Mata Traders: Empowering Women Across the World

Jonit Bookheim, Maureen Dunn, Michelle Thomas on their first trip to India in early 2004.

Jonit Bookheim, Maureen Dunn, and Michelle Thomas are the founders of fair trade company Mata Traders, which sells everything from clothing to jewelry to home décor. You may have visited their Chicago retail location at the Andersonville Galleria (5247 N. Clark St.) or seen their items at their various other retail partners in the city.

Their reach, however, extends far beyond the city of Chicago, where they do all of their designs. Mata Traders currently has over 400 U.S. shops carrying their line, at least one in every state except Wyoming. Furthermore, the women who handcraft Mata Traders’s designs work in cooperatives and artisan groups in developing countries. These co-ops pay fair wages, provide safe working conditions, and offer resources. Combining “old-fashioned processes–such as hand loom weaving and hand block printing–with fashion-forward silhouettes and contemporary color palettes,” according to the company profile, Mata Traders does much more than create beautiful clothing and jewelry. Mata Traders empowers women with the goal of ending global poverty.

For our June Rebellious issue, “Where Have You Been?” we talked to Jonit Bookheim about where Mata Traders has been, what makes them Rebellious, and how they are changing the lives of women across the globe. 

What inspired you to start Mata Traders?
The three of us met in college, and after we graduated we started traveling together. We went backpacking in Europe and spent a year working in Australia, during which time we also visited Southeast Asia. We fell in love with traveling and the feeling you get when you’re out there exploring the world, seeing new things, and meeting new people. We saved up our money and in 2003 we embarked on a round-the-world trip that included four months in India. We loved the vibrant colors of India, the textiles and handicrafts, and we met a woman from Seattle who had been importing from India and Bali. The next year, Maureen went back to India on a buying trip and started Mata Traders.

How did you turn your idea for Mata Traders into reality?
Maureen first went back to India with a $3,000 credit card and sent a bunch of stuff home — everything from leather sandals to vintage tapestries to sets of bangles. She crashed on her cousin’s couch that summer in Martha’s Vineyard and sold her wares at an outdoor market there. Her booth was a success — she sold through most everything she had bought. Some people asked her if her products were fair trade, and she looked into what that meant. As it happened, the Fair Trade Futures Conference was that fall in Chicago, so Maureen attended. She realized that, of course, she’d have to source fair trade from then on.

Mata Traders dressOn our travels we’d seen widespread poverty and were asking ourselves why that was happening and what we could do. Finding fair trade was the perfect fit and she realized her purchasing power could be used for good. On her next trip, she sought out fair trade groups to make clothes and accessories for her, like bags and pillow shams. The business has grown organically since then.  Michelle joined up with Maureen after finishing a grad degree in English Lit in 2007. At first they relied on selling at Chicago neighborhood street fests in the summers and holiday fairs in the winter, and they had outside income from a seasonal gig together selling posters on college campuses.

We’re so amazed that it’s come far enough now to not only support ourselves but a Chicago staff of 10 people!

What makes Mata Traders unique?
A lot of things. Our aesthetic is unique. We combine traditional handmade fabric techniques, like hand-block prints and hand-woven ikats, with modern style and design. We design our own prints and we love bold colors. The cuts are often vintage inspired, and we always want them to be flattering and easy to wear. Our fair trade products satisfy a conscious consumer, but our style appeals to consumers in the mainstream apparel market who do not typically or exclusively seek out ethically-made products. This is evident when you look at our 400+ retail partners: about half of those accounts are dedicated fair trade shops that only carry fair trade products; the other half are independent boutiques and shops that buy our line for the look. We are unique in the mainstream apparel market because of our social mission, and we are unique in the fair trade community because we are stylish.

This month at Rebellious, we are asking “where have you been?” Is travel important to you? What is your favorite place you have been?
We’ve spent a lot of time abroad. In Australia we bought an old van and lived in that van for four months and 13,000 miles. […] Michelle lived in Germany for a year between high school and college. Maureen spent a summer in France during college. […] I lived in Mexico teaching English after returning from Australia and Michelle and Maureen came to visit for a fun two weeks exploring the state of Veracruz. […]For part of my grad program in Sustainable Development I lived in Nicaragua for seven months working at a community development organization. So yes, travel is so important to us and we really believe that it’s important for people to travel and experience what the rest of the world is like. 

I think a lot of people in this country are intimidated by what they perceive the cost of travel will be, but the most expensive part is the airfare (unless you’re going to Mexico, in which case you can take a bus!). Once you get there, you can live on a shoe-string budget and a little money saved can go a long way. Three friends is a great number to travel in. You can share room and food expenses three ways. We were living on $10 a day. Another option for (documented) Americans is teaching English abroad or the Peace Corps. So we really encourage young people to travel before/during/after college, and the fact that it’s not an option for DREAMERS is one of the things that got us passionate about immigration reform.

We’ve been to so many amazing places, it’s hard to have just one favorite. I think the place we recommend the most to others is Turkey. It’s really got something for everyone. 

Mata Traders dress Would you say Mata Traders is a feminist company? How does it support or inspire women?
Yes, Mata Traders is definitely a feminist company.  Mata means ‘mother’ in Hindi, and we say that our products are a tribute to the female shakti (creative) power in all of us.

Our products are designed in Chicago and handmade by women’s cooperatives and artisan groups in India and Nepal that pay fair wages and provide safe working conditions. In those countries, a fair trade cooperative is a unique and safe environment for a woman to work, particularly poor women. The co-ops that make our products work in rural and slum communities with women who have little or no education, many can’t read or write. Because of their work, the women can afford to send their children to school and pay for necessities that they couldn’t before. The cooperatives are really amazing, supportive organizations that are social service programs as much as they are workplaces. There are social workers on staff, and members are provided resources such as on-site daycare, paid maternity leave, medical check-ups, health care, vision testing and glasses, and retirement pensions. To promote social mobility, the women are offered classes in literacy, financial literacy, and computers. In addition, the groups ensure a safe, clean, well-lit and well-ventilated workshop environment and that no child labor is used. Working hours are monitored, with overtime being compensated accordingly. Most importantly, the women gain confidence and empowerment within their families and communities.

Also, we think we are providing a great product for American women who are looking for ethical alternatives for their wardrobes, and we hope we are inspiring people to have fun expressing themselves though fashion.

What makes Mata Traders Rebellious?
Wanting to change the status quo, particularly in terms of global poverty and women’s rights.

What is your favorite Mata item right now that you would recommend to readers?
Jin Ju Ruffle dress in both colors (see above) and also the Shibuya street dress (left). Mata Traders_Shibuya street dress

What is your favorite thing about Chicago?
The people and that there’s lots to do and every kind of food!  We also love Women’s Workout World on Lawrence, one of the most diverse places we know!

You can find out more about Mata traders at their website or visit their Chicago retail location at the Andersonville Galleria: 5247 N. Clark St., Chicago IL  60640 (773.878.8570). Find more retail partners here.

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