Much like the distinctive and whimsical prints of FAZL designs, Mike Gunn and Vanessa Tse’s journey to start Fazl is a unique tale like no other. They met years ago on a fateful journey to volunteer at a children’s home in North India. “I was here to learn about the children’s resilience in these homes. These kids came from such traumatic backgrounds but in these homes, they could thrive and live fully,” says Vanessa. She also emphasizes that Mike always had a desire to create a “social enterprise” that works on helping people in underprivileged countries. One trip to a Himachali market solidified both their dreams. Vanessa picked up a pair of patterned socks and said, “What if we could give back to children’s homes and give fair wages to the Himachali women who make them?” From there came the creation of Fazl, a brand whose name comes from the Urdu word meaning ‘grace.’
FAZL has always been one of a kind, with their primary mission aimed at providing fair wages for the women who make their products, as well as donating 50% of their net profits to children’s homes in North India. But the journey to start their own company wasn’t an easy one for co-founders Mike and Vanessa.
Though Mike and Vanessa were extremely excited to get started, they knew they had their work cut out for them. They moved to India in the cold November of 2015 to learn more about the culture and the language before they dove into their business plan. “One of my favorite things about India is how relational it is. People here have time to actually sit down and have chai with you,” Vanessa laughs. She and Mike spent the first few months learning Hindi and understanding the “rhythm of life” in North India.
“It would’ve been very destructive if we just came in and said ‘here’s our plan’ without first understanding the culture,” she emphasizes.
That wasn’t the only challenge the two faced when they first started. “There was a lot to figure out, including the distribution of wool and quality control,” Mike adds. All of Fazl’s products are made from synthetic wool which has to be acquired by Mike and Vanessa’s partners in India. He also goes on to say that they faced trouble distributing the finished products to Western countries. “Our first year we would literally just stuff socks in suitcases. Whenever we had visitors we’d make them take boxes of socks back to Canada,” he adds with a laugh. Vanessa also mentions that their remote location up in the mountain posed a challenge, especially when they needed a timely wool delivery.
Once Mike and Vanessa knew what they wanted their brand to be, they flew back to Canada with a suitcase crammed with hundreds of socks, hoping to inspire investors to commit to their cause. “Canada is one of the coldest countries out there so we just went to our business partners and literally said, ‘do you think this has a shot?’ and grew our company from there,” says Vanessa. Mike also goes on to add that their desire to create FAZL came from the idea of creating something self-sustainable and local, that can give back to the underprivileged without having to worry about outside funding. By hiring Himachali women as artisans, both Mike and Vanessa hoped to provide a sustainable income for less privileged families.
“Helping these women was like orphan prevention. If they could provide for their families, there was a lesser chance we’d find these kids in orphanages or homes,” adds Vanessa.
Over time, they learned to overcome the challenges of their first year, and FAZL has expanded beyond socks to mittens, gloves, recycled-tire bags, and more. But throughout these changes to their products, they’ve remained true to their original mission: providing Himachali women a safe place to express their creativity with fair wages. “That’s our hill to die on. We were offered machines that crank out a sock a minute, but we always said no,” Vanessa says. She goes on to emphasize that sticking to the handmade model was not easy and it took a while for them to create products that displayed consistency. “It’s not hard to make 20 socks daily with the same pattern, but it is hard to make 2,000 socks of the same quality by 100 different women,” Vanessa adds
Luckily for FAZL, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a challenge to growth, in fact, their sales grew more than ever in 2020. Vanessa speculates that customers were drawn to their website because they wanted to help individuals in underdeveloped countries. “I think people thought about how difficult times were in developed countries and wanted to give back to people in emerging economies,” she says. Vanessa also adds that they have three Indian partners — who hail from the children’s homes FAZL supports — that help out with liaising with all the artisans daily. “We give the ladies the wool and they then go ahead and knit at home,” Vanessa says. The fully remote business model kept the brand going during the pandemic, allowing them to not just support these underprivileged families, but also helping create more product and sales than ever before. “These women can easily make roti or care for their babies, and then make socks in their spare time,” Vanessa says. “It’s the most empowering thing we could have ever done for them.”
FAZL now employs over 500 different artisans and they plan to continue to grow and impact more people every year. “This year we’re adding a new line of scarves and a couple of new patterns,” Mike adds. But the main legacy of FAZL lies with the women who create these socks. “Mothers pass their favorite designs down to their daughters and you see these kids creating their own socks and mittens for fun, ” Vanessa says. Mike also goes on to add how he always sees people around the town constantly working on their designs. “One lady was honestly knitting while walking her cow,” Vanessa laughs. FAZL’s legacy continues to live on with the artisans and the difference these sales make to children’s homes in North India. So head over to their website today and buy one of their carefully handmade designs. My current favorite is the Hamesha (Always) socks, a pair of socks that don’t just look great but feel great, too. Experience them for yourself!
Every time you purchase a FAZL product, 50% of the net profits go toward orphanages located in Mike and Vanessa’s Indian hometown of Manali. If you want to be part of their story and help make a change, buy their products today. Feel free to also follow them on Instagram and Facebook, a simple share of their brand could help change the lives of countless orphans in India. You can also get a 10% discount on your first pair of socks if you sign up for their newsletter right now!
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