How to Change the World with Piece & Co

In 2012, Kathleen Wright left the business world to begin a small nonprofit. That global artisan-focused fashion industry game changer, Piece & Co, is just three years old, but today it takes a major step forward.

Nordstrom teamed up with Wright to connect rural craftspeople with brands such as Current/Elliott, Tory Burch, Joie and Theory so that designers for those lines might utilize gorgeous handmade textiles for their spring 2015 collections. Those dresses, separates and accessories are live on our site as of now.

The results of these collaborations won’t just change your wardrobe; they might change your life, and they will definitely change the lives of the women who had a hand in bringing them to you. I sat down with Wright to talk about three of the women she’s met in her Piece & Co travels, women whose talent, skills and dedication are changing the way we see style this spring.

“There’s so much similarity—between the lives of these women and the lives of women here,” says Wright from behind the noise of a blow dryer. She’s going from low-key chic (slim jeans, pale pink tee, navy blazer, top bun, perfect skin) to Diane von Furstenberg chic in the second-story photo studio of a historic South Seattle building. By the time this interview is over, the Piece & Co founder will be photographed wearing one of the project’s key looks, an ikat wrap dress.

“They’re so similar,” she emphasizes once more. “But obviously what makes their lives different is what makes all the difference in the world.”

That difference is opportunity. The opportunity to work, to provide, to see their children build on the lives they have begun for them.

For Sabel, that means sending all four of her children to school with lunch in their bags, and it means sleeping restfully at night. Sabel told Wright she has peace of mind because of this project. She thinks about the future.

When they first me, Wright learned that Sabel had the distinction of being the fastest embroiderer in her region of Mexico. Wright was impressed and congratulated her, but the artisan’s reply was humble and plain.

“I’m motivated,” she told her. Now that motivation shows up as brightly colored needlework on Tory Burch tunics.

Nelly, whom Wright calls Miss Sass, is a lot like Sabel, and her morning routine is much the same: she wakes up and figures out what and how to feed her family—which is much easier to do with a contract like the one from Piece & Co, which allows her to share her paintwork with Current/Elliott.

There’s actually a good chance that because of Piece & Co and this collaboration, there will be more of those contracts. Nelly is part of an artist cooperative in Zambia that’s so successful that this year they’ve been able to subsidize health care costs for those group members who are HIV-positive. Wright says her favorite thing to do is work with artists like these who have already organized themselves, not just because organization yields better access to social services, but because structured groups of skilled workers are better able to build on their experiences and continue their success. They have a sort of shared resume, and high-profile projects like this one look good and do good. When the next job comes along, there’s every chance that Nelly and her co-op will convince the contractors that they’re right for it, and they’ll have the experience to make good on it.

This is what Wright calls “doing deep,” and it’s what she wants her company to do. Sustainability is a cornerstone of Piece & Co. To really bring impact, she has to help these women for more than one fashion season. When she started out, she thought she might work with a set of artisans for a long time—years maybe. Maybe she would connect artisans to brands in a long-term way. But eventually she realized that to do right by the artists, she also had to do right by the fashion industry. And the fashion industry demands change. Fashion demands new. So where she was once aiming for full-time, permanent employment, she now knows how to be nimble—and so do more and more artists. Wright’s team now includes a research and development arm that helps women unite and form cooperatives like Nelly’s so they can craft their next move and develop their business model. And feed their families better and longer.

It’s about making connections. Usha, in India, knows this. She did tie-dye work for the Diane von Furstenberg pieces, like the one Wright folds into before the shoot begins. When Wright tells me that Usha remarked on the connection between the women in her village and the women in the rest of the world, I wonder if she was sensing a network not just of mothers, women and perhaps artists, but of those who appreciate color, texture and craft. I begin wondering how long it will be until Usha sees this picture of her friend in the dress she helped make.

After the shoot, Wright will jump on yet another plane and head back to Chicago; the Illinois native settled there after years in New York City. It was a decision she made so that her family—she has two boys, ages five and three—could be nearer the family she was raised in. “Part of what we do is make the world smaller,” Wright tells me.

Smaller, and more beautiful.

 Shop: Piece & Co

—Laura Cassidy