Naz Kawan: ‘Refugees are breathing new life into forgotten crafts’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks the questions that really matter. This time: Naz Kawan (28), Co-Founder of A Beautiful Mess and Mondmaskerfabriek.


What was your first job?
When I was 14, I started working in an ice cream parlour in Zelhem, in the Achterhoek region of the Netherlands. I was born in Iraq, so that is quite a contrast. Staff, planning, opening and closing… I loved that responsibility. I already had that assertiveness in me.

How would you explain your job in language that a child can understand?
A Beautiful Mess is bringing textile production back to the Netherlands. Our tailors are refugees. They make sustainable new products out of existing materials. For Ace & Tate, for example, we made tote bags from old banners that used to hang in their shops. For Shell, we produced 6,000 aprons from deadstock, which is leftover warehouse fabric. This year we will launch our collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger. We are making new products out of leftovers from their previous collections. For example, we will receive hundreds of shirts that their designers want to turn into new designs.

What keeps you up at night?
The millions of people and children who are refugees, looking for a safe place to go. But also, the amount of pollution caused by mass production in the fashion industry. Far too much is produced, so it can be sold at an unrealistic price. This is dangerous for the climate as well as for the people who work in this industry. Textile workers in low-wage countries work under appalling conditions. Their wages are so low, it’s basically a modern version of slavery.

‘Before the war broke out in Syria, there was a well-developed textile industry there, similar to what it was like in the Netherlands sixty years ago’

What is the advantage of working with refugees?
To help people integrate into a new society faster, you have to look at how you can best use their talents. There are a lot of experienced tailors in the refugee community. Even though they don’t speak Dutch yet, they can start working right away. Before the war broke out in Syria, there was a well-developed textile industry there, similar to what it was like in the Netherlands sixty years ago. Now, the refugees are breathing new life into a craft that has been forgotten in the Netherlands a long time ago. The best part is, we’re tapping into the talent of refugees while also taking on the challenge of creating a circular economy.

What is your big dream?
Our mission is to bring a human touch back to the fashion and manufacturing industry, because we lost that a long time ago. I want a fair new system. That means fair wages for the people who make clothes and an end to pollution and waste.

Isn’t this problem too big for one small company to tackle?
If we only work for small initiatives, it won’t change anything. The reason we’ve come so far as a small company is because of our partnerships with big players. Tommy Hilfiger has implemented our plan into their supply chain. Change happens when big companies team up with people who invent innovative solutions. That’s the key.

‘At a young age, I was exposed to the contrast between safe and unsafe, good and evil’

What do you expect from big companies?
I know from my own experience that big companies want to change. They’re not all that bad… they just don’t know how to do it. Even the people in charge of big companies like Shell have started to see the light. Just look at how B Corp and corporate social responsibility have taken off, and how many people are investing now in sustainable companies. There’s nothing wrong with working for a big company; there’s just a big difference between old and new leadership. New leadership is about taking responsibility and acting, where social impact and sustainability take priority over profit. So, you get companies that serve the public, instead of the other way around. And the good news we’re all starting to learn is that this really doesn’t have to have a negative impact on financial success.

If we made a film about your life, what is one scene that absolutely must be included?
My own refugee story. As a young child, I fled from the war in Iraq. I was three when I came to the Netherlands with my family. At a young age, I was exposed to the contrast between safe and unsafe, good and evil. That makes me who I am today. This is also where my sense of justice comes from. It’s what makes me want to do something for other people. It also comes with a responsibility: I feel privileged to have survived.

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?
I have heard Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, speak on two different occasions. He was making a case for the Paris climate agreement when he said: ‘We have enough PhDs and MBAs. The house is on fire, and we need new leadership now.’ Even with all those smart people, it’s still taking too long to change things. Those words are inspiring to me. Whatever your CV, wherever you work, whatever you studied: take responsibility for fighting climate change.

‘I started Mondmaskerfabriek last year to help solve the shortage of surgical masks through local production’

In what situation did you really have to show courage?
With three other co-founders, I started Mondmaskerfabriek last year to help solve the shortage of surgical masks through local production. Things got off to a bumpy start, because at first, we were just sewing masks at A Beautiful Mess. I say bumpy, because there was a shortage of millions of masks at that time. With a sewing machine, you’re lucky if you can make 100 masks a day. So, with the support of the Philips Foundation and Qredits, we had machines brought in from China. There was never a dull moment. The biggest challenge was getting the masks certified as medical products and having Dutch engineers get the machines up and running. It was a race against the clock. We now have a factory in Arnhem where we produce over 100,000 masks each day with a staff of 42 people.

If you could trade jobs for one day with anyone, who would it be?
Elon Musk. Or why not a week, or a month? When I was 19, I read his autobiography. He achieves the impossible. That is what I find so inspiring. I don’t believe we should give up on things like driving and flying forever. We’ve just got to invent some way that allows us, for example, to fly without having a negative impact on the climate. Elon Musk shows that the solutions lie in innovation and technology, combined with new leadership.

How do you deal with conflicts?
If something is unfair, I will always stand up to fight that. But I try to be curious about the other person’s perspective. It’s important to keep the larger goal in sight. That makes it less personal. Then you can start a conversation, which leads to a dialogue that helps you find the answers.

Do you still dream of another career?
I like the freedom of being an entrepreneur, but I don’t rule out entering politics in the future. As an entrepreneur, you’re constantly confronted with laws and regulations that perpetuate old systems. Politicians who’ve made an impact first-hand can change things more quickly.

Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman