The tie is not known as the most politically correct garment. It represents privilege and power, its shape recalls a phallic symbol, and mandatory tie requirements are seen as culturally insensitive to non-Western dressers. However, haberdasher William Watts turns these notions upside down.
The young company produces striking menswear accessories like ties, bowties, and pocket squares that are handmade by poor Afghan women in rural areas and refugee camps. Through their work with William Watts, these artisans can gain some financial independence and improve their quality of life. The brand debuts on Fab with the Kabul collection, which is made of the same fabric that’s used for burqas, the traditional Islamic veil for women.
I was intrigued by this fascinating product and decided to find out more about the team behind it. So I caught up with William Watts’ founders Emily Williams and Jonathan Watts to chat about their vision and mission.
Who’s the team behind William Watts?
William Watts was co-founded by Emily Williams and Jonathan Watts. We are from Venice, California and share the belief that a world where women have equal opportunities is a more prosperous and peaceful world. Emily’s sister, Maya, is an honorary member of the William Watts team. She works full-time for an international development organization that helps stabilize countries wrecked by political or military conflict. It’s her work that inspired us to create a company that enables ordinary people to contribute to global change by simply buying products that are made by the very women in need.
How did it all begin?
We reached out to an Afghan non-profit group that Maya met while she was working on an aid project in Kandahar. The group helps talented women artisans find a market for their clothing and crafts. Prior to finding this source of income, the women lived lives of chronic poverty. Very few had learned to read or had ever visited a doctor in their lives. We sent the women a tie and bowtie pattern based on designer menswear specs, and asked them if they could produce a custom order for William Watts. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to share their talents with the US market, and we were thrilled to be able to provide them an income source that’s more than triple the minimum wage in their country.
Do you have any background in apparel? And why did you choose to make men’s accessories?
This is our first foray into the fashion world, and we’ve been fortunate to work with very experienced Afghan women artisans who produce our ties. We chose ties because it’s a fashion item that’s inherently symbolic. Ties don’t have a practical purpose as an apparel item, so putting on a tie has always been about making a statement. Imagine a knight tying on his colors before going off into battle, or a nobleman donning a tie as a symbol of status. Ties provide the perfect canvas for silently communicating a message.
Why do you use this particular fabric? It seems like it might be controversial to the women whom you work with?
The fabric selected for William Watts ties and pocket squares is traditionally used in burqas—the most concealing of all Islamic veils—that has a mesh screen that covers women’s eyes. This fabric is certainly symbolic of a world where women’s rights are fragile and their opportunities as individuals are limited. However, to the women making the ties, it’s not the fabric itself that’s controversial. (They repurpose burqa fabric in many other products they sell locally as well.) What is controversial in their world is the fact that they are earning an income for themselves at all. Sadly, there is still a very real risk to Afghan women who seek work or educational opportunities outside the home. But many women are willing to take this risk to better their lives and to quietly fight for opportunities for others in the future.
Can you give a brief description of the production process?
The women who create William Watts ties work from home after completing household chores and childcare. The ties are entirely hand-sewn, based on a pattern that we provided. Each woman can typically complete about one tie per day, which comes to about 30 pieces per week. The local non-profit collects the finished ties, and pays the women directly to ensure that the money goes straight to them.
Where do you see yourself headed next? How do you decide which group of women to focus on?
We made the Kabul Tie out of burqa fabric for Afghan women because of our personal connection to the local organization of women artisans. For future designs, we expect to follow a similar path – finding inspiration from our family, our travels, and our friends.
That said, friends of Fab count as our friends, too! So, we’d be honored if any readers wanted to send us suggestions if they have ideas for a product that meets our mission. Just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss the Fab sale with William Watts, which features incredible handmade ties, bowties, and pocket squares.
Photos: Tahira Afridi