Column“Drawing lets me explain my feelings, all my happiness, all my sorrows, because drawing is the spirit of expression for all artists.” – Artist Jean-Mark Delphonse
Captured in a sentence, the emotional connection art can have with our souls holds a power that often becomes bigger than any of us. Clothing label Moral Fibers appears to have tapped directly into that internal connection through their mission: “Moral Fibers is a sustainable clothing brand with a commitment to artists in developing countries. We use art and education as tools to grow talent and build financial stability in the poorest communities in the world.”
Co-founded in January 2011 by Matthew Brightman (CEO) and Martin Weiss (COO), Moral Fibers is built upon the idea that international development revolves around employing the unemployed in jobs that require education and art to provide financial stability. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Brightman traveled to Port-au-Prince to assist with relief work. Upon that adventure, he met Erick Frazier, who has now become Moral Fibers’ local manager, or “Bossman” as they call him.
With the seeds of inspiration planted in Brightman’s mind after his experience in Haiti, he wrote up a business plan and approached Weiss to be his potential partner in crime. As Weiss tells EcoSalon, “He convinced me to come to Haiti with him and find artists. We had no idea how we were going to turn their art into clothing.”
Artist Jean-Mark Delphonse’s artwork and Moral Fibers tee
With the help of “Bossman” Frazier, they identified their first eight Moral Fibers’ artists from his community in Carrefour, Haiti and the surrounding tent areas. Following that groundbreaking trip, Brightman and Weiss mocked up their first tee by artist Jean-Mark Delphonse and got to work sorting out how they were going to make this new dream a reality.
Martin Weiss (COO), Erick Frazier (Moral Fibers’ Haiti “Bossman”), & Matthew Brightman (CEO)
In the course of the next year, Moral Fibers had expanded its artist base to include 15 creative minds, and since then, each of those artists has gradually moved out of their tents and into houses in Carrefour. As Weiss tells EcoSalon, “When an artist is hired, they provide 12 pieces of art monthly, are required to attend school, and give hours of service to their community. If we decide to use a piece of artwork in a piece of clothing going into production, we get our local manager Erick to ask questions to the artist about their ideas and the process of creating the piece.”
While all the company’s current partner artists are based in Haiti, Brightman and Weiss are working with the artists in Carrefour as a test-bed for their international development model. Moral Fibers’ artists receive salaries of five times the average national income, and get to choose from four benefits: education subsidy for one child, home rental subsidy, healthcare subsidy, or an entrepreneurship fund. In exchange, the artists must deliver 12 pieces of art per month, be actively attending school, and volunteer in their community.
“We’re actively trying to improve our artist development model,” says Weiss.
While both men are full of passion for international development, Weiss and Brightman are also both intent on continuously evolving their model to improve the quality of life and lifetime earning potential for their artists.
“We strive to make the best fashion, and our artists strive to make the best artwork,” says Weiss.
In just a year since their initial launch, Moral Fibers has already embraced a massive shift in perspective.
“The Fall Collection is the embodiment of a large step forward. Moral Fibers was founded as a t-shirt brand that wanted to change what a clothing brand could be, and our artists were found as inhabitants of a tent city in a failed state that wanted to change what art could be,” says Weiss.
Sharing the intimate stories behind the artwork is something key to the DNA of Moral Fibers.
13-year-old artist Jean Daniel Maurilus tells his story
While the profiled artwork originates in Haiti, Moral Fibers does much of the the behind-the-scenes work designing in their Montreal headquarters, and has manufactured their past collections locally in Montreal. Recently, their team has been working on a new initiative, which involves manufacturing at INDEPCO in Haiti. Some of their upcoming Spring designs, launching in April, have been made at this non-profit group of Ateliers that are based in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince.
Spring 2012 teaser, launching in April 2012
Managed by Hans Garoute, Haiti’s 2010 entrepreneur of the year, INDEPCO has a 20-year operating history of success, and is funded by the Clinton-Bush Haiti Foundation and USAID. As Weiss tells EcoSalon, “Garoute pairs clients like Moral Fibers with ateliers who focus on low-to-medium quantity, high-quality fashion production, and who will scale with their clients.”
A graduate of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology and a former buyer for Macy’s, Garoute is all about incentives for his employees. Offering free sewing classes to all of his workers to increase their skills, Garoute also presents his “sewing graduates” with their very own sewing machine upon completion of his courses.
Moral Fibers sees value in producing their garments at INDEPCO for two reasons. “While a ‘Made in Haiti’ tag adds intangible value to Moral Fibers’ brand image by further supporting economic and infrastructure development in the company’s pilot country, outsourcing sewing to INDEPCO saves Moral Fibers an average of 35-50% on the total cost of goods of each piece sewn in Haiti before shipping expenses,” says Weiss.
Additionally, further investing in generating more job opportunities through manufacturing in Haiti gives Moral Fibers an added-value edge.
By artist Victor Phalange
For Moral Fibers, being a for-profit business in their sector means upholding a responsibility of creating “real social good” that’s sustainable. Shamelessly, Weiss mentions a Men in Black quote when asked about the message he hopes to share via Moral Fibers: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
For Weiss, “this quote kind of sums up the problem that you encounter when you generalize about ‘people in developing countries’ or try to teach a crowded classroom instead of an individual.” Experiencing so many aspects of life in Haiti, Weiss has realized directly that individuals are smart, but a lot of them are simply dealt terrible lives, without the opportunity for education, safety, happiness, food, or shelter.
For Weiss, companies like Toms Shoes use a model that is less-than-sustainable. “The ‘Buy One, Give One’ model accomplishes the goal of charity, but will never work for development—no matter how many shoes you send to Africa. You will never succeed in substantially improving the quality of life for anyone there simply by shipping goods.”
On the contrary, Weiss pushes the fact that if you “build a shoe factory, train a foreman and workers, and produce Toms shoes there, you will.” Unfortunately, he explains, Toms Shoes are made in China because production costs are low and workers are already trained.
What Toms Shoes is doing is considered international development and it is doing social good. But, Weiss emphasizes that “Moral Fibers is trying to change this paradigm of sending the excess products of our industrialized world to developing countries and counting it as social good. Our model of international development revolves around employing the unemployed in jobs that require education and art to provide financial stability.”
While it’s all a journey of self discovery, Moral Fibers seems to be treading a particularly positive path, using art as the driving force.