At MZ, terroir meets slow fashion and fair trade
If you’re a big-time foodie or wine connoisseur, you’re probably familiar with the term “terroir”—a word used to describe the combination of factors that give wine grapes their distinct character, such as soil, climate, and sunlight. The term also unofficially evokes a deep sense of culture, heritage, and craft.
When you uncork that wine, you’re opening a concoction of landscape, history, and refinement, not just a bottle of fermented grape juice.
That’s how one might feel unzipping a handcrafted MZ bag for the first time; it’s not “just” a bag, but rather, an artisan masterpiece woven with the threads of fair trade, sustainable practices, traditional Zapotec culture, and craftsmanship passed down through generations. With designs that are both inspired from the landscape and literally from the landscape in the form of naturally made dyes, the bag truly carries its geographical and cultural origins straight into the hands of the consumer.
Fashion from afar reminds us that there’s a great big world out there that we get to be a part of. Fashion that prioritizes equitable practices and celebration of traditional culture reminds us that the world isn’t just big, but also good.
If that feels like a lot to carry, it is; but at least you can carry it in an incredibly stylish bag that elicits the home-grown, artisan vibes of Oaxaca, Mexico, “made with love.”
Handwoven “Red Arrow Purse” made by MZ artisans.
MZ is a socially-conscious company that partners with Zapotec artisans for the creation of 100% handmade bags.
The Zapotec are a people indigenous to Mexico, and today, they primarily live in Oaxaca, which is where the bags are mostly made within family homes. Many of the artisans are husband-and-wife teams who perform each stage of dyeing, weaving, sewing, and leatherworking based on practices passed down by mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives. Some have higher education in things like industrial engineering and fashion design, contributing to a fascinating blend of traditional and contemporary design.
This woman-owned company strives to celebrate traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico by connecting with socially conscious consumers around the world like you and me—people who want to wear quality artwear that reflects our values and our discerning tastes while ensuring that our money isn’t inadvertently contributing to practices that might be harmful to people or the environment.
Things to love about MZ
- Certified Fair Trade
- 100% handmade products
- Accountability and transparency
- Equity and fair compensation for artisans and employees
- Prioritizes sustainable practices
- Meaningful, long-lasting relationships with artisans
- Celebrates traditional indigenous artwork and design
- Values slow fashion
- Ethical production process every step of the way
- Beautiful, stylish pieces that combine traditional design with contemporary sensibilities and needs.
You can pull out so many feel-good qualities from an MZ bag that you’ll feel like a bonafide Mary Poppins. Except in this case, our endless vessel is, I daresay, slightly more appealing to the eye than an old floral carpetbag. Sound cheesy? Yeah. You’re probably right. But sometimes, it’s worth all the cheese.
Handwoven “Sparrow’s Song Tote” made by MZ artisans.
Good Stuff. But what does it all mean, exactly?
I get it. It’s easy to throw together a bunch of important-sounding words to make something sound meaningful, even when it’s not—so let’s clarify why some of these things are actually important.
One of the best things about MZ is that it is fair trade.
Wait—isn’t “fair trade” just a marketing buzzword for chocolate and coffee?
Nope. “Fair trade” is a legitimate, verifiable designation awarded by official entities such as the Fair Trade Federation, and can be used for all sorts of industries.
In order to be officially certified as fair trade, companies must go through a verification process to ensure that they abide by specific principles. This means that the company—and in this case, MZ—has proven that its business practices align with fair trade values, including:
- cultivating new market opportunities to help alleviate poverty
- fair and prompt payment
- creating safe and empowering work conditions
- respecting cultural, racial, and ethic identity.
This means that when you purchase a handcrafted bag from MZ or other certified fair trade companies, you can feel confident that:
- the artisans are being fairly compensated for their work
- you’re not inadvertently supporting unsafe working conditions or forced child labor
- Marginalized communities are not being exploited or disrespected
"It's a small miracle that we as consumers can participate in a process that is keeping skills and communities alive and helping them to prosper."
Accountability and transparency
Accountability and transparency are two of the most important tenets of fair trade, and MZ takes this seriously. A quick trip to their website allows potential customers to explore every aspect of the production process, from meeting the artisans, to explaining the different stages, to clarifying financial aspects of the company.
What’s in the cost of an MZ bag?
Image is from MZ’s official website
It’s not always possible to get this much detail about a product’s production process without tons of digging, but MZ tries to make this kind of information accessible in order to empower both the artisans and their customers. I like it when a company respects its customer enough to be open and honest about their business practices.
One of the fascinating things about MZ is that customers have the opportunity to learn about the actual artisans. They’re not just faceless cogs in a machine. They’re living, breathing people with families, dreams, passions, and dedication to the craft—and it’s their hands that literally dye the wool, weave the yarn, and sew the leather. Some of them come from generations of weavers. Others found leatherworking through family businesses, and some are passionate about keeping alive traditional methods of natural dyeing (a process that alchemizes local ingredients from plant, animal, and mineral sources, including nuts, flowers, cochineal bugs, and indigo!)
Fun fact: cochineal insects are powdered and dried to make a bright crimson dye. Until the creation of synthetic dyes, this was popular for decorating the robes of Rome’s cardinals!
But even the bags that utilize vivid synthetic dyes come alive with the terroir of Oaxaca, depicting ancient designs like what you might find in the pre-Columbian city of Teotitlán del Valle, or in old ruins like Monte Albán or Mitla.
Every piece carries a little bit of the individual artisan’s life, culture, and uniqueness. What’s more, they never throw out extra pieces left over from the creative process. Excess yarn is re-dyed to assimilate into the next projects, and left-over leather pieces are used to make MZ tags, fringe, and more.
A low-waste production process? That’s something I can get behind.
With the pandemic, it’s been challenging to travel and explore new places, and I think in some ways, it makes me even more excited about purchasing items that are infused with the local terroir where they were made. Wearing handcrafted, bespoke clothing and accessories that sing of other people and other cultures makes me feel like I’m a little piece of the bigger world out there, even if the pandemic has me more home-bound than I’d like to be.
Overall, we’re impressed with MZ’s commitment to fair trade, sustainability, equity, and women empowerment, and we love being able to see a glimpse into this beautiful tradition of weaving from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Sometimes, a bag really is just a bag—but sometimes, it’s so much more than that.
“Never judge things by their appearance...even carpetbags. I'm sure I never do.”