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Fashion with heart
Grad helps developing economy with accessory label
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
By Brenda Alling, WSU Vancouver
VANCOUVER, Wash. – While in Ethiopia, WSU alumnus Thomas Meister saw the struggles of its citizens. The average annual income is about $400 and a large portion of the population lacks access to basic resources, like food and clean water. To help bolster Ethiopia's economy, Meister founded Konjo Ababa, an ethically produced designer accessories label.
Meister, who received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from WSU in 2006, started in the fashion industry as a young man. He began modeling at 16, he became a fashion photographer at 20 and, later, he became a stockbroker, which required him to wear chic men's fashions. He began working in the coffee business in Ethiopia seven years ago and while he was in Addis Ababa he met some people who were working on a project to bolster the finished-leather goods sector in the Horn of Africa.
The finished-leather goods project was started by a number of nongovernmental organizations, countries, and entrepreneurs with a goal of reducing poverty through productive means. This is how—and why—Meister founded Konjo Ababa,
"By creating finished-leather goods and selling them both wholesale and retail, more money is left in country," said Meister. "Instead of an extraction economy—exporting raw leather—we are developing an export economy. This reduces poverty by providing more jobs from the tanneries to the workshops. It also teaches valuable and marketable skills such as leather working, sewing, quality control, shipping/receiving, delivery, marketing, and many others. Each Konjo Ababa order provides jobs to hundreds of people."
Meister says walking into the workshop and seeing smiles on the faces of his workers is one of the best feelings he gets.
"These people are working in a safe environment, paid a livable wage, able to feed, shelter, clothe, and educate their children," he said. "That's the most fun I have."
Meister credits his wife and his WSU education for his success.
"My wife, Fleurdeliza, has empowered me beyond belief," said Meister. "None of this would be possible without her."
In fact, Meister named his company after his wife. Konjo Ababa means "beautiful flower" in Amharic, and fleur is the French word for flower.
"My WSU Vancouver education helped immensely as well," he said. "My anthropology degree taught me much about cultures, religions, linguistics, and more. I use my education every day in business and every millisecond in life. WSU taught me to think differently and has changed my life."
The company also sells wholesale at trade shows in some of the world's other important fashion centers, including Las Vegas, New York, and Paris.
The international aspect of Konjo Ababa takes its toll on Meister in some ways. He's racked up some frequent flyer miles to be sure. The hotel he frequents in Ethiopia is very nice, but something is usually not working while he is there. On his last trip the elevators were out of order for two days, the Internet down for two days, and the shower didn't work for a day.
"The Internet being down is the biggest concern, as communication is halted both in-country and to the West," said Meister. "If all I cared about was profit, I would immediately move production to Asia, which is approximately an equal distance but much closer in many ways."
He admits he frets about not being able to be in two places at once. He hopes things are going smoothly in Africa when he's in the U.S. and conversely hopes things are going smoothly in the U.S. when he's in Africa, despite the fact that he has wonderful employees on both sides of the globe.
Economic uncertainty has been another source of stress recently.
"The economy has been rough for many," he said. "Access to capital has dried up considerably, and that has hindered growth. But as the saying goes, 'problems are opportunities wearing work boots.' The slowdown has given me an opportunity to revise the business model, rewrite the business plan, and streamline operations. I have been able to concentrate on quality control and product development/design. Finally, the global recession has given me an opportunity to narrow my focus on targeting the proper demographic for marketing and sales."
Worry and the economy aside, let's face it, the fashion industry is fun.
"Fashion is a blast!" said Meister. "I work in Hollywood, where the majority of my product is sold. I travel to France and Italy every year for trade shows and product development/design ideas. As a photographer, albeit with aging eyes, I still do some of the photography for Konjo's look books, marketing materials, and other collateral. It's rough working with models all day, but someone has to do it."
This article was featured in the spring 2012 edition of NW Crimson and Gray on page 23.