Modern Fashion: Brooke Mullen of Sapahn On The 5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand Today
An Interview With Candice Georgiadice
Connection with supply chain: There is a lot of power in knowing your supply chain, the very people who make your beautiful goods. They can be solutions to your problems. They are part of your team. Part of business is knowing things from start to finish so knowing this piece is crucial.
Many in the fashion industry have been making huge pivots in their business models. Many have turned away from the fast fashion trend. Many have been focusing on fashion that also makes a social impact. Many have turned to sustainable and ethical sourcing. Many have turned to hi tech manufacturing. Many have turned to subscription models. What are the other trends that we will see in the fashion industry? What does it take to lead a successful fashion brand today?
In our series called, “5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand Today” we are talking to successful leaders of fashion brands who can talk about the Future of Fashion and the 5 things it takes to lead a successful fashion brand in our “new normal.”
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Brooke Mullen of Sapahn.
A self-taught designer created out of a beautiful journey of discovery, connection, and understanding, founder and designer Brooke Mullen lived in Thailand for 10 years and launched Sapahn in 2010 while pursuing her master’s degree in Human Rights, traveling to places many don’t gain access to. A fiercely authentic entrepreneur, Brooke is disrupting what today’s designers stand for — along with her enduring and conscious designs, Brooke is steadfast in showing the fashion industry that a focus on human rights is the pathway toward alleviating many vulnerabilities of exploitation. Businesses, even fashion brands, can be a force for creating a world where the human rights of ALL are upheld and respected.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Fashion brand founded in Lincoln, Nebraska. Not a headline you hear often, but with my Midwest roots also came a heart of an entrepreneur. Starting as early as first grade I would think up different “business” ventures. First it was a game show for neighborhood kids — in exchange for coins, kids could play carnival games to win toys I didn’t want anymore. This became more sophisticated as the years went on.
My passion for business blossomed in highschool by participating in DECA, where I first met a foreign exchange student who was from Hungary and sponsored by the Rotary Club. This ignited my desire to travel. Not long after, I applied to be a scholar, figuring out how to graduate a year early. Six months later, as a 17 year old, I was a foreign exchange student in a small town in Romania called Ramnicu Valcea. It was a life changing experience. I’m convinced travel has the power to change the trajectory of your life, your purpose and direction.
During my time in Romania, I met another American who was a Peace Corps volunteer. For the remaining months of my exchange program, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to several Romanian communities volunteering alongside other Peace Corps volunteers learning about the community projects they were part of. A few experiences really stand out in my mind. I remember standing in the bitter cold winter in the center of Bucharest handing out clean needles to users, many of whom were young people, to limit the spread of disease, organizing Christmas presents for children of the organages, and spending a few weeks inside an institutional orphanage alongside therapists. It was all eye opening. It was eye opening because it showed the gray areas of life. The realities of what marginalized people experienced. There’s always more to the story. It was these experiences and stories that led me to extend compassion to people, even for things I don’t understand. To remain curious, not stagnant in my opinions but open minded to learn, to see the world with open eyes, not fixed views.
After my time in Romania, I went to a community college before transferring to the University of Nebraska graduating with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Business. I spent all my extra money traveling — a month studying in Asia (Japan, Korea, Thailand) followed by a trip back to Romania, then studied for a semester in Spain, visiting Thailand again before completing college.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
After college, I got married and moved to Thailand, ended up living there for 10 years and became a solo entrepreneur along the way. I didn’t have all the pieces, but three pivotal things happened during a short time; 1) I was in grad classes for my MA in Human Rights; 2) I was working at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in Bangkok; and 3) I was meeting crazy talented female artisans in rural areas throughout Thailand who faced challenges making their businesses sustainable due to location, accessibility, design, raw materials, market exposure, etc. But these three things didn’t mean anything until I met Marie Tu, a young Burmese woman in Myanmar. She was bright beyond measure and resilient as heck but poverty and lack of education opportunities were holding her back in a never ending cycle. When I asked her what would change her life she immediately replied education.
