The Kaftan Garments Working Towards Sustainability Everyday
Virginia Newton and Jarryd Hammel, Founders of Kaftan Life
Franklin County, VA
Virginia: In a nutshell, I’m a 30-something woman who thinks that women* should endeavor to treat themselves a little better; by choosing the comfortable outfit, leaving work on time to grab happy hour with friends, or staying in to read a book on Friday night if that’s what makes you feel good. But, of course, not at the cost of doing harm to our sisters around the globe.
I’m passionate about comfort, especially in women’s clothing! For a long time, ‘comfort’ felt like a dirty word in fashion. We all know that, ‘Oh, you look comfortable.’ can be a not-so-subtly shady remark. I work hard, I try to be a good person who’s well-rounded and has hobbies, friends and interests. Why would I want to do all of that in clothes that pinch, squeeze, or feel bad against my skin? That’s not right! The best I feel all day shouldn’t be when I’m taking my bra and jeans off when I get home. I want to feel good in the clothes I’m wearing. And I’ve never felt better than I do in a kaftan!
Jarryd and I have a lot of the same interests that basically boil down to joie de vivre -- travel, good food, good drinks, good friends. We keep forgetting to tell people this, but we’re also in a relationship! We just got engaged in November in Amsterdam and Brussels (he proposed to me in Amsterdam, I proposed back in Brussels). Something else we have in common is that we’re true Millennials in the sense that if we don’t like the way something works we endeavor to change it. That attitude helps us to work well together.
Jarryd: We’re also driven by the desire to address what we consider to be some of the ‘big issues’ in the way consumer brands operate. We all need and buy clothes, yet most of the biggest brands in this industry are notorious for under-compensating workers, shirking safety standards, wasting resources, and polluting the environment.
We want to add our voice to the many consumers and smaller brands who are pushing for a paradigm shift away from the fashion industry’s current business model. We want to offer consumers purchase options that they can feel good about, while offering products that are unique, fun, and have a positive message.
In 2018, we left our jobs in Denver and moved to Franklin County, Virginia to begin our journey. It just wasn’t feasible for us to stay in a high-cost city like Denver and make sound long-term decisions for our startup. We’ve been working full-time on this venture for 11 months now, spending most of that time getting the product perfect, and we’re excited to finally be sharing it with our first customers! We opened for pre-sales on February 1, began fulfilling orders March 14, and are now building out our boutique and event sales channels.
Virginia: The kaftan is a garment that has traveled around the globe over centuries, across cultures and is even gender-fluid. So I try to be cautious about defining what it means to be living the “kaftan life” for everyone. For me, the term came about organically with my group of girlfriends and it became shorthand for treating yourself well and unapologetically ‘doing you’ typically in the company of other supportive, badass women. So our version of living the kaftan life means that we promote women having a healthy relationship with themselves.
Jarryd: Our first line of products consists of 4 meticulously designed, 100% cotton voile women’s kaftans in short and long styles that are perfect for travel, the beach or pool, happy hour, and the weekend. As we grow, we look forward to adding a wider variety of ethically made and sustainable apparel that help everyone look and feel their best.
Virginia: In the early 2010s, we were living in New York City. We have one mutual friend who frequently traveled to India to visit her family, who always brought back these really nice women’s kaftans as travel souvenirs for her girl friends. This whole group of women fell in love with these kaftans, and would wear them during weekend get-togethers. “Kaftan life!” (and #kaftanlife) became kind of a mantra for the group.
When I moved to Denver and lost my kaftan connection, I tried to find high quality cotton kaftans like these in the U.S. I couldn’t! I found lots of cheap rayon options that were super sheer, a cotton kaftan or two that weren’t thoughtfully constructed so they didn’t hold up for long (such a waste!), and a few options that were made of good materials but those materials either didn’t match my lifestyle (silk is lovely but I get sunscreen on my kaftans!) or the kaftans were just outrageously expensive.
Jarryd: For years, we sat on this idea, mainly because of our high student debt obligations. During this time, U.S. appreciation for kaftans (as well as our own appreciation for them) continued to grow. We finally decided to take the plunge in early 2018. By then, our idea had expanded to include other apparel that’s comfortable, body-positive, ethically made, and internationally inspired. We ultimately decided to focus 100% on kaftans for our launch and to do that product justice before branching out into other offerings in the future.
Jarryd: Kaftan Life is a unique company in that we started out with love for a single product and the desire to share that product with others. When you’re motivated by the desire to share something, you don’t cut corners or compromise on your values to develop your products; you want your products to bring the same joy that inspired you to make them in the first place.
When we say our kaftans are made with care to help our customers feel great inside and out, we mean it. Flexible sizing, an adjustable drawstring, supremely soft and practical cotton voile, fun and luxurious prints, and ethical manufacturing all play a part in that.
Virginia: My favorite product is the Debut Dabu Long Kaftan. We travel a lot and I’ve found that it’s the most versatile. It’s very comfortable in most climates: the light material keeps me from getting too hot, but the length provides enough warmth if it starts to get chilly. I love to wear it as loungewear around our Airbnb, I’ll throw it on to head down to the (complimentary!) hotel breakfast or pool, or add some jewelry and wear it out. It’s the first thing that I pack for a trip.
Virginia: Kaftan Life was a no-go if we couldn’t work with (or afford to work with) an ethical manufacturer. We didn’t want to put our hearts and souls into something that did harm to others, directly or indirectly. After much research, we chose a WRAP Platinum Certified manufacturer in Jaipur. Our relationship isn’t just transactional, our manufacturing partner collaborates with us and works with us to make sure that we are informed. We visited the factory ourselves to conduct a full production audit. We toured the facilities and spent two full days working on the factory floor, auditing our launch line. The whole team was involved, from the sales rep we first contacted, to the design and auditing teams and the company executives.
Even though we’re brand new, we wanted to share our financial success (whatever that may be) with a cause that’s important to us. We give 1% of net revenue to Commit2Change, a nonprofit that empowers abandoned and impoverished girls in India by helping them to develop life skills, pursue higher education, and forge a path to financial independence.
Jarryd: Ethical production was top of mind when we got started. ‘Sustainable’ fashion was a new concept to us and something that we started coming across a few months into this business. Transport is a big chunk of the carbon footprint of an apparel company, especially when international shipping is involved. Our products are shipped by sea, which we’ve been advised is the most eco-friendly way to import in bulk. Our manufacturing partner utilizes water reclamation and treatment processes, and we’re working on plans to introduce sustainable fabrics and inks in future lines.
Creating Kaftan Life and developing apparel for the first time has come with a huge learning curve, so as we continue to learn about how we can reduce our environmental impact, having that close relationship with our manufacturer helps us to work together to make adjustments and be a better brand.
We consider ourselves an ethical brand. The sustainability portion of our brand is still a work in progress, which we expand upon in the final question. It's something that we're actively working on, consulting with experts on, and incorporating into our everyday choices for our business. We just know that there's more we want to tackle before we call ourselves a sustainable brand; and we want to be honest with ourselves and our customers about where we are in the process.
* When we say ‘women’ we are referring to female identifying individuals, but we welcome every kaftan lover across the spectrum.