One of the best parts of my job working as a fashion editor in NYC is meeting with amazing brands and designers both big and small. I love hearing all the inspiring stories of people starting something from nothing and creating products that affect people’s day-to-day lives. About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet Maureen Dunn one of the masterminds behind the fair trade brand, Mata Traders, I knew I wanted to have her as one of our Monthly Muses. Many months later, and one original content shoot behind us, she is now graciously speaking to us about her amazing travels, the challenges of running a fair trade company and juggling her home and work lives.
Was working in fashion something you always wanted to do?
Nope. I studied film in college and had a passion for making documentaries. But I have always been a “seller” at heart, starting with my first lemonade stand where I mastered the upsell on 5 cent twizzler sticks. And in high school I made necklaces out of vintage finds and sold them at art fairs, so I’ve always been artistic and entrepreneurial minded.
How did you get your start?
My two best friends and I developed a severe case of wanderlust and found ourselves traveling the world, saving up again, and traveling some more. In order to support my habit, I decided to start a little business, buying things on my travels to then take home and sell. Leather sandals, antique tapestries, colorful bangles, you name it. I was in India buying in the local markets, and I started to question who was making my goods and how much they were being paid. I’d heard about fair trade, and once I looked into it I realized there was a better way to do business. I sought out fair trade cooperatives so I could meet the people who made my products and work directly with organizations making a positive impact on the grassroots level. Soon I not only had unique handmade products, but I also had what felt like a new family with the co-op women I worked with.
In full circle, the two best friends I travelled with, Jonit and Michelle, later became my business partners. I couldn’t have gotten the business where it is today without them.
What are some of the difficulties you faced early in your career?
I was lucky in that I had very low expenses early on– I did not have a car payment, I lived in a little studio, and I had a seasonal job where I went around the US in a U-haul selling posters at college campuses. I made quite a good chunk of cash from that job that subsidized Mata and my travels in the first couple of years, but gave me long chunks of time where I could focus solely on the business.
I’d say the one challenge I had was growing the business on my own. The first couple of years I sold my products at street fairs and festivals in the summer, then I would take off for India to shop in the cooler months. This was in my late 20’s and was an amazing time of adventure and independence for me, but then as the business grew I got a little tired of trying to make decisions all by myself, and do all the hard work alone. I also kind of wanted a travel buddy. That’s where Michelle came in. We were best friends from college and had worked together in the past and I knew she would be a great partner in crime. She came in and helped build the business from the ground up and we had some lean times those first couple of years. Jonit’s involvement followed shortly after that.
What are some of the challenges you face daily with running your own business?
Anyone that owns a business knows you put your heart and soul into it – working is like breathing when you are doing something you enjoy so much and have a deep passion for. I started my own business in many ways to have independence and flexibility, and to satisfy my wanderlust. As the business grew a couple of things happened – we got employees! And I also had a son 4 years ago – which impacted how much of my focus could go towards the business. Mata has, and always will be, my first baby, but I’m not going to lie, juggling business with raising a family has its challenges. In a way, I have more flexibility to be with my son at different times of the day, but then I also end up working at all hours too. I was lucky to have a really solid foundation of employees and business partners by the time I became a mom, so that the work could still go on when I was less accessible.
What are some tips you would give to someone wanting to start up a fair trade business?
Make sure you have a unique product that could ultimately stand up in the marketplace without the extra added bonus of being fair trade. Or if the product is not necessarily unique, make sure you have a unique channel for selling it – like a different audience that has never seen it. Also, be very mindful of how you cost your product line – be prepared to have to raise your prices as your business expenses grow. So just make sure that the product line you are developing has room to do that.
Keep in mind I started really small. I didn’t have outside capital and so I grew organically and had the luck of great friends, who got involved at the right times and became business partners to help the business grow.
Where do you get your inspirations?
Everywhere – high and low. I love looking at the runways – Tory Burch, Lauren Moffatt, Doro Olowu, Marc Jacobs, Mara Hoffman, etc. But then I get really inspired by ethnic fashion – traditional clothing from all different kinds of cultures. And I love vintage – classic flattering cuts and loud prints.
What materials do you love designing with the most?
My heart is in the textile design process – it’s really fun to come up with modern print themes for age-old printing methods like hand block-printing and screen-printing.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve worked on?
I love the truly hand-made processes – we’ve got some amazing indigos and woven ikats coming out for SS17, and some block-prints made with natural-vegetable dyes, which have a subtle vivid look that I am obsessed with.
Where would you recommend someone visiting India or Nepal for the first time go?
Hmmmm, more than where you go is about how you approach the journey. Make sure you have one or two good travel books, like Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, and I recommend buying the local magazine publication of Time Out, if you are in a city, because then you can look up cultural events and good restaurants. Also, make sure you go with an open mind and an expectation that things might not always go as planned. Whether you are relaxing on a beach, trekking in the Himalayas, or experiencing big city life, there is always something magical to discover in India and Nepal. With such a dense population and vibrant culture, there are a million possibilities of where each day will take you. Be open to going with the flow. Oh, and trust your instincts about people. Your gut tells you a lot.
What tips can you give about shopping in the markets?
Enjoy yourself, and don’t sweat the bargaining too much. If I liked something in particular that I saw at multiple vendors, I usually will ask three different vendors to get a range of price. You are going to get things cheaper but you most likely won’t get “Indian” price, so just do a little intel and then get something if you like it and feel it is reasonable. I’m never one for thinking too much or waffling about it.
What are some of your favorite pieces you have ever collected on your travels?
I used to sell these amazing matchbook covers and hand-painted Indian religious art in vintage frames that I bought from two brothers in Rajasthan. Also I am such a sucker for old textiles – you can buy huge hand embroidered tapestries that have been used as wedding decorations that are just exquisite.
What are some of the best items to pack when traveling?
A little clothes line with suction cups for hanging drying clothes, hand-sanitizers (plural!), a tiny but packed to the brim medical kit, a small book light, a personal umbrella that can be used for rain or protecting yourself from the sun when it is hot, a good book (that you can exchange for another good book down the line), a toiletry bag that zips up and has hooks that you can hang in the bathroom.
If you had one tip on how to live a more stylish life what would it be?
Be your true fashion self. Everyone has an innate style – embrace it. I always struggle with styling – like what cardigan or shoes to wear with a dress. So I like looking at magazines or blogs for that. I also think that just pulling out your favorite pair of jeans is the easiest choice, but try to wear something different from your closet everyday.
Hope you have enjoyed the post and a big special thanks to our amazing team that worked on the beautiful imagery for our second TEE original content shoot and Maureen for the interview. If you want to check out more of the adorable pieces from Mata Traders visit their site HERE.
Photographer: Della Bass
Styling: The Everyday Editor / Jessie Ajluni
Hair: Gina Guercia @ Next Artists using Oscar Blandi
Makeup: Michelle Coursey @ Next Artists using Smith Cosmetics and Stila.
Model: Bianca Bernat @ Silent Models NY
The Everyday Editor