Rachel Kinley: founder of Meridian Lee
Tell us a little about your background
I have a design degree and worked in fashion for 15 years. As I became educated on poor labor and manufacturing processes, I decided to look for brands and work that would be helping instead of hurting. About 5 years ago, I decided to buy only ethically made Christmas gifts. But most of what I found was too bohemian for my friends and family. Shortly after this, I started working as a product developer for a non-profit that employs women who are coming out of trafficking and other hardship.
Through this non-profit, I started traveling and meeting first hand with the most amazing artisans. Other organizations started asking me to work with them to develop products. I still saw a gap in the market for classic shapes and modern styles that were ethically made. I asked my directors for permission to continue working with the artisans but start my own company with the goal of designing for people with a more classic, modern style and to give more work to the ladies we work with.
What was the inspiration behind Meridian Lee?
Meridian is a line of longitude connecting us north and south along the globe. (I liked the way this illustrated how we are all connected) Lee is a shelter or refuge from the wind. (When the ladies we work with have help clearing some of the barriers in their lives, they are able to thrive and help their families and neighbors) Lee is also my middle name haha.
I'm constantly inspired by the ladies I get to work with and I'm constantly heartened by the result of paying them well. We are able to funnel money directly to women in rough places who use their success to bring up others in their communities.
How has the brand evolved since it launched?
We've dialed in the quality and I believe that the strong relationship that we have with the artisans as equal partners and friends, comes through in the product. It is an equal collaboration. Now that they trust me and are comfortable weighing in on design, the result is a really strong product that will last and keep our customer from needing to purchase another bag for a very long time.
What's been the biggest obstacle for you?
Americans are still starting to make the connection between paying a little more, getting the best quality, and thinking of the maker; asking how everyone's life is effected by purchasing responsibly. This is a concept that seems to be more mainstream in Sweden, Australia, and UK based on our sales. It's crazy to me because Americans are very generous in their personal giving to charities, but then are so thrifty about products that they buy. I admire the mindset of being careful with your money but most artisans don't want charity-- they want to use their skills to support themselves. (sidenote--- everyone needs to watch http://www.povertyinc.org/)
What does a typical day look like for you?
I don't really have a typical day. It could contain anything from a photoshoot, sourcing new materials, sketching, trend research, trying to figure out how to put on a sari, to figuring out best way to ship to Australia. (shout out to Renegades of Chic who are doing awesome work there)
Describe your personal style?
I'm pretty minimal but I like color. I have clothes that I still wear from 20 years ago. My friends are probably planning an intervention.
What are your favorite brands to support?
How do you personally shop ethically?
I've never been much of a shopper so it's kind of a relief that there is a movement around it now haha-- I can say I'm so great for not consuming but it hasn't been too hard. I go to a few Naked Lady parties a year (clothing swaps...is that just a Portland thing? haha) and just made a quick trip to Red Light Vintage and bought a swimsuit from a Portland company called Popina who makes their swimsuits locally. That is the most I've shopped in probably 3 years. I have a black dress from Everlane (pictured above) and sandals from Sseko that I purchased years ago, but they are so well made that they're still going strong!
What's been the most rewarding aspect of starting Meridian Lee?
Definitely the friendships with the women I work with and getting to see them blossom. In the beginning most of them seemed surprised when I'd ask their opinion or ask them to show me a sewing technique. For women who haven't had many choices in life, even basic design questions can be really empowering. Someone values their insight and ideas. That's really powerful. In some of the groups, we'll cook together or hang out with their families. I love to be included in that. The first time I washed the dishes in one of the workshops, I thought they were going to fall over from shock haha. But I can cook a mean spicey lotus now. ;)
Where would you like to see Meridian Lee five years from now?
I want to be working with 20 more women.
Anything else you'd like to share?
It really does matter how people spend their money. It has such a powerful impact on the world-- for better and for worse. I see good things happening in the communities where Meridian Lee works and it's extremely heartening.