Hearing this was the real gut check. Here I was living in Thailand studying Human Rights traveling to Myanmar for research and I found myself pondering the tangible impact I was going to make with this degree. And I realized this was it. I knew my husband (who was pursuing his PhD in Human Rights) and I could figure out how to generate an opportunity to bring her to Thailand to study Human Rights alongside us.
So, the question became how would we raise money for a scholarship for Marie Tu. Well, I started sourcing beautiful, handmade accessories from rural Thai women and paying them fairly (a wage they set themselves), and then hauled it back to my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, and hosted a trunk show. It was a big success. Everything sold and people wanted more! A month later, I incorporated Sapahn, meaning bridge in Thai, and brought Marie Tu to Thailand to study. This was 12 years ago. Back then, I would travel village to village, by bus, in the back of trucks, on trains. Over 2,500 miles to reach nine different artisans communities, producing nine product lines twice a year. Four months out of the year, I would fly back to the U.S. to market and sell the goods, telling beautiful stories along the way and inviting customers to join me in my pursuit with conversation of how their purchase was impacting women’s lives, how we as women across the world from one another are more similar than one would imagine. The whole idea originally started as a way to generate scholarship money to get a girl in Thailand through school and it grew into something wildy better than one could imagine. Much has evolved over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the way we do business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2010 I was trekking rural Myanmar, with my husband. He was conducting research for his dissertation to understand how rural villagers went about creating their own change in their communities under military dictatorship.
We wanted to meet the people where they lived, in the hills of Shan State Myanmar, and the only way there was on foot. We walked miles each day. For a while, nothing really notable happened. Until one day I saw one mother wearing a bright orange scarf. Then I saw another woman, and then another. They were so beautiful and captivating.
I made eye contact with some of them, exchanging smiles, when I saw one carrying her baby in the most beautiful sling. I pointed to her scarf, and in slow English I said, “I love it.” She may not have understood my words, but she understood my facial expression. Communicating wasn’t easy — we had to translate from English to Burmese to the local tribe language — but we worked it out eventually. They told me they made the scarves themselves and would sell some to me if I wanted. “How much?” I asked. They told me their price and I didn’t bargain. The scarves were worth every penny.
As I gazed at the incredible quality of their work, I looked up and asked “How many do you have?” A few of the family members ran to the house and came back with what they had. I lit up. “I want them all.”
As we walked on to the next village, I could feel a vibrating, giddy, excited buzz permeating all around us. This wasn’t still about the scarves I had just bought was it? I tugged on my translator’s sleeve, “What is it? What’s going on? What are they saying?” His response shocked me. It was also the moment the idea of Sapahn was conceived (and how we would raise that money for Marie Tu). He leaned over and said, “They’re excited because now they can buy a cow for the entire village.”
It’s hard to describe what his words meant to me, but what I can tell you is that this moment has stuck with me every day since it happened, 12 years ago and has impacted the deep sense of purpose and journey I’m on today to change the way business is done globally. I often dream about the ripple effect this one act had on their village, their life, their wellbeing, their hope in the world.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Deep passion and curiosity: You don’t have to know everything to start a business, nor to be successful. You need to have innate curiosity, a thirst to know more, figure it out, bridge the gap, network, and learn.
Starting a human rights based fashion brand as a 24 year old who was starting her MA in Human Rights, had never worked retail, never taken a design or fashion class, I definitely didn’t know everything. But, I was obsessed with figuring out how things were made, who was making them, how they were making them, what challenges they faced, especially in their business, what were their dreams, and, at the end of the day, how I could harness and connect all of this to something greater. It manifested in the physical form of a product that women in the U.S. would LOVE because of the thoughtful purpose and function and timeless design. Something they couldn’t help but tell their friends about because it made them feel beautiful, they got so many compliments, and they wanted to share this good with people they cared about.
