Suzanne McKenzie, Able Made’s Founder, CEO and Creative Director, describes her company as a retail platform where creative innovators and designers join forces to support causes through beautifully designed products. “Whether we’re partnering with a national brand, an emerging designer, or artisans around the world, the impact of each Able Made exclusive product is as beautiful and powerful as its design,” says McKenzie. She also likes to make clear that she is a creator, not just a curator of socially, ethically and environmentally inspired products, with each product directly supporting a specific cause that the designer and the Able Made community cares most about.
In addition to her strong background in design and strategy, McKenzie is backed by a diverse and powerful team comprised of members hailing from Launch Collective, IDEO, eBay, the CFDA”s sustainability committee as well as the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of IMG Fashion, Catherine Bennett.
Ecouterre caught up with Suzanne to see what she thought of the future of e-commerce, fashion and what makes Able Made able to stand taller than the rest.
You were quoted in a Loomstate interview that “traceability is important.” Do you see it as a growing part of the design process?
Fashion is a lot like food in that you should know how it’s made and where the ingredients come from. And both designers and consumers are becoming more and more aware of the importance of who makes their products and where materials are sourced. A year ago, the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people and injured even more brought much needed attention to how important this issue really is.
At Rana Plaza, warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before had been ignored. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour—conditions that simply didn’t need to happen.
More and more, designers are becoming part of the movement of increasing accountability for the people making their pieces. Making sure they are working in good conditions, and being paid fair wages. As makers, it needs to start with us, and consumers also are vital in showing that traceability is important when they choose what to purchase.
Over the past five years, the emergence of the socially, ethically and environmentally focused e-commerce shop has grown. How is Able Made different?
I think it’s wonderful that designers and retail-based brands are using their creativity to inspire and create change. Today, business models are being built with mission-based structures supporting a triple bottom line – placing importance on people and the planet as well as profit.
Able Made stands apart for several reasons. First, we create unique product with visionary designers and brands, versus being curators of existing products. The cause supported is based on a personal passion of the designer, so they are very excited and engaged in the entire process. And their passion shows in the quality of the final product.
In addition, our team spends time sitting down with the non-profit to design a specific project that the piece can support, for example sending 120 children for school for a year like we did with our Able Made x Public School Lobo Tote project. It’s not simply a percentage of proceeds situation; customers know exactly what their purchase is helping support. Lastly, with our engaged community of business and creative leadership—from designers to chefs to stylists to writers to social entrepreneurs—we are designing interaction within our community. Engaging our customers and bringing them into our process by having them shape the projects we support to final designs to produce, taking part in our inspiration and educational events, and more.
What makes a brand stand out to you that would make you want to collaborate with them?
Because I have a design background, the products the designer or brands create have to be innovative and amazingly crafted first and foremost. I also consider what the designer/brand is doing in the socially conscious space: how are they manufacturing, are they already supporting a cause or foundation, what materials do they use.
Sometimes, Able Made can help dial these areas up with our collaborators. I ask myself how can we inspire some of the brands or designers to push their impact? Is there potential to produce locally, to use one material over another? One of my favorite parts of the collaboration process is being part of product development with our collaborators. I get so inspired and learn so much every time.
Your team is pretty darn impressive. Are these people that you’ve worked with before and share a similar vision?
The first thing I did after developing the idea for Able Made was>build my team. Many of them have been involved since the beginning. We have folks who are in brand innovation, retail, design, business, law. It’s a well-rounded group in step with our vision of power in numbers and the collective good we can do when we work together. Some of the individuals I met through my business network, others are people I admired and so I approached them about the vision for Able Made. They impress me every day.
Tell me a story that has come from Able Made that you are most proud of.
In only 16 short months, we have created 14 products that have raised desperately needed awareness and funds to fuel hope and opportunities. I am so proud of all the hard work and commitment our team has made to make these projects a success. Not only has this work helped my foundation in Boston, The Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation, but others around the world as well. Together, we’ve been able to empower others, change lives and make the world a better place.
And there is so much more we are going to do…