Moral Fibers: Dobson Cup winner aims for a larger market niche

Danie Maurilus, one of Moral Fibers’ new artists in Haiti. / Photo courtesy of Samuel McGuire, Copyright Moral Fibers 2011.

By Chris Chipello

It’s been a whirlwind five months for Matt Brightman since Moral Fibers, the start-up T-shirt business that he co-founded, won the top prize in the Dobson Cup competition for budding McGill entrepreneurs.

He and co-founder Martin Weiss, both undergraduates in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, have been pressing ahead with efforts to ramp up the business, which prints colourful shirts designed by artists in Haiti – and now aims to produce a wider array of apparel aimed at young professionals.

There have been trips to Haiti to meet with artists and scout manufacturing facilities, visits to New York to pitch for venture capital, and marketing events to introduce the company to potential customers in places from Boston to Montreal to Ithaca, NY.

Like many fledgling businesses, Moral Fibers is quickly evolving as Brightman and Weiss test the market and identify ways to broaden the business’s potential.

Just back from his latest trip to Haiti, Brightman (who’s taking the current semester off to focus on the business) spoke with the Reporter recently about developments over the past few months and plans for the coming year.

Moral Fibers was launched in June as an e-commerce venture, with T-shirt orders placed through its website. So far, the firm has booked around $30,000 to $35,000 in revenue, Brightman said.

Now, the plan is to significantly broaden both the company’s product line and its channels of distribution. In addition to its colourful T-shirts, Moral Fibers hopes to develop a range of clothing products, from dress shirts and jackets to raincoats and scarves – and sell them through big-name department stores and fashion outlets.

“We want to appeal to young professionals” – college graduates who have landed their first job, but who want to maintain social ideals they embraced as students, Brightman explained.

Brightman and Weiss came up with the idea for the business after they visited Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake to help with humanitarian relief efforts.

With each purchase of a Moral Fibers T-shirt, part of the proceeds go to the artist and another part to a charity or school in his or her hometown. As the company’s website explains, “Moral Fibers gives artists in the developing world the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty through a job creating art for fashion.” The marketing tagline: “Wear art. Change lives.”

On their recent trip to Haiti, the company’s managers hired the first three female artists to design products for the firm. They also legally incorporated the company in Haiti, which will enable artists who work for the firm to receive medical and social security benefits, Brightman explained.

The firm is also considering shifting production from Canada to Haiti, both to reduce costs and to contribute to efforts to rebuild the apparel-manufacturing sector in the hard-hit Caribbean country. During their recent trip, the Moral Fibers team toured several factories, before focusing on a potential partner that trains workers to produce high-quality products in small ateliers, Brightman said. “It’s not a sweatshop; it’s perfect for us.”