When I ask Nadia and Sumeera Rasul of the ethical online store Madesmith about what it’s like to work with your sister, they laugh. “You should ask her,” Sumeera demurs, “Because I drive her more crazy.”
“We’re mostly on the same page,” Nadia says. “We’re 11 years apart, so we didn’t grow up fighting.”
They did grow up steeped in the manufacturing culture in Pakistan–their dad had a factory in the 70s and 80s that turned out clothing for brands like Levis and Benetton–before coming to the United States for their secondary education and heading off into separate careers. Sumeera went into technology and then advertising and branding, and Nadia took on human rights.
For a while they successfully revived their family’s textile business. “It was amazing and we got to travel a lot and we did quite well,” Sumeera told me over tea in NoHo. (We had met up for “coffee” and discovered we are all green tea people.)
“The wait times were really long, though, and we wanted to do something now. It was really difficult to find people in the US who were making textiles.” In sourcing textiles, though, they got a front row seat to the revival of American handicrafts and the explosion of makers across the US.
“It was both our idea,” Sumeera says, about pivoting from textiles into retail. “We were like, ‘We really want to find people here.'” And they have the perfect education for ethical online retail, with branding, technology, manufacturing and human rights all under their belt.
So they founded Madesmith in March of last year, which features sustainable clothing for men, women and kids, and objects for the home, all ethically made across the United States. You can read interviews with each maker, or just get straight to the shopping. There’s a few makers I recognize, like Elizabeth Suzann, Gamma Folk, Aili Jewelry (read my profile of Aili), and Marble and Milkweed (read my profile of Marble & Milkweed). But there are many, many more that I’ve never heard of.
And that’s what makes Madesmith so interesting me–Sumeera and Nadia are adept at finding new, ethical wares to introduce to you, including ones not from Brooklyn. “We have our own point of view in NYC. But it’s important to go elsewhere, even down to the South. Some of the makers there, it’s so refreshing to work with them. Their design aesthetic is different than ours,” Sumeera says.
They’re even thinking about expanding to include international makers. “We’re started to be interested in makers from other countries, ones that produce sustainably and ethically,” Sumeera says. “There are some things they do really well!”
Along the way they’ve gotten to know their makers so well they consider them friends–Sumeera says they have a full schedule of weddings and babies coming up, and she’ll have makers over for dinner and cook for them. But they’ve realized one big snag: “They’re really good at making, but they might not know about marketing,” Nadia says.
So they launched Madesmith Academy last week. “A lot of the designers and makers we work with struggle with the business side of things. They don’t have affordable resources where they can go and learn additional skills,” Sumeera told me.
To teach the online courses, they’ve brought on Shannon Whitehead from the design accelerator Factory45, plus other makers like Susan Domelsmith of Dirty Librarian Chains. They’ve launched with 11 initial courses, including how to get your sewn product manufactured, shibori, sustainable jewelry making, upcycled kids’ clothing and a class by Sumeera herself on branding. Some of the more crafty classes might seem like they’re for consumers, but Sumeera says successful makers can always add new skills to their repertoire.
“We’re working with makers who have built sustainable businesses,” Sumeera syas. “We think it’s important to learn from people who’ve done it, not just academics, people who know and recently built their businesses.”
The academy is an interesting twist on a larger trend of education in consumption. While several other retail website tell the stories of makers–Zady and Young & Able come to mind–Madesmith seems to be unique in its advocacy and education for the makers themselves.
“It’s really nice to work with designers who are just starting out,” Sumeera says, “because if they survive and grow, you feel like you’ve made a difference.”
Hey readers, you might have noticed that Madesmith is a new EcoCult advertiser. This story is not an advertorial, though! I found Madesmith and reached out for an interview about a month ago. After the interview had been done, Sumeera contacted me about being an advertiser on EcoCult, which I was happy to do because they’re a partner who is in line with my values. I promise you that her advertising had no effect on this article, but I wanted to be transparent with you. xo