2. Mindset: Throughout my career I’ve had to deal with a lot of unknowns and I believe my success through it all came down to mindset. When things don’t go my way or the way I anticipated, I see it as a pathway to learn and find out a new way to take things to the next level. I love a level of uncertainty and find this keeps me on my toes and, in a twisted way, makes things more interesting and challenging. I’m a person who feels like getting through the grit and the tough is rewarding because it stretches and challenges me to do more.
I am resilient — I WON’T STOP. I don’t have a fear of the unknown. The true terror for me is going to a 9 to 5 job.
3. Commitment to my mission: In the early days, people in my community, my close friends and my family got behind Sapahn’s mission and product because they wanted to support me and this big vision I had, and then they happened to love the product as well. And 12 years in business later, I have never turned my back on that initial vision, to make beautiful things doing beautiful things in the world. No matter what the future holds for Sapahn, we will always stand for people. We will always seek to build a world where all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights, have a voice in the decisions that affect them, and have the agency to act on their own behalf.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think we really stand out because I never set out to start a fashion brand. The purpose for starting wasn’t fashion or to make products. It was to mobilize people, especially those who are marginalized.
Most fashion designers go to Parsons, where I studied human rights. Most fashion brands never step foot in the factory and meet the very people who make their goods. I talk with our artisans almost daily, have spent weeks, months in our factory and met them face to face.
So for customers, Sapahn offers the ability to indulge in luxury fashion without sacrifice. Beautifully designed, handcrafted bags that stand the test of time, and stand for something bigger.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Where there is a will, there is a way.” No one is standing in your way but yourself.
While I was supposed to be writing my thesis for my Master’s all I could do was walk the streets of Bangkok meeting people, figuring out where to buy leather and hardware, making friends with women in the markets. It was during a similar time where there was starting to be more exposure of inhuman practices taking place in supply chains of well known brands, especially in fashion. Thier response was there was no way to trace their supply chain to ensure exploitation and child labor was not taking place. What I would say in response is “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
I always wonder what the fashion industry as a whole might look like if we put people first, and I think the tide is starting to change and consumers are expecting more from the brands they choose to support.
The respect for human rights is a brave new journey. It is something far more essential than donating profits or quantified sustainability. Human rights are the inherent rights that protect our status as humans — as free beings, equal in dignity and equally deserving of freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom to take action on our own behalf. By protecting each of us, human rights protect all of us. Yet, this only works if people embrace the responsibility that makes human rights possible. All of us can enjoy and exercise our human rights to the extent that we do not infringe upon the inherent rights and freedoms of others. We all share a responsibility to respect human rights. And in 2011 the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) established that all businesses, as specialized organs of society, have a corporate responsibility to respect human rights — a responsibility to do business in a way that treats people as humans with inherent rights and freedoms.
Practically, the UNGPs call on businesses to:
- Recognize and treat affected people as rights holders with inherent dignity and rights and agency, rather than charity cases or passive subjects.
- Get accountable to those rights holders
- Identify and address salient business-related risks
- Make a best effort to create tangible result for affected rights holders, and
- Report on the success, lessons, and plans for continuous improvement.
The responsibility to respect human rights is about progress, not perfection. It is about addressing rather than concealing the realities and challenges of doing a business.
Yes, this is a brave new journey. Corporate respect for human rights is about doing business in a way that is humane and empowering. It is about ensuring that profit does not come at the expense of people or the planet. And I am excited to see more and more brands adopting policies and procedures that do just that.
At Sapahn, we embrace our responsibility to respect human rights as outlined in the UNGPs. We understand that respecting human rights is not a passive exercise. It’s a call to action.
Can you share how your brand is helping to bring goodness to the world?
When properly put in motion, the power of respect for human rights is immeasurable. It is accountability, not philanthropy, that transforms business as usual. Equality is not a pledge, but a human right to demand equal treatment. Agency changes everything because it enables people to act on their own behalf, to prevent harm and to empower themselves.
When we say that Sapahn is a human rights-based brand, this is what we mean. We embody a commitment to accountability, equality, and agency.
- We have a responsibility to do right by our artisans and customers, and we take that very seriously.
