Whether you're on the hunt for a fashion-forward laptop bag or a cozy blanket, Parker Clay probably has you covered. The company's bright boutique at 133 East Anapamu Street in Santa Barbara brims with handmade items in soft, supple materials, each piece feeling like a special find, intended to be treasured.
But there's more to these products than quality and style. Everything that Parker Clay sells is made by women in Ethiopia, who are otherwise particularly vulnerable to abuse, injustice and the manipulations of the country's commercial sex industry. Each purchase from the shop represents an opportunity to empower and uplift these artisans, both emotionally and financially – while teaching American consumers the importance of conscious, fair trade business practices.
We wanted to learn more about how Parker Clay came to be, so we took a tour of the store with Brittany Bentley, who cofounded the company with her husband, Ian, in 2013. Below, Brittany shares stories of Parker Clay's impact and the mixing of her personal and professional worlds, and she explains her steadfast commitment to the concept of social enterprise.
Parker Clay works with artisans in Ethiopia to design timeless, luxury lifestyle goods, creating opportunities for them to become economically independent and prevent prostitution and human trafficking. You also partner with the non-profit Ellilta - Women at Risk to provide women in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa with rehabilitation, counseling and skills training. Can you share any particular stories of lives you’ve changed through your mission and partnership with Ellilta or moments when you realized your company had tapped into something special and significant?
First and foremost, it's important to us to honor the stories that we have been fortunate enough to be part of. For many of the women we've worked with, much of their dignity has been stripped away, and our heart is to restore that and empower them to take steps towards healing. We are very conscientious about how we share about the women we work with and always ask for explicit permission before doing so, as they are often very personal stories.
With that being said, one of our favorite women who is like family to us is Meselu. She worked in prostitution to help support her two sons going to school, and after going through Ellilta - Women at Risk's rehabilitation program, she completed job training and became a weaver making the blankets we produce.
One day she came up to us, eager to share something in her bag, and she pulled out this light blue piece of paper and could barely contain herself. She handed us the paper – it was her son's report card, and at the top it said "1/50," meaning her son was first in his class. She was so proud of her son, and it was in that moment that we realized something really significant. It wasn't just the impact our work was having on these women, but on their children, and their children are the future of Ethiopia. The ripple effects of protecting the vulnerable and empowering women to support the family system are powerful [tools] for change around the world.
Parker Clay is committed to both premium product quality and ethical production practices. And yet, in any venture, there are necessary compromises. What are some sacrifices you've had to make or things you've had to let go, whether personal or professional, as Parker Clay has grown and evolved?
We believe that it's possible to create luxury products in an ethical way. We believe there is so much potential where people have only seen problems. At the end of the day, we care deeply about how our products are made and who makes them. We refuse to compromise on relationship, community, or quality.
The challenge with taking such a firm stance on this is that the fashion world is a competitive one, where fast fashion is always ideating something new and cheap. This simply isn't our market, and we believe in building something sustainable, and there is a cost to doing business with this approach. We have seen other brands make compromises that led to significant mission drift, and we are very conscious of avoiding making similar mistakes.
When we started Parker Clay, we asked ourselves what we wanted the company to look like in 100 years. We dreamed together with our Ethiopian team about what that would look like, and we are building our company and values around the heartbeat of this.
It can sometimes seem like we're supposed to decide between prioritizing family life and pursuing professional success – like we can't fully focus on both arenas at once. And yet, your two sons, Parker and Clayton, gave your company its name, and your relationship with your kids (three biological and two adopted from Ethiopia) inspired its entire mission. And, as the story goes, it was a birthday gift that Ian bought for you – a leather bag made by an Ethiopian artisan – that sparked the company's concept! Do you see family and vocation as mutually supportive? How might your career have turned out differently if you'd gone it alone?
For us, it's a symbiotic relationship where our personal and professional worlds fuel each other. Our "why" is always family. It's how we started everything, why we ended up in Ethiopia, and as you mentioned even in the name of our company.
Because of this, we are motivated to create an incredible company because of how important our family is to us. With five kids, plus running an international business, it's certainly a balancing act on a daily basis and we don't always do it perfectly, but we always aim to do it with love and passion.
oodBefore moving to Ethiopia we had an opportunity to take a multi-million dollar job [prospect], but chose to sell everything and move to Ethiopia because we felt that it was where our lives could have the biggest impact. We have learned that it's not just about money, but about using the gifts we have been given to make a greater impact for good
All of this being said about business and family, we imagine that running a company with your husband can present both benefits and challenges. Can you share one or two of both?
Ian and I started dating in high school in Santa Barbara, California, and we have always enjoyed being creative together. I think like anything in life, some of the best things are things you have to fight for and work hard at. While we bring different skills to the business, we always make sure we're 100% aligned in the most important decisions. We love building this business together, traveling together, and seeing all the new faces that are part of our growing team. The business has been life-giving to our marriage, and we can say that we are better together in life and business.
