Community//

Work with Purpose

A Conversation with Katie McClure and Erin Breen of MIRTH

Photo Courtesy of MIRTH
Photo Courtesy of MIRTH

Sisters Katie McClure and Erin Breen were at a crossroads. They felt a push to find work that was impactful and fulfilling and found themselves rethinking their careers. Like many others, they turned to travel to do some much needed soul searching. Their exploration gave them a fresh perspective, and the ideas for a new business endeavor began to sprout. From this journey, the sisters launched MIRTH, a line of contemporary caftans and resortwear. I had the pleasure of speaking with Katie and Erin about creating their brand — the origins and the obstacles — so others can learn from their experience. 

What inspired you to create MIRTH?

Katie: Before ultimately meeting up in India where the pieces of the puzzle really started to align, I was in Bali where I was shopping for airy caftans — a silhouette that Erin had been wearing and advocating since her pregnancy. I felt a disconnect between fabrics of the caftans she was seeing and the beautiful handmade textiles in that part of the world. I started brewing on this idea of designing stylish caftans utilizing the heritage techniques that have been passed down for centuries. 

After Erin closed her autism clinic, she decided to meet up with me in India. We started talking more and more about this idea and meeting with people who were in the textiles industry in India, and we realized this could totally work. 

In classic India fashion, we had this dreamy day of meeting people in the textile industry, scouring basements and markets of antique and new textiles, and then solidifying our dream of MIRTH on an elephant ride in the desert. We were laughing and having this magical moment — it was pure mirth.

How did creating MIRTH allow you to find meaning and purpose with your work?

MIRTH has allowed us to pursue our creative interests while also providing a very tangible way that we can give back and make a difference. We feel fulfilled by all aspects of the business, from designing our fabric and seeing it come to life by the skilled hands of our partners, to spotting the finished pieces being worn by customers. Not only are we getting to create beautiful garments and bring beautiful heritage textiles to the Western world, but we’re making a visible difference in entire communities because of the job opportunities that are provided through MIRTH.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of running MIRTH?

Katie: To witness how the work we provide to our artisan partners directly impacts their livelihood and well-being is incredibly rewarding. Whenever we visit our partners in India we feel very validated in our decision to start this business. The impact we are able to have has been especially evident during the pandemic. While our business has struggled significantly due to cancelled wholesale orders, our loss doesn’t come close to the devastation that would transpire if we cancelled orders with our artisan partners. Simply put, they would not be able to eat. Because of this, we have dedicated all of our cash efforts to maintaining our usual business with our partners in India. 

Erin: To echo that, through MIRTH we are able to provide dignified income, education, and pleasant work environments – oftentimes in their own homes – for people in rural India who would otherwise not have access to safe and fulfilling employment. There is nothing like seeing this firsthand when we are there connecting with our partners in person. Oftentimes we are collaborating with them in their homes using sign language because of the language barrier. There is so much joy in these interactions, and so much gratitude, that make all of the challenges of running a small business worth it. And then to see our customers in the U.S. wearing those special fabrics that we witnessed being handmade in the fields of India — it’s truly magical. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced while creating your clothing line and how did you work to overcome this obstacle?

It’s difficult to choose only one! Social impact is at the heart of why we started MIRTH, and it’s very important to us that we are using ethical production practices and providing artisans with a dignified income. We try to use sustainable practices whenever we can, and we make sure to see every step in our production process firsthand. Our guidelines and criteria make the design process more timely and more costly, and of course, producing in India with artisans in remote areas is also very difficult in terms of communication, quality control, and timing. If something along the way in the production process goes awry, which it does 100% of the time, it’s not an easy fix — this means production delays and sometimes a change in the final product. We have to have more flexibility and pivot if needed– and generally, our customers understand this, which we greatly appreciate.

The series of production obstacles is a constant in our business, for the reasons mentioned above. While we are always working to improve our production process and communication, the primary thing we can control is managing expectations, both for ourselves and our customers. We have learned to build cushion into timelines and to implement soft launch dates and pre-orders. While this isn’t ideal, it alleviates frustration and creates an open dialogue with our customers as they learn about how our pieces are made and the challenges we face as a small, ethical brand. We often receive positive feedback from customers about how much they love the subtle imperfections in our handmade pieces. Creating this connection between the skilled hands behind our collections and our loyal customers has proven to be one of the best ways to overcome production challenges.  We also have trusted partners in India who understand our unique supply chain and are willing to work around the challenges as best as they can. 

What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to make the leap and found their own business? 

There is never a right time. For us, the leap was an essential move from the end of one road to the beginning of another. But you don’t have to wait for the road you are on to end in order to make a change. The world is a very uncertain place right now, but don’t let that hold you back from following your dreams. Perhaps the pandemic caused a shift in your career that is allowing you to rethink your life plan. Follow that direction and your intuition. Find a partner and/or mentor to help guide you and hold you accountable. Starting your own business is a daunting task, so set small goals, prepare yourself for setbacks, and take it one day and step at a time. If you believe in what you are doing, and if you are helping others along the way, you have the power to succeed. 

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