Accompany Us to Target Collaboration, We Talk with Jason Keehn, Founder of Accompany

BY BRENNA O’DONNELL

Accompany blurred the lines between an American retail giant and local vendors in developing countries when they teamed up with Target to produce the “Accompany Us to Target” line. Lead by CEO and Founder Jason Keehn, Accompany is a curator of crafts, art, and products made in indigenous communities through their timeless practices. With an emphasis on global connectivity, Target’s team funded and helped Accompany select pieces for their line made by craftspeople in countries such as Kenya, Ecuador, and India in an effort to preserve the authentic culture in every stitch.

 

 

The Impression spoke with CEO Jason Keehn about how Accompany was able to help turn an industrious retailer into a bazaar full of vibrant colors and authentic patterns.

In a world with limitless connectivity and endless options for inclusion, what are some deciding factors in how you selected the pieces you included in the “Accompany Us to Target” line?
We were so honored when Target invited us to partner with them, because we knew it would be an opportunity to bring a tremendous amount of business to our network of artisan partners, as well as prove the viability of Accompany’s ethical fashion model. We also knew it would be an exciting challenge to find production partners who could meet the quantities and quality control requirements that a retailer of Target’s size requires. Given Target’s average price point and design profile, we also had to find producers who could maintain their quality and integrity while creating pieces both affordably and with a mission behind them. That criteria narrowed the field quite a bit, when we began by looking at all the amazing artisan groups we partner with on our regular edit on accompanyus.com. Then, in collaboration with Target’s team, we selected the final partners who could meet all of a mass, American retailer’s needs and tell the beautiful story of diverse, global fashion with a mission behind it. I am so proud of our team and our partners that we were able to get this right and create such a stunning collection!

How do you find the communities that produce these goods?
The process for finding production partners really varies. A lot of it is word of mouth, where we meet people as we travel, at shows and gatherings, through our own thorough and ongoing research, or via other contacts in the fashion and international development spaces. And then there are a number of people who approach us directly, which is great — Accompany’s continued exposure in the press has made us a go-to retailer for mission-driven brands around the world. As we grow, we are able to drive more in-person evaluation and auditing, as well as develop a systematic vetting process for new artisan partners. Some brands we carry are contemporary fashion lines also found in stores like Barney’s (LemLem, for example), and we are simply viewing their collections at market, knowing that they produce ethically and fit our conscious sourcing model. It is important to us to work with designers on that level, as well as with tiny artisan groups, in order to have a high-low range and strong relevance in the ethical fashion landscape. But most of our partners fall in between, as small- or mid-sized collectives practicing traditional craft or using indigenous skills to find gainful employment with modern designers that seek to empower marginalized communities in this way. Ultimately, regardless of size, we work closely with all of our partners to ensure they meet at least one of our three mission criteria of being artisan made, fair trade, or philanthropic.

How has it been working with Target on this project?
It has been truly thrilling! When Target first approached us, we were flattered that they had taken notice of such a tiny start-up. It was a huge ramp-up for our staff, as well as for our partners around the world. The learning curve was steep, and I won’t say it was easy. There were a lot of late nights and obstacles on a fast timeline, both foreseen and unexpected, to bringing such small-batch, slowly-made craftswork to a retailer known for low prices, great design and highly efficient national distribution. But it was the chance of a lifetime to show that it can be done.  Target’s support of our in-house content capabilities made it all the more exciting and layered, as our team visited 15 workshops across 5 countries to shoot video and still content to help launch the collection and tell the story of the global craftspeople, their process and their culture. Without the added layer of marketing content, I don’t think we could have brought the emotionality of the story and purpose to life with the same level of success.

I think this is really the final frontier in proving that ethical fashion isn’t a fringe niche that’s too hippie or too expensive for the average consumer. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive: from the press to the personal notes of congratulations and awe that we are receiving from individuals around the world. My Domaine said they thought it might be Target’s best partnership yet! That was really rewarding. I am so proud that we did it. We actually showed people that what critics said was impossible was, in fact, possible! I couldn’t be happier, and this partnership truly let us see that we are an agent of positive change in the world.

What are your criteria for finding a partner?
For retail collaborations, such as our exclusive collection with Target, we simply require that our partners are committed to and demonstrate the same dedication to our mission and supporting the artisan communities we work with to create the collections. Beyond that, we have a very flexible approach to partnerships, as we are able to hit a range of price points, and able to “flex” in to a range of style aesthetics and storytelling. So we could easily do a collection that’s more minimal, vs. one that’s more bold and bright. We could flex into jewelry, or handbags or home goods. We could create a collection of products made only by women artisans around the world, or we could do a collection focused solely on supporting Africa, for example. Our broad global network of artisans and handcraft techniques, coupled with our fluid brand structure allows us to create merchandising programs and story-telling content through the lens of our partner’s brand. That’s why you see the “Accompany us to Target collection” and film as bold, bright and optimistic in tone —aligned with Target’s own brand codes.

A huge emphasis in your company is fair trade; can you tell us how this aids the communities you work with?
In the ethical fashion space, there are multiple models of giving back to support artisan groups and marginalized communities through design: the philanthropic approach (donating product, money, needed supplies or services such as food or child care); the fair trade and sustainability approach (ensuring that makers are paid healthy wages, and providing skills training to build long-term capacity and prosperity); and the artisan approach (preserving indigenous skills and traditional craft, and celebrating the diversity of cultures by bringing these products to the global market place). Accompany curates style-forward, on-trend pieces from brands that give back in at least one of these ways – we are currently partnered with over 150 producers in over 40 developing countries around the world.

While not all of our partners are fair trade certified, we make sure that all of our producers provide us with tangible examples of how they are giving back to the artisans and their communities – we receive detailed descriptions of the production processes, including photos of the artisans and their communities, and any available information on the long-term impacts of our partnership.

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