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“For every item of clothing we sell, we donate a pair of underwear to someone who needs it”

“For every item of clothing we sell, we donate a pair of underwear to someone who needs it”

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Main image: Fallon Elizabeth O’Connor

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If you want to know what underwear is worth, ask someone who doesn’t own any. One ethical clothing brand has taken this idea to heart, and dedicated itself to helping make sure women in crisis can get a change of clothing.

The memory of Christmas Eve 2015 will stay with Hayley Santell forever.

Instead of cosying up with family at home, Santell found herself standing on the cold streets of Kansas City, Missouri, muttering to herself, “I’m nervous…” Then she took off her sweatpants.

How did she get here?

An idea that grew gradually

When Santell graduated in fine arts and journalism from the University of Missouri in 2011, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. But she knew what she didn’t want to do. “I was unmotivated by the corporate world,” she says, and she let pass some opportunities that would have started her on that path. Instead, she and a college friend headed to a Florida surf town for a short break which became a long break. They worked in restaurants and bars, then sat up late with their laptops, fleshing out an idea for an ethical fashion business.


“Everything I thought
I knew was out of the window”

Then, one day around this time, Santell learned something that changed her: a relative she’d known all her life was a survivor of domestic abuse.

At first, Santell couldn’t make sense of it. “I was rocked,” she says. The events had taken place many years earlier, and the person in question had now been happily married for decades. The revelation not only opened Santell’s eyes to the full truth of her loved one’s past, it also made her examine her own beliefs about domestic violence, and realise “it could happen to any person”. “Everything I thought I knew was out of the window.”

But Santell didn’t yet know how this knowledge would change her own life. As she continued to ponder starting a clothing company, she made another discovery that surprised her. In a blog by a missionary who had been working in remote areas of Africa, Santell read that underwear was the item most urgently needed – but least often donated.

To people who have lost their homes, escaped violence or are facing some other crisis, clean clothes can mean dignity. The problem is that charities can only accept underwear as a donation if it’s brand new. Most people donating don’t realise this, and if they do, they rarely go to the trouble of buying new items to donate. Santell wondered if the same problem existed in her part of the world, and called some shelters to ask. “They said yes, underwear tops our most urgent needs list, year-round. We never receive donations, when we do, they’re used, and we can’t keep them.” 

For Santell, it was like pieces of a puzzle coming together. Together, she and her best friend Molly Crain came up with the idea for an ethical basics brand, using profits from every item sold to donate a pair of underwear to organisations serving women in need. In the end Crain decided it wasn’t for her, and it was Santell who got the business going, running a fundraiser at the restaurant where she worked, and signing up some of the bar regulars as board members.

Soon, the first production run of six underwear styles arrived, and as Santell tried to jam them all into the closet of her guest room, she realised the beachside lifestyle might not be compatible with her business ambitions. So she returned to her hometown of Kansas City to open a brick-and-mortar store.

A company driven by a cause

Santell’s business, MADI Apparel, makes simple high-quality underwear and other essentials, mostly in unshowy designs and muted colours. The name MADI comes from “Make a Difference”. “Everything we do, we focus on making a difference,” says Santell. Fair pay for the people who sew the garments was “non-negotiable from day one”, she says, putting them among an estimated 2% of fashion workers globally who earn a living wage. Products are manufactured locally, using long-lasting biodegradable fabrics, with minimal waste, and half of it ends up getting donated. It’s also about educating customers: if they didn’t know about the issues that it tackles when they arrive, hopefully they’ve learned a little by the time they leave.“Our intention is to get customers to take a step back to slow down and to think about, what are you putting on your body, what’s the fabric made of, whose hands were behind the cutting and the sewing and the dyeing,” says Santell.

“Our customer is someone who cares about sustainability, cares about a cause, cares about fabrics”

As you’d expect, MADI’s products aren’t cheap – you might pay $88 (€87) for a bra and panties set. Of course, you could spend less elsewhere, but you could also spend a lot more. “Our customer is someone who cares about sustainability, someone who cares about a cause, cares about fabrics,” says Santell. “What I’m hoping in society is that we all will be willing to pay a little bit more for our clothes in the future, and to buy a little less.”

Over the years MADI Apparel has donated more than 9,000 pairs of underwear to 60 nonprofits in the US and as far afield as Haiti, Ecuador, India and Mali. One of those organisations is Sheffield Place, which supports homeless women and children in Kansas City. “I really appreciated the donation of underwear for my daughter and me,” a client at Sheffield Place told 5. “It came at a time when it was needed.” David Hanzlick, director of program and development at Sheffield Place, says underwear donations are in short supply here. “A garment of the quality that MADI makes, is unusual,” he says. “It just makes people feel better about themselves.”

From time to time Santell gets to meet recipients of MADI’s donations face to face. She once travelled to California to meet with a woman who emailed the company. They sat together and looked through copies of the woman’s journals, detailing her escape from abuse. In April of this year Santell handed out more than 300 pairs of underwear at a charity event in Trenton, New Jersey which, for one day, turned the city’s indoor arena into a one-stop shop of free services for people in need – including showers, haircuts, health screenings, and help with housing.

Santell has always been struck by the sheer vulnerability of women at these most difficult moments in their lives. That’s what prompted her to stand out in the street in her underwear on that cold Christmas Eve. Once she had taken off her sweatpants, Santell held up a sign with a message written in Sharpie:  “I’m standing alone in my underwear… Imagine how vulnerable I’d be if I didn’t own a pair.”

As well as an effective PR stunt, it also was “a very big lesson for me,” she says, “because it allowed me to dive into clients’ shoes more and think about it”.

People are more open-minded than you think

Since then, Santell’s business has continued to grow. Right now she’s working on a new range of products made from plastic-free vegan leather, and taking part in a pilot program to return offcuts for reuse.

MADI’s commitment to ethical standards and donations means costs are always high, and margins tight. Have there been difficult times? “Oh, every day,” says Santell. But she has also learned that courage pays off. That Christmas Eve, Santell made herself “as vulnerable as I could possibly be”. And she was met with open arms and open minds. People listened, and people donated. “I’d say nine people out of 10 were very accepting and made me feel really less scared,” says Santell. “Maybe 10 out of 10.”

See for yourself

Shop now for responsibly produced basics from MADI Apparel.

MADI Apparel is a partner of 5

5 is an impact media foundation which helps its partners maximise their impact by telling their stories. In some cases we also provide financial or other support. We produce our content independently and we don’t take payment for coverage. Find out more about our work with MADI Apparel and our other partners here.

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