Interview Series: Francesca Kennedy of Ix Style
Welcome to MODA Interview Series, where we feature influencers and leaders in the fashion industry in the Chicago area and beyond to discuss their design inspirations, their creative backgrounds and what it means to be a self-starter in the fashion world today.
After discovering the once beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala had become contaminated from a natural disaster in 2010, Francesca Kennedy, founder and CEO of Ix Style, launched her own fashion company to raise awareness and funds to combat extreme poverty and malnutrition, empower women and provide clean drinking water for the affected communities. Ix Style Huarache sandals and accessories are handcrafted by over 800 female artisans, and 15% of proceeds from every purchase are donated to Puente, a program that educates indigenous women and provides them with the mentoring and resources needed to launch their own business ventures—with the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of poverty and empowering female businesswomen.
Francesca’s designs have been featured in many leading fashion publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and InStyle. She has also collaborated on projects with J. Crew, Anthropologie, Gap and co-designed styles with Gwyneth Paltrow for Goop. Francesca is a current TED Resident, and will present a TED talk on December 13, 2016, so be sure to tune in to learn more about her mission and the power of fashion to enact real social and environmental change. At the time of our interview, she was attending Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, a series of lectures and presentations by today’s leading forces in ingenuity and creativity.
What inspired you to pursue a career in fashion and philanthropy?
When I returned to visit my grandparents at the lake in Guatemala, where my family is originally from, the lake had become completely overrun with blue green algae. The water looked like sewage—NASA called it one of the worst natural disasters of our lifetime as you could see the pollution from space. I will never forget the image of young girls collecting the contaminated water to drink, to cook, to clean…
Can you describe Ix Style’s mission statement in a sentence?
For every purchase of sandals we provide free drinking water for children in Guatemala.
Can you explain the impact Ix Style has had on solving the water crisis in Guatemala and empowering the women who live there?
Countless women have been empowered, a nursery has been built in Guatemala in Ix Style's name and we continue to grow our efforts year after year. Thanks to water’s amazing capacity to cleanse itself, the lake has been restored to its former beauty. But there are thousands in Guatemala who still don't have access to clean water. Guatemala has the #1 malnutrition rate in the Americas and #4 in the world. We are not even close to being finished. We are constantly seeking new opportunities to grow, to take our water mission to the next level, and to continue empowering people around the world.
There are a lot of social good fashion companies out there, what makes your mission unique?
For my family, the lake holds special significance. It is where I was baptized and where my grandparents lived for many years. It’s where my family celebrated and continues to celebrate countless birthdays and holidays. So my mission hits close to home; my mission is my home. While other companies have equally important messages, most of them weren’t started because their backyard or their home was destroyed. Ix Style has more of a personal message and mission.
What informs your design philosophy? Is there anything that inspires you in particular when conceptualizing different product designs?
I always get inspired by going to the local markets in Guatemala and seeing the beautiful textiles and craftsmanship on display.
What did you do before Ix Style and what inspired you to start your own company?
I used to work in finance at Goldman Sachs… Until that point, I had always taken clean drinking water for granted. [After the flood] I learned that diseases from unsafe water kill more people each year than any form of violence, including war. It had been my dream since childhood to do something to give back to Guatemala, so I knew that I had to act. And I was able to stretch my knowledge and experience from finance and use that to build a really strong company.
You’ve been featured on Project Runway: Fashion Start Up, you’re a TED resident and have collaborated with major names in the fashion industry. How has this exposure changed the trajectory of Ix Style and your career?
Working with celebrities drives sales, which ultimately creates more jobs for artisans. It wouldn’t happen without the power and influence and exposure we get from working with these people. We’ve been so lucky that all of these influencers have wanted to work with us to support the cause.
What’s next for Ix Style? Is there anything you’re looking forward to in particular?
Because of the exposure from Project Runway, Rebecca Minkoff has invested in our company and we’re moving into her headquarters in the coming months. We’re also designing new styles that will be featured in her stores and on her website, which is exciting. We’ve recently received sponsorship to start coordinating trips with fashion industry influencers to go to Guatemala and learn more about the artisans and community there, as well as our mission. We’re also working on a book with the photographer Steve McCurry (who shot the famous National Geographic ‘Afghan Girl’ cover) that will feature the local artisans and Guatemalan communities to raise awareness.
What has been one of the biggest milestones in your career so far?
Providing water filters for hundreds of families has been one of the biggest milestones for Ix Style. Personally, I’m really excited to be giving press talks about the importance of water and our brand mission. Being featured on Project Runway was also really exciting; getting out of my comfort zone and pitching my company to some of the most influential and powerful people in fashion to believe in our company and our mission is a dream come true. And working with big box companies and names like J. Crew and Jenna Lyons, Gap and Gwyneth Paltrow are proud moments that as an entrepreneur I am really excited about.
What advice would you give to young people interested in getting involved in fashion and start ups as they move forward in their careers?
This is the topic I get most excited about, I don’t even know where to start! I really want to inspire other people to follow their dreams and not follow the most obvious path or the path their parents have set out for them… Follow your passion and your heart, dream big and if you believe full heartedly and work hard enough, you will succeed. Don’t get discouraged if you hear the word “no”… I don’t even know how many times I've heard “no,” but I don’t think about it anymore because all you need is that one person to say “yes” and open that door for you. So that’s what I like to keep striving towards. If you feel in your heart that you’re 100% doing the right thing, don’t let people deter you or squash your dream.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
I feel like they aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done! But it’s all exciting and fun. I’m doing such interesting things and I get to speak and share my mission. It can be challenging to allocate my resources to the right projects, though.
What’s the most rewarding part about running your own business?
Going back to Guatemala and getting that hug from the artisans, feeling their gratitude and seeing how happy they are. We have created a viable market with viable jobs and we’ve given them the opportunity to pursue an education, give back to the community and support their families.
How can young people get involved with Ix Style?
I really am a one woman show with a team of rock star interns that have helped me build this company from the ground up. Interning at IxStyle really is an opportunity like no other to get involved in the various aspects of fashion and business. I want you guys to tell me what you’re excited to work on, because you know what you’re good at and what your skill sets are, and that’s what will drive our success.