Have you ever thought about where your ‘stuff’ comes from? How it is made? Or even, who made it? For many the answer is no, because often the reality is rather drab – factory made, mass produced on an assembly line. Cue traveller Maxine Bédat, who after an eye-opening experience in a Zambian market decided to reconnect people, not only to quality products, but also to the unique skill and beautiful artistry that goes into making these products around the world.
Bédat is the co-founder of non-profit The Bootstrap Project (thebootstrapproject.com) and the online store Zady (zady.com), two ventures which look at preserving artisan crafts and providing sustainable jobs worldwide.
We caught up with the adventurer and entrepreneur to talk conscious consumerism, the magic of markets and why you should never come between an elephant and its calf.
Where was your last trip?
I went to Geneva, Switzerland for the holidays and went skiing in Verbier. It’s where my husband’s family lives so we always go there to visit them.
Where is your next trip?
My next trip will be to Dubai – I'll be speaking at a conference. I'm very excited to see how the city has developed in such a short time and explore a place I have, up until this point, only read about. It seems like a crazy place of juxtaposition, so I'm looking forward to getting my own interpretation of the place.
What is your first travel-related memory?
My first memory is in South Africa, hanging out with my cousins and aunts and uncles. My cousin was dating this boy who had just got his driver’s permit so we decided to go on a self-drive safari. We drove in and he accidentally split up an elephant mum and her baby – something you definitely don’t want to do. I remember being quite terrified as the elephant was charging our car.
Aisle or window seat?
Window, always. The best time is to just dream about the world as you’re looking out from high above.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I always remember to pack socks on a plane because my feet get cold. And I like getting travel sizes of my face washes and things so that I feel at home and like I still have a routine.
What is your most unforgettable travel memory?
I got to see the throat singers of Tuva, on the border of Russia and Mongolia. These singers produce this really mesmerising music. The sound of it is just insane and I was completely transported to another world.
Favourite city or country or region?
Tajikistan. The people were universally incredibly friendly and there wasn’t really a tourist route so I got to interact with local people and learn about who they were and what motivated them. And the landscapes were also just beautiful and I got to explore some amazing markets.
Was there a defining moment that led you to launching The Bootstrap Project and, since then, Zady?
The idea came about when I was working in Tanzania at the Rwandan criminal tribunal. I found myself really wanting to connect with the people where I was living and so I would go visit markets.
I took a weekend trip to Zambia and came across these amazing basket weavers at a market. I grew up in Middle America and the idea that I could see a basket being hand woven using reeds was incredible. I fell in love with the whole process and appreciated that basket so much more because I knew where it came from and what skill was involved.
So I started thinking about how all my other things were made. And I learnt, the more I dug into it while I was living in Tanzania, that these amazing artisanal goods are dying out because they are not being passed down to the next generation and because cheap goods are flooding into places all over the world.
That was the impetus really to create the Bootstrap Project. Working to bring those beautiful crafts to the next generation and to create sustainable jobs at the same time.
Your products each come with a story about its origin, has there been a particularly compelling story?
They’re all special stories. But for me, because I was most personally involved, the one that stands out is our ‘.01 The Sweater’ – the first piece of our own label Zady. It stands out for this crazy idea that we could be connected to our product all the way down to the farm, a notion that has really been lost.
So when I think of that sweater, I think of Jeanne and her ranch in Oregon where the sheep come from, and the washhouse in South Carolina and the dyeing and spinning. And I think of all the people that have invested their whole lives into their respected craft and the beautiful products that result.
Why do you think it’s important to preserve the methods of traditional craftsmen and women?
The reason I launched Zady, my online clothing store, was because of the global artistry I had discovered. That art is inspiring and makes the world interesting. Having those very special pieces makes you want to be connected to it and makes you think of being an owner of an object versus just a consumer of stuff.
How do you think perceptions of fashion are different around the world?
Globally it’s our armour for the world. It’s to make you feel great. It’s to make you feel beautiful and comfortable and ready to conquer your day. It’s the way we want to communicate and that ethos doesn’t change much. What does change, I guess, is how that expresses itself and I find that to be really fun to think about and see and go and visit.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I’d love to go and see the Northern Lights. It seems dreamy and magical so if the world is going to end, I had better go see it.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The best advice was from my dad. He always encouraged us to keep a journal and actually I always write my memories in my travel books.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
My best souvenir is from South Africa. In Johannesburg there’s a terrific craft market where my husband and I found these wood carvers who made these awesome elephant tables that were inlaid with beads. They were so beautiful but I thought ‘that’s crazy, we’re not going to ship these back to New York, who has time for that?’.
But my husband encouraged me and we got talking to the carvers and they were so awesome we ended up getting two of them shipped back.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
I was, again, in South Africa, this time with my parents. We were visiting family who live in Plettenberg Bay, just outside of Cape Town. Because of the flights we had to land in Johannesburg, stay overnight in a hotel, and take a flight to George the next day. Unfortunately we all missed our alarms, all three of us who are normally very precise, prompt people. My parents were convinced we would never make the flight and that our short trip had been ruined, but I got us to the airport, to the front of the line and we eventually made it onto our flights. My parents were totally surprised that even in those situations you can find a way.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
The heart of a city is its markets, so I would say always go and visit a market and just get an idea for how people really live there.
Find out more about Maxine's ventures at thebootstrapproject.com or visit zady.co to peruse some amazing artisan goods and the stories behind them.