Selling fashion for a cause: Alumni work for India

Mar. 15, 2012
Emerson Ayala

To the beat of up-tempo music and flashing lights, several woodblock-printed scarves and handbags journeyed all the way from Rajpur, India to a 50-foot runway in Northwest Arkansas.

JOYN, the India-based, development-seeker textile company founded by John Brown University alumni, featured its newest designs at the opening of Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week 2012. The event ran from March 8–10 and it took place in East Square Plaza in Fayetteville, Ark.

JOYN took center stage during the first night, dedicated to local designers. Twenty models walked the runway back and forth displaying JOYN’s Spring 2012 Collection, amid local designers such as BonnerBell and Esque.

Around 300 people attended the JOYN show, which consisted of an array of handbags, scarves, headbands, and jewelry, all handmade by artisans in India. Masons at Bellafont, one of the boutiques that carry JOYN products, provided clothing to go with the JOYN display.

At the end of the show, JBU alumna Alison Lewis, the company’s liaison in the U.S., went on the runway to talk about the collection. With pictures of the Indian artisans in hand, Lewis shared about the company’s story, joined on stage by her friend Lisa Vison, a volunteer who coordinated JOYN’s fashion show debut.

“[Vison] is well connected in the fashion industry in NWA and heard about the opportunity,” Lewis said. “We were featured on designer night, so were able to get our story in front of a larger audience.”

Lewis, a former Soderquist Fellow who recently moved back from India, said their story was the real selling point.

“Our products stood out with our unique story and people from all types of boutiques really liked them,” Lewis said. She noted that exposing their products to local fashionistas was a first step to create more buzz about their mission.

“We want the work of the people of India to be recognized,” she said, adding that those artisans in India were thrilled to see photos of their designs on the runway.
Founded in 2010, JOYN is the brainchild of University graduate Melody Murray, a textile industry expert who traveled around India looking to connect high-end, hand woven rugs with Western markets.

After several attempts to create this connection and help local artisans, Murray moved to northern India and finally came across a winning concept. She set off to connect American markets with elegant yet simple accessories handcrafted by disadvantaged women, some of them rescued from the streets, working for fair wages and a just work environment. The original designs are printed in all kinds of forms, from headbands to pillows.

Murray works with another University grad, Rikki Marler. Lewis came back last December after spending the fall among the artisans in Rajpur. She is now in charge of sales, marketing and other logistics in the United States.

Besides the fashion show exposure, another important help for JOYN comes from JBU SIFE. Clayton Anderson, director of SIFE and also a former Soderquist Fellow, knew about their company’s mission and presented it in SIFE class, generating enough interest to create a new SIFE project last October.

“When I heard about it, I was really passionate about what they were doing to empower women,” said freshman Halley Swysgood, SIFE project leader for JOYN. “I believe their heart is in the right place.”

Swysgood leads a team of five SIFE students who are developing a Marketing Plan for the company. Team member Caleb Khazoyan is also helping with the company’s web design. Although University students were not directly involved in the fashion show, Swysgood said her team participated last November in the Northwest Arkansas Boutique Show, where they worked the JOYN booth.

“[Fashion shows] are a great way to get the product out there and for people to hear the story,” Swysgood said. “I hope JOYN continues selling in more boutiques, maybe even places like Macy’s or Anthropologie,” she added.

By the end of last year, JOYN was selling their products in several boutiques in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Kansas and Texas. Their products are also available online at DaySpring’s website.

Lewis said JOYN’s plans are to continue to expand and to replicate the successful model in different parts of the world.

“We hope to keep growing at a healthy pace. Eventually we would like to see JOYN spread in India, Guatemala, Kenya, anywhere people have a desire to do business as missions in a similar fashion,” Lewis said.

Places were JOYN India products are available:

Masons at Bellefont and Masons Leather Boutique (in the Northwest Arkansas Mall), Bella Jack’s, The Mustache Goods & Wears and The Global Shoppe in Fayetteville; Kate Austin Jewelry & Gifts in Rogers.

JOYN India focuses on joining artisans in India with markets around the world. They can be found at joynindia.com.

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