VOL. 130 | NO. 183 | Monday, September 21, 2015
SMALL BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT
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Socially Conscious Lesouque Curates Global, Ethical Designs
LANCE WIEDOWER | Special to The Daily News
Gokben Yamandag recalls fond childhood memories visiting open markets for hours on Saturdays in her native Turkey.
These bazaars, called souks, were the biggest entertainment going for children on a Saturday. Imagine a farmers market, only a hundred times bigger, with clothing, scarves and numerous other unique items.
Yamandag wanted to bring her own twist on a souk to Memphis when she started Lesouque with co-founder Penelope Fisher last year. Now, shoppers can scroll through a unique collection of finds from designers around the world that is curated at Lesouque.com, a site that launched this summer.
Lesouque sources clothing, scarves, jewelry, towels, handbags, home goods and other items from 20 designers, including ones in Istanbul, Turkey, who create the Lesouque Collection. Memphis designers are listed next to ones from places such as Portland, Brooklyn, India, Los Angeles and Australia.
Penelope Fisher and Gokben Yamandag head up Lesouque, a socially conscious website that sells clothing, scarves, jewelry, towels and home goods made by international designers.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Yamandag, who earned an undergraduate degree in textile engineering in Turkey, worked after graduation in a garment factory that manufactured clothing for well-known American and European retailers. She didn’t like the harsh conditions she saw.
“You would start working on Friday and work through to Sunday with no sleep,” she said. “There were child workers working at a factory to produce stuff that needs to get out the door to come to America or other European countries.”
Yamandag said she didn’t want to be part of that environment and didn’t feel she could make a true impact at such a young age, so she left home, moving to Memphis at 25 to get a master’s degree at the University of Memphis.
“A lot of people talk about ethical manufacturing,” she said. “It’s something I believe in. I wanted something that celebrates creativity and ethical manufacturing.”
Fisher said consumers want to buy cheap, trendy clothing, but every purchase has a hidden cost.
“It might be $5, but what are the underlying costs they’re ignoring?” Fisher said. “That’s the price of the workers at the end of that – long hours and terrible conditions.”
It’s been a long but rewarding process, Yamandag said, to get from launching the business last year to actually debuting the website in July. Over that time, the two spent countless hours researching and visiting designers around the world to pick ones they believed strongly in.
It started with a visit to Turkey last year to meet with designers, learn who manufactures their products, then pay visits to those vendors to observe working conditions.
The pair also visited New York, where Yamandag taught Fisher how to gauge the quality of a garment by touch.
The pair met at MPACT Memphis. They found themselves at a friend’s wedding a few years later, and the idea for the business came up. Finally last year the idea turned to reality.
Fisher has an advertising background, but she is connected to retail. Her father owned a small store where she grew up in Missouri. She recalls picking out products to sell to customers.
“I always enjoy the satisfaction of seeing people pick out things they love that they can wear,” she said. “And being here in Memphis to start this … the city is right on the cusp of something great all the time. Being able to do something to contribute to that is great.”
Fisher said she knows from her experience with her father’s business that there are positives to having a brick-and-mortar storefront, mainly that customers can see a collection. The two said they are interested in eventually having a physical presence, but they also like the flexibility that comes with being an online retailer.
“It allows for us to be more nimble,” Fisher said. “It allows us to get more global. It allows us to bring people to Memphis to discover artists from places they don’t know about.”
Yamandag wants to use the business to help raise awareness of girls’ struggles. More than 62 million girls worldwide are out of school just because they are female, she said.
“I am successful today because I grew up in a progressive environment in Turkey where I had access to a strong education,” she said. “But many girls in most parts of the world don’t have that kind of access.”
A portion of the profit from all purchases goes to the Malala Fund, which is committed to supporting girls’ education in some of the world’s toughest environments; think the Syrian war, the threat of the Taliban in Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
“Supporting girls’ education is near and dear to my heart,” Yamandag said. “I want Lesouque to be part of the cause. It fits well with both the brand’s social consciousness and my personal efforts with the cause.”