- We recognize all as rights holders and ensure that we are accountable to them.
- We do business in a way that promotes our shared dignity, equality and rights.
- We think deeply about how our business decisions and practices impact everyone in our value change.
- We listen to our artisans.
- We problem solve with them.
- We work with them to overcome challenges.
- We ensure they are in a position to protect themselves, their interests, and each other.
- We put our artisans in a position to empower themselves and this puts our customers in an empowered position.
This is what we mean by our rallying cry, Carry Forward. It’s about creating change the (human) right way. We are setting the stage and proof of concept for how a business can impact significant change by putting people first. By putting people in a position for them to protect themselves and advocate for what is best for them.
Can you share with our readers about the ethical standards you use when you choose where to source materials?
We go directly to the source. I dedicated 10 years to figuring out our supply chain on the ground in Thailand. Traveling directly to our artisans, collaborating with them on sourcing the best materials, and gaining access to this type of transparency was no easy feat. It took seven years to get access to our tannery, a third generation business in their village. Not everyone has that luxury of time. But through it all, I know that my artisans are being paid fairly and treated with dignity.
Pursuing various environmental standards when you are not backed by millions in capital takes a lot of legwork. And when you are sourcing out of developing countries with smaller businesses who are not able to afford these expensive certifications you face yet another challenge. Both parties face huge cost obstacles yet make up a huge percentage of business and operations worldwide.
So, we are committed to doing everything we can to improve our environmental footprint. All of our leather is a bi-product of the meat industry. We use deadstock for the lining of our bags. We use all of the hide and donate any leftover scraps of leather to a local college’s art program. We know there is much more we can do, and want to do, and that’s why we are still in the game.
As a customer, I must admit I too was a little naive when it comes to advocating for brands to ‘just do better.’ For example, it’s technically not that hard to introduce a better water purification process in a tannery, but it ultimately comes down to your leverage and resources. When we met with our tannery it was clear there were ways they could manage water waste better. They, the tannery, knew this very well. Heck, it is in their own backyard, so it was 100% something they too wanted to incorporate, but who was going to pay for it? We learned that even what we were ordering was maybe 5% of the amount they’d need to even consider investing in such technology. We are not alone in this. Speaking to colleagues leading sustainability efforts for Fortune 500 brands also run up against the same problem of not having enough buying power to influence processes in factories solo. It comes down to leverage. If you can collaborate and join forces with other brands who source from the same tannery for example, change is more feasible.
Fast fashion has an advantage, that it is affordable for most people, but it also has the drawback that it does not last very long and is therefore not very sustainable. What are your thoughts about this? How does your company address this question?
It has a massive drawback. Is something truly affordable if it comes at the expense of something, someone else?
Fast fashion is built on disposable pieces and dispensable people. Predatory practices and unfair exchanges of value. Self-indulgence and short sightedness. Business practices that disregard the intrinsic value of all people, and brands that back down from the opportunity to make the world a better place.
When we call it like it is, like this, who would want to support ‘fast fashion’? When you know better, you do better. Our customers are conscientious and care about social justice and the environment. To them, a luxury product of any kind should reflect a commitment to top quality and, wherever possible, social and environmental responsibility. One previous fast-fashion customer said it best, “you get what you pay for. I don’t save any money by buying fast fashion because it doesn’t last. If I invested in quality from the start, I would come out ahead, plus I feel like I’m doing my civic duty by shopping sapahn.”
You know that feeling when you have been super intentional and even worked extra hard to save up for something? You’ve invested a lot of time, effort and money, therefore, it means something more to you. It’s symbolic in many ways. It marks a moment in time. You take pride in the purchase and in yourself for what it took to get you there. I wish more people would look at every purchase this way, big or small.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand”. Please share a story or example for each.
- A clear mission and vision: You need clarity in what you are trying to achieve. I knew from day one that 1) I was founding a human rights based company (artisans are participatory and equal, artisans set their own wages, the company would mobilize people through business done right). 2) To be sustainable, we needed great designs (timeless, not trendy) and 3) the product must be high quality (long lasting). My vision was to create sustainable impact AND a sustainable business.
