When Shea Parton booked his flight to Israel last spring, he expected the journey would be rife with bureaucracy like Russia, traffic like New Delhi, and conflict like he’d seen in the news. Shea is the co-founder of Apolis, a high-end menswear social enterprise based in Los Angeles that he started in 2004 with his brother Raan. Apolis, which translated from the Greek means “global citizen,” creates its products through partnerships around the world to empower local workers. But despite the corners of the planet Shea had already seen, what he found in Israel debunked his stereotypes, reminding him, yet again, that the world is much smaller than we realize, and that awareness and friendship can transform communities.
While in Israel, Shea spent time with Shlomy Azolay, a third-generation Jewish shoemaker (and avid surfer) who’d been crafting sandals with Apolis for two years. Shea learned that when the orders got too large, Shlomy relied on a cross-border neighbor to complete the order. That neighbor, a Palestinian, lived in Hebron, a city within the contested zone of the Gaza Strip. This year, the Apolis team helped arrange a face-to-face meeting between Shlomy and his Palestinian co-worker, and captured the story on film. If history were to be the final judge, these two men would have been enemies. But instead, thanks in part to the work of Apolis, they’ve become business associates – and most importantly, friends.
“In the Middle East – this place with arguably the most tension you can imagine – business is bridging that gap,” Shea says. “These relationships, even just within the platform of advocation industries, are shaping and impacting culture.”
The Apolis team measures their influence not just by the number of celebrities who wear their brand, but by the number of days of work provided for each craftsman and woman around the globe. To date, the label has created a marketplace for artisans from Bangladesh, Peru, the Middle East, Honduras, India and Uganda. And the products – alpaca textiles hand-loomed in Peru, silk-cotton shawls weaved by women in Bangladesh, classic button-down shirts tailored in Honduras – aren’t “touchy-feely, cursory arts and crafts.” They are high-end products, often designed by Raan Parton’s keen eye, and in conjunction with some of America’s longest standing brands. For example, Shea points to Apolis’ Ugandan project.
“Ugandans have the most fertile agriculture in Africa. But the country has been so unstable, and different rebel groups have put their agricultural industry on hold because it wasn’t safe to be out in the fields. So, when we came across this 12.5-oz black organic canvas, we knew it was a great fiber, and even though we didn’t see a great capacity for manufacturing in Uganda, we knew there was a way to utilize the employment of these farmers.” Apolis forged a partnership between the farmers in Uganda and Filson in Seattle, creating a quality black canvas briefcase, called the Philanthropist Briefcase.
And though a plethora of social enterprises and brands seem to use “social advocacy” as a marketing strategy, the Apolis team is committed to the long game. They’ve been in business for a decade, and the drive to help create jobs and opportunity around the world is so much more than a footnote in their work – it’s industry, passion, creativity and advocacy all woven together. Or as Shea says, it’s about “the people, the variety of landscapes, the history and the endless opportunities for adventure.”