At the beginning of March I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Shea Parton of Apolis. It would be a grave reduction and plain error to simply call Apolis a clothier. What the people at Apolis have created is much larger and greater in its impact on global good. Read on to learn more about their inspiring vision.
How and when did Apolis begin?
We really started Apolis full time when we moved to Los Angeles in 2007. And it really came together growing up in Santa Barbara, our parents knew that we’d never really be able to appreciate how good Santa Barbara is, so we travelled from an early age. Through all the travelling we did we were expecting a lot of differences; the languages, currency, plug outlets. But we were blown away by all the similarities, everyone has the same desire to really learn and provide for their family. Our parents really had a heart for the nonprofit world and the whole level of really providing for your family was so nice.
There’s the proverb “Teach a man to fish and you provide for a lifetime, but if you give him a fish, you only provide for a day.” We really took that proverb to heart. The more that we saw in the nonprofit world, we noticed that there’s no problem in finding a lot of well trained fishermen. All of these people had the ability to make something or work hard, but they didn’t necessarily have the right bait or a large enough pond, and so we decided to start a business where we would co-design, manage the cooperatives, create a product that is relevant for a wider audience and a stronger market, and really anchor it to the word Apolis, which means “Global Citizen”, because we feel that all people should have equal access to opportunity. So that’s sort of been the way we’ve come to do what we do.
The idea of advocacy through industry is interesting. It places a lot of autonomy and responsibility in the consumer’s hands. Overall, are consumers ready for this? Has this been the experience at Apolis? Do you think your customers are drawn to Apolis because of the advocacy it promotes or is it simply an added bonus?
We think that people today are [more] sophisticated than ever. They expect to know what goes into, and where and how and who is connected to the product they are purchasing, but also people ultimately purchase product that makes them feel good and there’s no way to change that. What we’ve come to cope with in the industry is that if we really want to see change we have to see how consumerism can empower people. If there is a shift, [it should be] in people noticing that anything they purchase can impact someone on the other side of the world. We think it can change a lot, and it can work in any sector of business, it just so happens that we’re in this niche of clothing and textile.
We’ve begun to notice that it has to start with a beautiful product, something that just stands on its own. Our hope with our example of our Advocacy Impact, where we index the progress that we make on a social level each year through our advocacy projects, is that we can be an example of the model making sense [and show] that consumerism has a very significant impact. We are connected to markets that are looking for first world buying power in sight of a very disenfranchised third world. We're in a position where we can bridge these worlds, and that’s the hope with this concept of advocacy through industry.
Have you received any criticisms about Apolis’ consumer-activist approach in terms of whether this type of enlightened capitalism is truly effective?
We’ve come by a book that’s been very beneficial to us. A friend of ours wrote it. [The author's] name is Dan Palotta. The book is called “Uncharitable” and the subtitle is “How Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential”. The whole concept is that the for-profit model focuses on creating sales through advertising and motivating people through dollar signs and the nonprofit world creates revenue through begging and motivates people through guilt. It’s a really stark, extreme contrast.
First off, from just a consumer perspective, it’s hard to see [the for-profit world and nonprofit world] work in a sense of partnership but what we’ve notice that if you stay on the traditional model of nonprofit creating change, you’ll see some sort of change in these worldwide epidemics 50 to 100 years from now, but if you responsibly adopt free market capitalism, within what Bill Gates calls “creative capitalism”, you can see change five to ten years from now. Dan Palotta explains this through high level research in his book.
Textile and garment manufacturing, if you look throughout the developing world, it’s the first step on the ladder of development. The ladder of progress within these developing countries begins with providing jobs, from the grower to the sewer, so we’ve seen that this industry that we’re in and how we’re responsibly adopting free market capitalism is allowing us impact on a couple different levels that we feel is significant. We do receive criticism and that’s not something we’re concerned about, we think it’s par for the course, but we’re grateful to be doing what we love and learning a ton and always wanting to being challenged so we can be better. It’s been very exciting and challenging.
Can you tell us some about past Apolis projects and how they have benefitted communities?
We’ve worked with an Ugandan mill in Jinja, Uganda, Northern Uganda, and we’ve utilized seven farmers’ entire annual yield of cotton with the manufacturing of the Philanthropist Briefcase. We’ve sold 700 units of the Philanthropist Briefcase.
We’ve worked with a women’s cooperative in Bangladesh. Starting off we had about five women working at the cooperative, and today, with over 4000 units of the Market Bag, we’re able to employ twenty-one women. And it’s all broken down in our advocacy impact with time frames that they’ve been employed. Overall the product has been an outlet for their employment and it’s a pretty straightforward level of how it impacts people. What we’ve been blown away by, specifically in Bangladesh, is that when you empower leaders, they will get it. They understand that to build a profit, they take care of their employees and they do it with a level of leadership that is amazing. It is amazing how much more productive it is than just giving them a portion of the proceeds and putting together some guidelines for how they need to spend it. A tangible way that that’s been real in Bangladesh is the general manager, who has been our contact for the last few years, is taking the profit from the project and investing in his community; with education, providing school supplies, and with taking care of the female artisans. He’s come to us to help him invest in his infrastructure, because we’ve gotten to the point where we’re outgrowing his infrastructure. To keep up with our demand we’ve created our Defend Tomorrow initiative that’s allowed us to train twenty women every six months. That’s allowed us to not have to outsource any of the manufacturing of the Market Bag and it allows us to keep it all in Bangladesh with the same cooperative. We’re able to scale with the project and give the co-op the security of a long-term partnership. That’s what we feel is the most beneficial.
I’ve noticed that many of the Apolis projects have made efforts to directly support women in the communities where they are taking place. It seems to be a larger (and, in my opinion, positive) trend within the world of micro loan/financing in the developing world. Why is it important to Apolis to support projects that involve women?
Statistically, whether anyone wants to argue with this or not, women in developing countries are much more responsible. They have the burden of children that they’ve often raised on their own and they are the least selfish population out of the developing world. They have an incredible track record of putting any money into raising their kids. Men in the developing world often have a track record of laziness, gambling, traits that are true to stereotype. We haven’t sought after women cooperatives; it just happens to be the case that the people that have been proactive about finding jobs that sustain their families and jobs that have longevity are women. And it’s often in these cooperative-type environments where they have a dividend that’s to their name, they have a level of real ownership, and this team effort in creating a social enterprise. So it’s totally coincidental, but a lot of the cooperatives we work with are primarily female. But it’s definitely also a part of the statistics on building an economy of women being steadier leaders.
I was just reading in the journal section of your website about your most recent project in Honduras. Please tell us more about this venture/adventure.
Ultimately what our big picture goal is for these expeditions that we do is to kind of twofold: we want to document the making of our product to really be able to connect it to the people who own the product, and do that in a way that is engaging and entertaining. We want to make sure that it’s not just a sociographic, stale document of what’s going on. In that level of documenting the project, we see an incredible opportunity in promoting tourism. We feel that that is the X-factor for a lot of these developing economies to really get their industry off the ground.
So the first expedition we did was in Nepal. We had the Prime Minister of Civilization & Tourism promote the film and give us a great quote that allowed us to get [in touch with] a lot of the people we met on the film. It continues to be a strong tool for specifically Kathmandu and we’ve notice that there’s been a higher level of how we can impact these developing economies outside of the specific products that we’ve produced. We’re very long-term minded as far as the scale, as far as Apolis will be a small, extended brand. This level of documenting the country allows us to be a little bit more aggressive on short term impact, as well as the advocacy side being something that we’re excited about, something that is significant in our eyes. It’s trying to make sure that we can do as much as possible, that our gift of how we love to travel has been a roof over what we do.
In Honduras in particular, we came across a long-term friend that went to Honduras to expand his career in medicine, specifically as a doctor, and came across some locals that were in need in this little city of Siguatepeque. He built a hospital that’s incredible, it looks like it’s out of the States. It’s amazing and a great resource for the local people in this part of Honduras. What they’ve noticed is that they’re lacking resources and they were very dependent on charity so they’ve created a coffee farm as a goal of maintaining funding for the hospital. Honduras yields really strong and super coffees which they export to the States. Fourteen years ago is when they developed the coffee farm. To date, [the coffee’s] been really neglected as far as the packaging and flavor [are concerned] so we were approached to come down with one of their close friends who is one of the founders of a coffee company in Los Angeles to develop a different kind of overall packaging and flavor, to update it and make it more sought after to improve their output.
Also, through this project, we were able to visit a shirting factory that is in Choloma, near the airport. We were able to tour our shirting factory where we make all our Oxfords. That was all built around a trekking expedition that began, like I shared earlier, to create an impact in the hope of people not reading into the headlines of things going on in Honduras that make it seem like a place to avoid as far as travel. Due to the 2012 Mayan Calendar, tourism [to the Mayan ruins] is up 200 percent and that’s been something we’ve wanted to document so we trekked the Mayan ruins and we sailed the coastline and we put way too many miles on our little rental van. It was really an exceptional showcase of what a beautiful country Honduras is. That continues to be the goal for our upcoming expeditions (and our past expeditions in Vietnam and Nepal.)
Do you have any future expeditions planned or is that top secret information?
SInce we’ve taken ourselves out of the traditional fashion calendar (we don’t produce products six months in advance to preview, we produce product and release it when it’s ready), we’ve taken the same strategy with all content so we can fine tune it to the final hour.
The photographs of your space in Los Angeles are amazing. Where and how does Apolis fit in in the Los Angeles landscape?
We felt there was no need for a new store. Brick and mortars are a really, really difficult sector of retail right now because people are so lacking in disposable time. The whole thought of getting in the car, sitting in traffic, finding the parking spot, taking off your clothes, trying on clothes, putting your clothes back on, buying something, taking it home to realize you don’t like, just to take it back to the shop and go through all that heartache again and then get store credit... There’s so much to be said about online shopping being much more practical and so much more efficient for people today. So when we entertained the idea of a brick and mortar we wanted to make sure it could serve a larger purpose for what we consider a cultural embassy for global citizens. And wanting to do that with a relevant intention for a regional purpose.
Our office is located in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, so starting our first brick and mortar store we thought a real relevant concept would be gallery, but to do it with the goal of hosting keynote speakers, releasing films, having a photo gallery for inspirational photo journalists, creating a good place to host people for dinner parties, etc. A lot of events revolve around our LA artwalk. It was designed with the intention that nothing is fixed; it’s all floating walls so we can change the space at any moment, there’s no shelves affixed to any walls, it’s all kind of rolling and really mobile to allow [the space] a lot of flexibility. That’s what we’ve started with in Los Angeles and we’re constantly improving upon it and learn from it before we open up our next store.
Scenes from the Common Gallery, Apolis' brick and mortar in the Arts District of Los Angeles
Are there plans for opening the next store? Will it be in Los Angeles or in a new location?
We are. It will be in a new location.
Apolis has had many high profile collaborations with other clothing brands (Patagonia, Sierra Designs, Steven Allen, to name a few.) Why is collaboration important to Apolis? Has it always been a part of the Apolis ethos? Has it helped promote new ideas or changed the way Apolis has gone about doing things?
We’ve built our collections, or rather, assortments, around these four categories; the first being Standard Issue, over sixty percent of this assortment consist of American-made products, based around Americana style. The second category is Collection and it’s international product that is based off of handcrafted goods, from suiting to cashmere cardigans, etc. The third is Transit Issue, which includes the goal of equipping and empowering global citizens. Empowering is within the Advocacy realm and equipping is within this Transit Issue realm, where on these expeditions we’ve wanted to create the most durable and travel-ready product, to stand up to the moment and be travel-friendly. The fourth is Uniform, where we’ve commissioned brands that we feel are the best in their respective competencies.
We went to Filson to create what we consider the best briefcase. We went to Patagonia to create the best windbreaker for our expedition to Vietnam. We’ve reached out to these companies because we’ve been blown away by their standard for excellence. We don’t have the desire to recreate what they’ve done or compete with them, but rather partner with them in the form of our category of Apolis Uniform. That’s been the overall concept of collaboration for us. It’s worked in our favor to be able to reach people and it's allowed us some street cred. It’s been an absolute privilege to work with these companies who have taught us what it means to consider standards of quality and taking care of workers and everything in between. It’s allowed us to get an education beyond our years.
Revolver is a proud stockist of Apolis Global designs. Visit us to view their wares in person.