Jonit Bookheim is Partner and Director of Sales and Social Impact of Chicago-based, fair trade fashion brand Mata Traders. You may recognize Mata Traders' trademark graphic, retro-inspired dresses from retailers like ModCloth (Think 50s fit and flares and 70s shift dresses with handmade prints and embroidery says, Jonit).
I met Jonit a year or so back at an event in her hometown of San Diego. I told her I loved the dress she was wearing -- I quickly came to know and love Mata Traders. I recently sat down with Jonit over some home-brewed Peet’s Coffee (mine that is, Jonit was in Chicago) to interview her. I asked her what it’s like being an ethical brand in the fashion industry, what she loves most about working with the artisans in India and Nepal and much more.
What is your favorite coffee shop in Chicago? What do you love about it?
We have a great local coffee shop near Mata’s office called Spoken, and what I love about them is not their coffee but the delicious cream cheese blends they make. My favorite is dill feta cream cheese which I get on an everything bagel with a side of lox. For coffee, I make a fair trade french or italian roast on my stove top espresso maker. If you ask me, once you have coffee from one of those, you can never go back to any other method.
What fashions / style icons were most influential as you established your own personal style?
Well, I grew up in the grunge years wearing jeans, flannel shirts, and baseball caps. Later I transitioned into skirts and dresses, but I was wearing them over jeans for a while, which my mom thought was crazy. One of my biggest style icons is my friend, Michelle, who taught me to love mixing prints. Now my style is most influenced by Mata’s colorful fit & flares, with a day of jeans with a flannel thrown in every now and then.
What is it about the fabrics and artisans of India that you find most inspiring?
It was the handcraft of India that inspired my friend, Maureen, to start Mata Traders. We were backpacking in India, and she was absolutely enamored by the handmade fabrics, tapestries, jewelry, and other crafted goods. They just looked different from what we were used to, and she was drawn to them. In a world of mass-produced factory fabric, a handmade textile really stands out as something special. Now it is an aspect of our business that we are most proud of: our use of handmade fabrics is helping to continue centuries-old craft traditions and supporting the artisans that rely on them for their livelihoods. Working with artisans directly and being that bridge connecting maker and consumer is also something that inspires us.
What is it like being an ethical business in the fashion industry?
It is our 10th anniversary this year, and it’s great to see that ethical fashion has become a buzzword and is generating more support in the mainstream marketplace. I think like any small business, we work hard to produce a quality product that people will want and then to get that product out there in front of shoppers. We also try to tell the story behind our products, so that people can appreciate the social impact of purchasing fair trade goods. It’s inspiring to see more and more people questioning the fashion industry and are seeking out ethical alternatives like Mata Traders for their wardrobes.
What can we look forward to with Mata Traders’ summer collection?
This summer, conscious consumers can shop a mix of breezy, feminine, boho-mod dresses and jewelry designed in-house and crafted by female artisans. We’ve got hand-woven plaids, pinstripes, and ikats in pastel tones and funky floral and geometric prints. Browse the catalog here and shop the collection here.
What advice would you offer someone launching their own fashion brand?
Well, all I can tell you is what’s worked for us, although I’m sure there are other ways to go about launching and growing a business. So my advice is to start small and test the market. Focus on designing what will sell, seek out all sales channels you can, and be disciplined with financial management.