Have you and Ian figured things out on your own, step by step, or have you found mentors or other guidance to steer you in the right direction?
We have both always valued having a strong, skilled, and talented team around us. We have found incredible people willing to help us at every key stage of our business, and they usually come with unbelievable timing.
For example, right around the time the concept of Parker Clay was developing while we were living in Ethiopia, we met a couple who were in Ethiopia adopting their daughter. As we started speaking with them, we discussed vocation and discovered that one of them was an executive at a large branding company who worked with brands like Nike and Target, and he loved our idea and offered to help. This is one of countless examples, and we have been humbled by the creative team we have been able to develop.
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When we first started building Parker Clay, we knew some of the basics from our prior experience and education, but we needed to do a lot of research and development to learn the specifics of the luxury leather industry. We purchased expensive luxury bags to learn about them and even took them apart so that we could get a better understanding of every aspect of the designs. We are self-taught on leather and thread quality, design, and other aspects that go into what you see in our products.
Are there other companies marrying premium craftsmanship and social consciousness that you look to for inspiration?
One brand we have always admired is Apolis. Ironically enough, we both have roots in Santa Barbara and have become friends with the founders over the years. Apolis has always taken the high road on their level of care for their producers and bringing community together. We appreciate how they combine premium products with ethical production practices around the world.
Do you think that luxury lifestyle brands have a responsibility to employ fair trade practices and to drive positive impact through their products?
We need to stop thinking of the people who produce our goods as faceless statistics or mere machine operators, and remember that our artisans and producers are people with names, families, and lives. Most of them are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. With that in mind, when you ask if every brand has a social responsibility, I would hope that every brand would be able to answer with a resounding "YES."
Ideally, we envision a world in which every business is a "social business" and employs fair trade practices. We think other brands are responsible to do well by both their consumers and producers, and we've been grateful that this narrative of social impact is increasingly part of the conversation when we talk about retail trends as it pushes the needle on social good.
What are some of the challenges to this "social business" approach?
When your motivation is to treat people fairly rather than merely maximizing profits, it's a more expensive and slower process. It requires relationships, not just spreadsheets.
[But] as consumer demand increases for socially conscious products, brands will respond. It requires consumers who are willing to put their money behind these brands, which may be more expensive than traditional alternatives. We've seen many innovative retail approaches to social good, and these efforts are bolstered as the quality of socially conscious products improves and [better], sustainable impact models are employed.
You were based in Ethiopia for several years while getting Parker Clay off the ground, and then moved back to your hometown of Santa Barbara in 2014. When, why and how did your retail store come into the picture? How has your brick and mortar location helped to expand the company's success?
We opened our retail store in September 2016, because our garage and friend's warehouse were overflowing with products and we needed more space! We had shelves piled high with products, and shipping orders had become more than we could handle on our own. Looking for a warehouse initially, we stumbled upon our ideal location in downtown Santa Barbara with an office, warehouse, and retail space.
While it seemed like a gamble at the time, opening our retail showroom has proven to be a great investment. Customers love being able to touch and smell the products, our sales have increased, and it has provided a great event space for us to host sales, fundraisers, parties, and PR events.
We also know that consumers increasingly want shopping environments that provide unique experiences, and we love being able to provide experiences in our shop through telling our story, hosting events, or brewing some freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee for our visitors.
Can you tell us about your current favorite corner of the shop or special product you're spotlighting right now?
I love our new Riviera Handbag! It's our first product that comes in suede, and the olive green is one of my favorite colors. It's a versatile bag that's great for everyday use, perfect for bringing my kids to doctors appointments or heading out for a fancy dinner with some friends.
Designing bags is hands-down one of my favorite parts about running Parker Clay. I love seeing my sketches come to life in our Ethiopia factory, and after months of design and production work, loved by our customers internationally. I usually carry around one of our bags for a month – and then switch to another so I know and use all of [them]!
What are three words to represent how you hope people will feel when they browse around the store?
Inspired. Impressed. Encouraged. Welcomed. Sorry, I had to go with four words :)
What's next for Parker Clay? Can you share a bit of your vision for the company's future?
We're expanding our audience through some exciting marketing efforts and matching that with some large investments in our production facility in Ethiopia. In just Q3 of 2017, we invested about 30% of our net sales back into our Ethiopian production facility and partners, like Ellilta - Women at Risk. We're hiring a larger Ethiopian staff and envision someday, we'll employ hundreds of Ethiopians artisans in these high-quality jobs in an industry notorious for worker abuse. We're also excited about starting a program to train women from Ellilta - Women at Risk for employment as leather artisans in our production facility.
On a personal note, I love designing new products, so I'm always excited to be part of the color and design process for making new bags!