In 2015, Kris Cody was traveling through Cusco, Peru on a gap year when he stumbled across a grandmother selling her handwoven alpaca warm sweaters. On September 21st of this year, he launched PAKA, an alpaca wool sweater company that provides Peruvian women weavers with the resources to share their talent with the world and financially empower themselves. Kris Cody is 20 years old from Portland, Maine, studying neuroscience at the University of Virginia. He’s also an avid mandolinist and music producer.
What lead you to Peru and why did you decide to create an apparel company that empowers Peruvian female weavers?
I initially was just passing through Cusco to get to the Pacific and surf up into Ecuador. I grabbed an alpaca wool sweater on the way because it was chilly up in the Andes. It blew me away how comfortable it was and how well it fit. The sweater lasted for my entire trip and I wore it everywhere. Trying to re-immerse myself back in the States post-gap year, I felt a little withdrawn – the openness of the South American people and beautiful simplicity in their culture surpassed anything I’d seen in the US.
It grew on me more and more until I bought a one-way flight back to Cusco this summer. I had no big intentions, more just a craving to live in the society and learn about the alpaca wool sweater process. The deeper I went, learning about the natural dyes and ancient designs, the more I wanted to create something with the people. The women weavers explained to me how being a “tejedor” (textile-designer) was a dying art, but I saw potential to create a market in first-world countries. We worked our tails off for months and came up with eight unique designs.
How is PAKA setting a new precedence for the fashion industry?
Right now, maybe 1% of the people you meet in the US have ever touched alpaca wool in their lives. It’s something that hasn’t been brought to the states in a fashionable, sustainable manner yet. Every traveler that goes through Cusco is blown away by the softness and comes home with a few mementos. I see a huge market to create, especially because cashmere wool is pretty unsustainable and exclusive. In the Andes, there’s this evolved, mutualistic relationship between the Inca and alpaca.
The indigenous Quechua people naturally grow up learning how to weave, and it’s ingrained in their society, not artificially created for an industry. On top of that, when it rewards and really changes someone’s life, consumerism is shown in a different light. When you buy an article of clothing, you should know where it comes from.
Describe some of the challenges and rewards of building a socially conscious company.
I think providing the resources for talented people to succeed is one of the most worthwhile ventures. There’s no “comedown” from improving lives. I just sent cell phones to my team down in Cusco and talk to them all of the time. It blows the women away that people in the United States are wearing and appreciating their hand-woven sweaters.
There’s a big challenge in finding people who genuinely care about sustainability. Until you witness it first-hand, it’s hard to have a relative base of how real a problem is, from pollution to poverty. When I lived in Ecuador, dead sea turtles would wash up on the beach every morning, some with actual plastic wrapped around them. When I bussed through mountains, we’d drop into cleared-out valleys, a recently chopped down jungle.
As globalization increases, I believe that more people will be exposed to and conscious of issues outside their immediate locations. Educating people, whether through a product or video, is a huge initial challenge that turns into something really worthwhile.
You are currently studying neuroscience at the University of Virginia. How do you balance school with running a startup?
It’s not easy (laughs). It can be tough prioritizing school when I’m more naturally energized by this vision. There are a lot of benefits and resources in a university setting to be working on a startup. Setting goals and deadlines is huge, knowing what you want to tangibly accomplish the next day. I’ve found time off to be more important to my well-being and creativity than anything. Maintaining an open mind fosters more inspiration.
What would you like to see happen for PAKA in 2017 and how can MiLLENNiAL readers support that vision?
I have pretty big aspirations for PAKA, from building a living space for the Peruvian women to creating a global market for similar communities. I want to get the sweaters out to as many sectors in the US as possible and grow organically from there. For Millennial readers, the more that it’s shared, the more PAKA grows, and the closer we come to operating as a full scale company that enriches global health. Also, use “COSTA” as a discount code for 10% off!
To learn more about PAKA Apparel or purchase one of their incredible sweaters to support Peruvian weavers this Christmas, visit PAKAapparel.com.