- A strong purpose: Why are you doing what you are doing? What’s motivating you in the work, in the brand you’re about? You’ll need to be extra clear here and find purpose in it because it requires a lot of energy, time, curiosity, and facing constant friction. When I founded Sapahn, my purpose was not to start a fashion brand, it was to seek answers to BIG questions — How do we reduce people’s vulnerabilities when they migrate? How can we build businesses in rural Thailand that offer an enticing opportunity to men and women so they don’t have to leave their communities in search of work? What does empowerment look like? How can we flip philanthropy on its head? For me, these questions and the greater purpose that what I’m doing is bigger than myself drive our business. If we fold today or if I quit, I’m not the only one it will impact. Hundreds of people who are part of our supply chain will be impacted. I don’t take this lightly in building a sustainable company.
So the mix of vision, mission, purpose, and add in values, this will guide your culture, attract customers and employees, and give to what you are doing and why and how you will do this. This all provides a crucial foundation for the business.
- Identifiable product: You know a Sapahn by our signature Omega hardware. It’s never mistaken. It immediately connects people and ignites a meaningful conversation. One year early on I didn’t put the Omega hardware on a bag, it just didn’t look great with it on. That year after showing off this new bag design I was told by customers time and time again that they loved it but because it didn’t have the Omega on it they didn’t want to purchase it. They loved the subtle, yet strong statement the Omega hardware gives to the bags. From this day on, the Omega became our signature piece.
- Loyal customers: Sapahn has been very lucky to have loyal customers that have been with us since the start. They are truly champions for us and I think it is because we invite them on this journey with us and bring them into this community of women who simply want other women to succeed. And typically, they first fall in love with the product, and the human rights mission becomes the cherry on top. Many customers share, “Oh, I got stopped in the TSA line,” or “Someone said I love your bag at the grocery store.” Customers then tell me how they gush about the functionality, the pockets, the lining, and the story of doing good. If you spot a Sapahn across the room or at a store there is an immediate sense of connection; like-minded women who want their beautiful things to do beautiful things and whose shopping habits speak to their values. These encounters in everyday situations are how many first discover Sapahn — for the first 10 years our marketing was all word of mouth.
- Connection with supply chain: There is a lot of power in knowing your supply chain, the very people who make your beautiful goods. They can be solutions to your problems. They are part of your team. Part of business is knowing things from start to finish so knowing this piece is crucial.
I don’t see many companies viewing their supply chain as the true asset that they are. For instance, during COVID, our artisans immediately came to us with the idea of making face masks out of our lining fabric after learning of the massive mask shortages the U.S. experienced early on. They produced the masks, we sold them at cost and offered “buy 5, gift 5 free,” because of the high demand the U.S. was facing at the time. This solution kept the artisans employed, served a safety massive need stateside, and connected us to thousands of new customers throughout the U.S. All throughout COVID, we didn’t have any supply chain issues when everyone else did because of our strong relationships and transparency with them. We were able to do something so beautiful by keeping people employed, giving them a source of livelihood, wellbeing, and stability.
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
Simply put, people first. At Sapahn, we reject the false premise that fashion consumers must choose between “doing good” or “looking good”. No one should be disregarded or discounted in the name of fashion. Everyone deserves to live a life full of meaning. Equal rights and agency for all people. This starts with the supply chain.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s not new, but the movement I’ve been advocating for is business + human rights.
Do people have a voice in the decision making process? Are they consulted in decisions that impact them? Are they treated with respect and dignity? Is their safety kept in mind when making decisions? Are they paid a liveable wage? At Sapahn they are. I would love to help any other brand seeking this type of improvement even make just the tiniest step in the right direction. It is all about progress, the journey and the pursuit of doing better, little by little.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can read more about our human rights based business model and shop our products online at www.sapahn.com and also join us on Instagram by following @sapahn.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.