Interview with Ammar Belal, ONE432

Introductory image for Ammar Belal, Founder of ONE432

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/history that has led you to this point?

My journey towards ONE432 is divided into three main parts:

First

I am Pakistani, but born in Boston. When I was young, Pakistan was going through a manufacturing boom. If you bought a t-shirt in the 1980s, there was a good chance that it was constructed in Pakistan. My father really rode the wave of that boom and so I grew up with a great exposure to global factory production and entrepreneurship.

This inspired me to attend business school – despite wanting to be an artist. And I started my first company shortly thereafter. I had this great label, but I wanted to work in fashion, going beyond making the same thing 1,000 times over. I knew what I wanted to wear, so I thought that if I made those items for myself, perhaps my friends might want them too. 

Second

During this time, I was enchanted by the idea of success that is sold to you in your 20s. And in fashion, success is growing and scaling enough that you have your name on a billboard. However, even though we grew to five stores in Pakistan, I felt incomplete because this corporate empire took me further away from my core love of making clothes.

Third

So, on my company’s 10-year anniversary, I enrolled in the Masters of Fashion Design Program at Parsons in New York City, which only accepts 18 individuals from across the globe. It led to two hard years of study, but renewed my sense of fashion identity.

Through this program, I realized that I didn’t want to just work in fashion for my own self-fulfillment, but rather I wanted to use fashion to impact something. It was here that ONE432 was born.

Following the program, I was recruited to teach at Parsons, giving me more time to develop the ONE432 concept.

I decided that the two main pillars of ONE432’s mission were going to be: 1) a social impact philosophy and 2) a high level of quality. This was because there was a lot of social impact branding in fashion and beyond, but what was missing was transparency – you couldn’t see exactly where your money was going.

At ONE432, we match every dollar earned with a dollar donated to a cause and to the people who made the product you purchased. Figuring out the right structure for this took us four years, but we finally launched it online last year.

With this model, artisans are paid more than the minimum wage in Pakistan in addition to being a part of a profit-sharing model. We think that this is the future of how business transaction will occur: total transparency.

Examples of the ONE432 jutti shoes

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

One of the nuances of this conversation around sustainability that is often forgotten is that it is an evolving commitment. It grows along with each stage of the company, adapting as processes change.

At ONE432, we base our sustainability strategy on local resources in Pakistan. Questions that we have to ask ourselves include: What is the most responsible material choice given our location? And are we choosing sustainable materials for the sake of branding, but cutting out local resources?

To us, it is very important to choose local and up-cycled materials, so that we are confident that we are investing in both people and the planet.

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regards to the future health of our planet?

Conversations about responsible consumption are akin to having three different people at a dinner table: you as a citizen, the government and corporations. The end result is the negotiation that all three have to agree upon with one another. Corporations are in charge of the products we consume, governments are responsible for safeguarding the public via regulations in accordance with what is important to us beyond what we know and we – the consumers – choose what to pay for.

However, it is also greatly dependent on where you live. I currently live in NYC and my personal commitment is to raise awareness in my community and in the fashion industry about how to be conscious consumers and producers.

Tan juttis with tassles from ONE432

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness and our sense of it is so telling of privilege and where someone is from. When I say it, by virtue of living in New York City in the concrete jungle, I lean towards places like forests and beaches where no one is around.

However, when I go to Pakistan and spend time in the community where ONE432 is based, I think about what wilderness means to them.

They are so near to these northern areas of Pakistan with beautiful valleys. That, to me, is wilderness too.

Do you have a favorite item, it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind, that has great meaning to you?

So many things. I don’t throw away clothing since I make my own clothes. So, I have the first t-shirt I made when I was 19 or 20. I have the first handloom that I learned how to weave on by a fourth generation weaving master in Pakistan. I have the pair of jeans that I painted, tore up and customized with promises and lyrics of how I wanted to be that I created when I was 21 to wear to my first fashion show. 

ONE432 product shots of black, velvet juttis

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear?

Considering what my life has been like for the past 25 years, I know one thing about myself: I cannot be in one place. If I stay in one place long enough to get comfortable, then I lose my sense of drive for growth. I am always looking for where I can have purpose.

