Just like a book, there’s always a story to tell when it comes to fashion. Whether it’s pertaining to what inspired the designer to make a certain collection, or what materials they used, the narrative is always so beautiful to tell. But while clothing might be an alluring novel on its own, the history of how the clothing actually gets made is just as important. And thankfully, a company has come to our rescue to give us the 411 on exactly how and where our favorite garments get manufactured.
Project JUST is the ultimate altruistic company that not only has your back when it comes to your gear, but also to the community and environment. Shahd AlShehail and Natalie Grillion started Project JUST (which officially launched at the end of last year) because they believe that real change can happen in the fast-fashion industry. With already having a strong love for fashion and civil service, Shahd and Natalie knew they needed to exemplify what’s behind the closed doors of the fashion industry by bringing to light the supply chain and manufacturing practices. While negativity is never their intention, they pride Project JUST to bring awareness to the consumer by allowing the site to be completely transparent for each and every brand. And with a growing arsenal of over 45 brands on their site, they are already on their way of transforming the fashion industry to be more ethical and transparent.
As Projective Space members, it is an honor to have the ladies behind Project JUST to be highlighted in our new series called “Caffeinated Coffees.” Meet one of the founders, Natalie Grillion, and get a peek inside the brand and how they came to be.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you and Shahd met and what inspired you guys to create Project JUST?
I was visiting Shahd in India in the Spring of 2013. We were Global Fellows at Acumen, a nonprofit impact investing fund. We both grew up with a love of fashion and we each had witnessed the injustices of poverty abroad and were drawn to careers in civil service and impact. I was working for a cotton company in Uganda that helped farmers rebuild their lives after decades of civil war through an organic and fairtrade cotton farming program. I saw the immense value in the improved livelihoods of the farmers, but was shocked that their story was not communicated to the end shopper.
So, I brought the question to Shahd, who, before Acumen, had co-founded a fashion house in Saudi Arabia that collaborated with women artisans from Saudi and the region to highlight the beautiful craftsmanship and heritage in a modern way. Shahd told me how she had felt a similar tug to tell the story of these artisans and connect them to the shopper. Then in April of that year, the factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killed 1,129 people. We both realized that not only the good stories behind our clothing were hidden, but also the bad ones. It became a necessity for stories to make it to the shopper. Transparency wasn’t just a nice-to-have, but a must-have. We love knowing the beautiful way an item is made, the art, the hard work and craftsmanship that goes into it. We didn’t set out to showcase the negative, but the more we learned about certain practices in the supply chain, the more we realized that, through our purchases, we were supporting practices with which we didn't agree and knew our friends wouldn't either. So we made this platform to help us all sort through this information and make informed decisions.
What is the best way to start a productive day?
Early with a side of strong, black coffee.
What was the process like when originally creating Project JUST? What were the steps you needed to take to get to where you guys are today?
We knew we needed to gain an understanding of the market to better formulate this idea. We did a lot of research, visiting locations and holding tons of Skype calls. Then we just started pitching to as many people as we could connect with in the industry and outside, introducing people to our idea, getting advice, feedback, leads and then new ideas. We evolved from there, refining our model to what it is today, although it took a few different iterations to get to Project JUST. The most important steps we’ve taken are, time and again, not being afraid to put an idea out there in a very basic MVP format to test it and then immediately getting feedback and trying again. You need to have your user say, “yes I want this, it solves a problem for me,” and then you go from there.
How many cups of coffee a day is considered acceptable while working on the job?
Ha, I’m probably not the person to ask, I’ve been known to drink too much! 3?!
Why do you feel it’s important for the industry to be completely transparent with their manufacturing practices?
Too many fashion supply chains are opaque and complex. In fact, many of the brands only know their top tier suppliers who sew the clothes and nothing below, such as where their fabric comes from or how their leather is treated. This lack of clarity and a race to the bottom on price translates to cutting corners and abuses to both people and the environment. So by asking these questions of the brands, we hope that increased transparency will, in turn, improve practices through increased accountability with brands and their supply chains.
Because your team works out of Projective Space, how do you feel working in a coworking environment challenges you and influences you to do better in your own company?
To be honest, I don’t know that we necessarily feel challenged, but we do feel empowered and influenced. We see other companies also doing innovative and inspiring work, who are at similar stages as us. We encourage, update and advise each other. There are also a few more mature companies here and we love to talk to them about their experiences and learn from what they’ve done with fundraising, marketing, company culture, etc. They help us out with advice, sometimes some technical support, too. ;)
By shopping ethically, how do you feel this practice is empowering women, especially in factories in other countries? And how do you feel other women can influence each other to continue these more ethical practices?
There are people out there who are going to know what I’m talking about here: You always love having a good story when someone asks you, “Where did you get that?” The appeal is in the story, but also fundamentally in the connection to the person who made it. By telling the stories of brands both large and small, we’re helping shoppers connect to those makers and workers and their livelihoods. Then, by shopping and supporting those brands and their makers, we’re voting for their empowerment. We should ask people more often where they “got that,” and expect a response that has more than just a brand name.
What were some of the hardest obstacles you had to overcome for the inception of Project JUST to be real?
As we started testing some new features in the first couple of months, there were some growing pains around being in multiple time zones and making sure everyone felt we were on the same page. We worked hard to find solutions to update each other, both communicating as transparently as possible all the time but also actively organizing and planning to include everyone.
App that you can’t live without?
Whatsapp, definitely: I love the voice messaging and the Friday group selfie exchanges. I also love the NYTimes and Pocket--#nerdalert.
How would you like Project JUST to morph the fashion industry? Especially pertaining to fast fashion.
If enough shoppers use Project JUST to make informed decisions, they’ll shift their purchases to more sustainable brands and away from those fast fashion companies who aren’t trying. We believe that even just a small shift sends a signal to both brands and the industry. Real change happens through the accumulation of small choices we make each day.
What are some of your favorite brands that are practicing good ethics?
I have yet to find an ethical womenswear line that I can afford that has professional, more formal items--for now I shop vintage a lot and my friends’ closets. I love Reformation and Kowtow for casualwear. I’m a huge fan of Beru Kids for kids clothing and I love the stories behind each Duka scarf--I think they make great gifts. I’m very lucky to have a few Naeema Alshuhail items, too, and I love my Angela Roi bag.