As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Tobias de Graaf from MOXHI about traveling to South America, an unlikely friendship, and what 'ethical fashion' means to him.
MOXHI is the result of an unlikely friendship. Can you tell us a bit about how a trip to Argentina launched a brand?
Well, I’ve been in love with South America for a long time already. After writing about countries like Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia during my studies in political science, I went on a motorcycle trip through Argentina and the Andes region in 2013, together with my girlfriend. Afterwards it became clear to me that I’d have to return to Argentina, so I went to live there. While I was working at the Dutch embassy, I came across Leonardo in a market and it just clicked - we became friends and have been ever since.
What is the meaning behind the name MOXHI?
The name MOXHI refers to Mochila, Spanish for backpack. But it’s also quite personal. ‘To have moxy’ means you’re willing to take a risk. That was exactly what I did when I started MOXHI and at the same time my life as entrepreneur. I quit my office job and became an entrepreneur - something that I can now say suits me, but I didn’t know that at all at the time.
What were you doing before you decided to pursue a backpack label? Did you have any experience in the industry?
Well, I guess I spoiled the answer to this question in my previous answer! I have no experience whatsoever in the fashion industry, but our artisans in Argentina do have years and years of experience as craftsmen. Does that count? Either way, of course I do think it’s important that the bags look good, but I never thought I’d be starting a bags label myself! I actually stumbled into starting MOXHI together with Leonardo and Cecilia (the Argentine artisans) when I was living in Buenos Aires, and I figured it seemed like the right thing to do.
Why is it important to you that you are recognised as a social enterprise? (we are too!).
A bit cliché, but I hope my generation can leave a better world behind than how we found it. For me that means experimenting with what it means to be social and sustainable, in your personal as well as professional life. I wouldn’t sell bags that we’re made in a ‘regular’ factory just for profit. Of course I want to make some money with MOXHI, but it’s just as important for me to make a societal impact and to show products can be made and sold differently.
Ethical fashion can be very subjective. How do you interpret ‘ethical fashion’?
For me, all products that are manufactured ‘better’ than what’s currently the norm in the fashion industry are ethical fashion. ‘Better’ in my opinion should be a broad concept - it could be more sustainable, fair trade or more attention for human and animal rights. By that the ethical fashion brands function as pioneers that ultimately force bigger companies to take responsibility and change their production process.
The leather we use is tanned ecologically, meaning it’s ‘processed’ without the use of chemicals that are toxic to the environment (which is the standard in the leather industry). Instead, we use vegetal extracts, like oil from soybeans and quebracho wood snippets that are leftovers from a woodmill nearby Buenos Aires. We even use the sun and wind to dry the leather afterwards, instead of just heating it up with a big oven.
In 2014, there were just seven people involved in MOXHI who did everything from tanning the leather, to handcrafting the bags, to sales! (Most companies have huge globalised supply chains, but you could get the whole chain in one photo!). What are the benefits of a small supply chain like this?
I never thought of it like that! That photo is of bad quality, but I’m very fond of it. I guess the benefits are that we treat each other like human beings. Whenever Leonardo goes to pick up the leather, coffee is served and stories are exchanged. I remember my first time there: Miguel, the head of the family that tans the leather, showed me family photos and even began to sing an old song for me. Amazing!
Do you travel back to Argentina often? How has MOXHI impacted the lives of the artisans that you work with there?
Actually not that much. Partly because it’s just too far to ‘just travel to’ and partly because of the impact flying has on the environment. I’ve been back only once since we started MOXHI. Luckily it also isn’t necessary: we can work together well by being in contact via internet.
How would you like to see MOXHI grow in the future?
Well, MOXHI is in a way limited due to its nature as we sell handcrafted products. Of course we can hire and train new artisans, but I’m not sure that’s the way to continue. I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to tell more stories with MOXHI, about other artisans, other places and other handcrafted and sustainable products. But those are just thoughts. For now I’m happy with MOXHI the way it is.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go out on a limb and create their own social enterprise in the fashion industry?
Fantasising will not get you there: you could have probably gotten your first products and customers in the time you’ve already spent thinking about it. Have moxy and just do it!