When I am living in Pakistan and interacting with the community day in and day out, I start to lose perspective on where there are challenges and opportunities. However, since I have the immense privilege of living in the United States, I have the ability and power to return to Pakistan and accomplish so much more. 

I love the north of Pakistan though. It is beautiful and so humbling. Utah is lovely too. I so enjoyed the Canyonlands.

When I think about sitting in the wilderness with a book, appreciating nature, I am very grateful that I am able to disconnect and enjoy those moments fully. 

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind? 

I hope that they remember me as this crazy guy that just wouldn’t give up and because of that was able to move the needle when it comes to what is possible and what we can demand as customers, especially in regards to transparency. 

I hope that ONE432 is seen as a company that changed the conversation around what corporations say they can offer in terms of fashion. That people in the future will ask who made their clothes and get an answer directly from the artisan who created it. That this process won’t be just a good thing to do, but rather a mainstreamed part of the process.

Product shot of juttis at the beach

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

All the sayings from the first Rocky movie. It was the first set of movies that I saw as a kid in Pakistan. I loved the story of the underdog and the messaging about falling in love with the process of what we do instead of winning. That is what ONE432 is about – not winning, but looking at the nuances of what we think success is and redefining it. 

I wear my Rocky sweatshirt all the time. 

What brands do you admire?

Patagonia. I like that they started talking about and acting on sustainable efforts way before it was trending. They didn’t do it for any other reason than because they really believe it.

They are also a great example of a company that could have exploded in terms of scale, but they have systematically grown instead – not letting that desire to grow changes their values.

Chobani. When they went public, they shared that success with employees. They proved that you don’t have to wait to amass a lot of wealth and then turn into the biggest philanthropist in the world. You can give back as you grow. 

If we can say that even in ONE432’s struggling years, we gave half of our profits away, then that speaks loud. Whatever I have, I want to use it to take care of someone else beyond myself. That type of rhetoric from companies changes nations.

Advertising posters from ONE432

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers? 

I am an idealist, but I don’t let people confuse that idealism with naivety. We are bombarded with corporate advertising all the time that tries to convince us of certain truths. However, we are cynical about that messaging.

But, if a message comes through a lens of transparency – for example, not speaking on behalf of a community, but giving them a stage to speak for themselves – then I believe the public will love and respond to that.

That is why at ONE432 every shoe has a QR code with the name of a specific artisan, along with a date of creation and their signature. Customers can scan this code on our website and see how much money that artisan made. Our hope is that eventually you will even be able to communicate with that artisan directly.

Can you tell us something about your product/brand/personal journey that might surprise us to know?

Gender equity is a huge part of our story at ONE432.

And this is why: If you had a focus group with 10 people in a room and asked, “When I say cobbler, what gender do you think of?” Eighty-percent of the time, they would say men. This is because globally, the trade has not been passed along to women. There is a huge gender imbalance in shoemaking worldwide.

When we first started ONE432 and decided to focus on juttis – a type of footwear common in Pakistan – we noticed that the industry was dying. A huge reason for this is that the production process was outdated and the shoe was uncomfortable. 

When we went to male cobblers and asked them to adapt the process or materials, they refused. So, we started training women to make juttis. They made them so beautifully and now make more money than the men in their community who are a part of the same trade. 

All of our managers are women too, which is relatively unheard of in Pakistan.

Our juttis also don’t have a distinct left or right shoe, which we hope is more inclusive as well. 

Founder of ONE432, Ammar Belal, and his velvet red juttis

What is your favorite animal and why?

My favorite animal was a cat that I adopted in Pakistan. He passed away this year.

I got him after a few bad years in Pakistan when I thought I was done as a designer. He showed up the night that I opened the store for my menswear line. 

I took him to the vet – a kitten at the time – and they said he wouldn’t survive. However, I was determined he would. And luckily, both he and my brand made it.

When I left Pakistan, he came with me to NYC. His name was Barack because the day my store opened was the day Barack Obama was elected president in the United States. He and my cat both represented hope for me.