VIRTŪ: When Meeting Your Neighbor in the Corridors Turns into a Social Business
By Monika Kanokova . April 4, 2017
When you’re given the chance to move to a city like Berlin — a city buzzing with creative ideas, where new opportunities and new connections wait around every corner — you take it.
You try to connect with as many people as you can. You talk to anyone. Everyone. You even chat with your neighbors. And maybe — maybe — you wind up starting a company with someone you first met in your building’s hallway.
That’s how Guillaume Vaslin-Reimann and Jason Grullon went from strangers in a shared apartment building to business partners with a shared mission to empower textile workers halfway around the world.
In 2015, the pair founded VIRTŪ, a sustainable clothing brand for men that uses fashion as a vehicle for making a positive social impact. Their first garment was a simple shirt made from 100% cotton, ethically produced in the Dominican Republic. They’ve since expanded their collection to include products from all over Latin America, including a dress shirt, an alpaca pullover, and a scarf.
For much of his life, Paris-born Guillaume had only experienced the glamorous side of the garment industry — the runway shows and ready-to-wear collections. But as he began to travel around the world for a number of design and technology ventures, he saw a very different side to the industry. Jason, meanwhile, had grown up in a poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and knew firsthand how difficult it could be for families to break out of the cycle of poverty.
When Jason and Guillaume first met in their apartment hallway, Guillaume — the former CEO of The European magazine and the game studio eelusion, and a dapper dresser — was on the lookout for a new challenge. Jason began to open up to his neighbor about his lifelong dream of creating a business that would train young people in Latin America to become entrepreneurs and fairly and ethically employ them as craftspeople. Guillaume admired Jason’s enthusiasm and his approach to social entrepreneurship, and decided to join him in this mission.
From chatting in the hallway they progressed to meeting for drinks, and they began drafting a plan to bring VIRTŪ to life. They aimed to create a quality garment that consumers would love, instead of contributing to the glut of cheap, fast fashion on the market.
The pair soon realized that most ethical fashion caters to women, and what few options exist for men tend to be overpriced. So for their first offering as VIRTŪ, they decided to create a classic men’s shirt. With his background in design and technology, Guillaume designed VIRTŪ’s first garment. He now serves as the company’s creative director.
Guillaume also realized that VIRTŪ couldn’t begin courting investors until they could demonstrate a real demand for their shirts. They decided to run a Kickstarter project, launching in December 2016 with a funding goal of €50,000. They felt that a successful Kickstarter project would be the quickest way to show proof of concept while allowing them to fairly pay those who produced the garment, without having to bring on a co-investor who may or may not share their vision.
Within three months, Jason and Guillaume had gone from chatting about their idea to raising nearly €60,000 on Kickstarter. Better yet, they now had proof that they had tapped into a community that was enthusiastic about purchasing their shirts and supporting a business promoting equitable employment practices. In early 2016, with the funds from their Kickstarter campaign and the money they received from the Social Impact Fund, they began to build an infrastructure to support their business, setting up a training program in the Dominican Republic. Of the 20 people trained in apparel production as part of that program, about half are still collaborating with VIRTŪ.
Overall, 50 people in Latin America have benefited from VIRTŪ’s social mission so far — and the founders aim to expand their collection and bring their training programs to more countries this year.
These days, Jason and Guillaume spend a good deal of time traveling to oversee the production of their garments. But whenever they’re in Berlin, they’re eager to share their story: the story of two Berliners trying to make the world a better place by encouraging communication, collaboration, and equanimity between neighbors — upstairs, downstairs, across the hall, or across the world. Join them!