant also expanding into other countries and communities. It’s meant looking at the local landscape and working with local entrepreneurs to assess the needs and find new ways to address job creation. Adding in the local component of our work has been another beautiful evolution, as we discovered that there were women right in our own backyard in Nashville that needed jobs, too.
Has ethical manufacturing become harder or easier with the growth of the brand? What steps are you taking to manage this aspect of your process?
Team ABLE: This is a tough question; I would say a bit of both! I don’t want to minimize the challenge of meeting quickly growing demand while maintaining our high standards of manufacturing; it’s the core of our business, and it’s a challenge we take very seriously. However, as our buying power has grown, we’ve found that manufacturers are more receptive to our high standards, and we’re able to more purposefully plan for the future with our key partners.
We provide projections to our partners and have long-term growth conversations one to two times a year, to make sure everyone is scaling appropriately and ensure we have enough production capacity.
What would you say is the biggest difference between ABLE and other womenswear brands that might offer similar products, does being a B-Corp have an impact on this?
Team ABLE: The biggest differences between ABLE and other womenswear brands are the product and the mission. Our pieces are made of high-quality materials that age well over time, creating staples that will live in your closet for years to come. The more we grow our sales demand for these high-quality, long-lasting pieces, the more women we’re able to impact around the world.
Looking ahead we know creating sustainable & ethical fashion is becoming more important to consumers so do you foresee incorporating other elements like organic cotton or recycled materials into future collections?
Team ABLE: We’re talking a lot about sustainability on our team right now, and how we can be responsible not only to the people we’re working with, but also the natural resources we’re consuming.
The great news is that a lot of our partners are already thinking about this; for example, many of our small leather goods are actually made from leather scraps that would otherwise be wasted. All of our leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, which we find beautiful in that we’re utilizing something that might otherwise be discarded. We’re continuing to investigate new materials, while continuing to keep quality at the forefront of our decision-making!
How do we continue to engage customers in understanding the true cost of goods?
Team ABLE: Our dream is that the future of buying clothes looks more like how we buy food — that there is a label of sorts that tells you not only where your item was made, but how much the person on the other end made, if they were in a safe environment, etc. We hope it not only helps the customer understand those costs with our own brand, but also encourage them to demand transparency from other brands, ultimately forcing accountability across the fashion industry.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Barrett: If I could take a time machine, I would instruct myself to allow nothing to be prioritized above personal relationships. If I found that there were any other competing priorities, then quickly reprioritize so that all things will fall back into an appropriate balance.
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
Barrett: At this point in my life, the way I unwind is to have a wrestling party after work with my four daughters, which quickly just becomes a tickle and hug fest.
To see more of their beautiful line, check it out here!
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