Some people talk about saving the world.
Sofi Khwaja and Nicolas Horekens actually do it.
In the midst of Arab Spring, the do-gooders were working for the United Nations on the border of Libya, helping refugees who had fled into Tunisia to escape violent civil war. Surrounded by revolution, and constant examples of injustice and inequity, they began to brainstorm ways to make a positive humanitarian impact before-the-fact, instead of triaging emergency situations.
Ultimately, they decided that ethical business was the answer: They launched Alice + Whittles, an environmentally and socially conscious shoe company that sources materials and enlists artisans from international communities to promote self-sufficiency.
Here, they describe the importance of integrity and authenticity as guiding principles in business and life:
Live The Process: How did your past humanitarian work lead to the idea for Alice + Whittles?
Sofi Khwaja: We were working in the field in North Africa for the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, during the Arab Spring. As the operation was finishing up, we realized that, although providing aid in the midst of conflict is essential, we might just spend the rest of our lives chasing wars around the world. Together, we decided we wanted to be on the front-end of change, minimizing the inequalities that lead to war and struggle. It took a lot of thought, but we decided that fashion was the industry where we could make the biggest impact through small changes. Unable to find certain fashion essentials that fit both our aesthetic and ethical sensibilities, we founded Alice + Whittles.
LTP: When and how did you launch the company? How do your ethical practices set the Alice + Whittles apart?
Nicholas Horekens: We founded the company in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign. We wanted to start by building a community of people who were committed to investing in products that were made ethically, and we hit our goal quickly. In 2014, we shipped our first order to Holt Renfrew, and the company has grown exponentially from there.
In terms of ethical manufacturing, we vet each level of the supply chain ourselves. The starting point for each design is really looking into our suitcases and asking ourselves: “What is missing? What could be better?” We search for the best raw materials; we seek out NGOs, factories and communities that have the specializations we need and work together to create amazing collections. For our rubber collection, we work with the Fair Rubber Association and, from the outset, immersed ourselves in research to better understand the complexities of production. We chose to work with specific communities in Sri Lanka because we realized we could make an impact there.
For us, it’s not necessarily about ease, but about impact. Alice + Whittles is about empowering and creating self-sufficient communities by employing artisans and workers that have a longterm positive impact, which is how we see the social sustainability piece of our company.
Alice + Whittles boots differ from others in their style, how they’re made and the materials used to construct them. With a beautiful slim fit and sleek lines, they’re a great alternative to the clunky rubber boots currently on the market. In addition, all of our boots are handmade using natural rubber, which is softer and lasts longer than PVC plastics (the material used by the majority of our competitors). Importantly, we source the natural rubber used in the construction of our boots from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests. This ensures that we’re maintaining natural communities and respecting the rights of the workers on the land.
LTP: What has been the most gratifying outcome of starting this company thus far?
SK: One of the highlights since founding Alice + Whittles has been making the Essential Rain Boot Collection. We started from scratch, deconstructing the traditional rubber boot then designing and developing the boot from the ground up. It was incredibly exciting to work with different producer communities all the way back to the rubber tappers in rural Sri Lanka, integrating their skills and talents into the design.
A moment that felt particularly worthwhile was at the beginning, when the company was bootstrapped. We hit a sweet spot part way through the development phase when so many amazing, talented people—designers, producers, photographers, models and ad agencies—came together to throw their weight behind the project, not because they were getting paid, but because they believed in this. That was the most amazing feeling.
LTP: What comprises your personal wellness routines?
NH: We both love the outdoors and try to spend as much time outside as possible. I think it’s important to have a balanced day, so I’ll walk to and from work in rain, snow or shine, practice yoga at lunch (time permitting) and run or climb in the evenings. A healthy and consistent diet is, of course, an important factor too.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
SK: Happiness is having a plethora of meaningful relationships, near and far.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process,” and how can we all do that more every day?
SK: To me, “Living The Process” means understanding the history and context of creating something, making decisions with integrity and authenticity and appreciating the journey as much as the end result.