When heavy flooding ravaged parts of Pakistan in 2010, destroying communities and leaving thousands of citizens homeless and displaced, designer Rachel Roy decided she wanted to do something about it.
Until then, Roy, who had been running her eponymous fashion line for six years at that point, hadn’t put much thought to philanthropy. After bringing the idea for a social enterprise program to her team, together they built Kindness is Always Fashionable, the brand’s charitable arm that sells products from women in developing countries around the world and donates portions of proceeds to nonprofit organizations. Roy’s forthcoming collection, which debuts on International Women’s Day, will donate proceeds to gun control nonprofit Everytown For Gun Safety and Time’s Up Now, the Hollywood group fronting legal costs involved in workplace sexual harassment and assault lawsuits.
Fresh off her recent appointment as ambassador to United Nations Women, Roy spoke with us about how her philanthropic mission has evolved over the years, and how businesses like her own can effectively team with governmental groups to create meaningful change. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you bring the rest of your staff onboard to add a charitable arm to the company?
I went to my office and went to my executive team — which has always largely been women, we’re 95 percent female — and we brainstormed around what we could do. The idea of giving back shouldn’t make your business plan fall apart. The idea that I could make product, and still benefit different natural disasters and devastations was something that really spoke to me. What’s really modern for me is the idea of making a passion project a full-fledged business. I think the next generation of leaders should know that purpose, passion and profit can really go hand in hand. That’s something I’m trying to teach my daughter as she’s going to college and selecting majors.
Lauren Bush Lauren, the founder of Feed, previously told me that many fashion companies are still dragging their feet about incorporating charity into their businesses. Why do you think that is?
I think the reason they’re weary is that it’s really difficult to start your own business. To maintain it and to have longevity, oftentimes you need a partner, and oftentimes these partners are entities or individuals that come into place financially. Usually, historically, people that give money want to see a profit. They’re not going to be the leaders in looking to give back — that’s a general statement, but for the most part, that’s how it works.
Fair enough. Then how do you suggest entrepreneurs work smartly with investors and financial partners to ensure philanthropy doesn’t get tossed by the wayside?
Work with a partner that has a shared vision. With my first partner, we worked it into the contract to state that every season, we will make product by artisans in third world countries. After we got through the hiccups of the contract, we never had to discuss it again. So I would say focus on working it all into the contract, so you only have to discuss it once. And for companies that don’t need partners and can fund it themselves, it’s a matter of who you surround yourself with who can creatively and innovatively think outside the box.
How have digital efforts played a role in helping you advance programs like Kindness is Always Fashionable?
When it comes to digital, for me, there is no other platform to get the story out, besides grassroots efforts and me going store to store, which is also something I do. But the main platforms are my website and social media. Instead of doing campaigns and having beautiful images with models, I put every single extra dollar I had into launching into e-commerce years ago. That’s still where most of my budget goes.
It’s impressive that a significant portion of your executive staff is female. Given the lack of female leadership in the fashion industry, I don’t think many others could say the same. Was that intentional?
It’s not that I make the decision when I’m interviewing, but I do have a company that’s mostly female, which shows it can work very successfully. But I’d like to also point out that the males I do have working on the brand are such assets and honestly so valuable to me. Without men that are willing to be a part of the solution, and willing to empower and listen, we won’t get anywhere.
How has your position as a woman of color impacted your experience as a designer?
The honest truth is that when I started in 2004, I felt that being a brown woman gave me an advantage. It was never a disadvantage. Fashion is looking for characters. If you think about the most famous designers in the world, they’re characters. It’s a venue where if you’re different and you have talent and conviction to work hard, you can be successful. However, I know it’s not like that in industries surrounding fashion. For example, it’s much different for models than for designers that are diverse.
Now that you’re working with the U.N., how do you hope to merge your own philanthropic efforts with a governmental entity?
I found that in speaking to different people that work at the U.N., the private sector is an asset to them. We don’t have the red tape that you have working for the government or working for an organization like the U.N. When companies like my own come in and focus discussion on developing businesses through innovation and marketing across different markets, they find it’s a helpful way to accelerate the work they’re trying to achieve. It’s kind of like having a great board of directors or consultants.