By Julia Preszler, news staff
Two Northeastern students have been working for the past five months to help launch PAKA Apparel, a company that sells alpaca wool sweaters made by Peruvian women. The brand has piqued the interests of celebrities including Chance the Rapper.
Zael Ellenhorn, a senior economics major, and Liam Mahoney, a third-year finance major, work as PAKA’s creative director and marketing director, respectively. The idea for PAKA Apparel was originally conceived by their friend Kris Cody, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, in June.
PAKA’s goal is to create and sell sweaters that are comfortable, sustainable and produced using fair trade practices, while also providing economic empowerment to female weavers in Peru.
“We want to be able to take the idea of sustainability, of fair trade, of treating people how you would like to be treated,” Mahoney said. “And we would like to be able to take that idea globally, while keeping the benefit and the culture very authentic to Peru.”
Cody said he was inspired to form the company after traveling to Peru and other countries in Europe and South America during a gap year he took between high school and college. Over the past summer, Cody returned to Peru and spent six weeks setting up the company’s production line.
Cody partnered with 15 female weavers near Cusco, where he and Gregoria Chaski, a Peruvian grandmother, designed the sweaters.
“Weaving is something they grew up learning and doing naturally,” Cody said. “It’s part of their culture.”
The design of each sweater has a story behind it, Ellenhorn said. For example, “The Condór” is a dark grey sweater with a white stripe stretching from the armpit to the bottom hem on the left side. Black silhouettes of the Andean Condor, a type of bird found in Peru, line the white stripe. This design is an ode to the Condor shape that is carved out of rocks at Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city.
“The comfort is the number one thing but the thing I love about it is we have tried to design these to really keep that authentic Peruvian look,” Mahoney said.
The sweaters sell for $99 each and the company has made about 50 sales so far, Cody said. They are working on increasing awareness about the sweaters by stocking ski resorts like Killington and Mount Snow in Vermont and Sugarloaf Mountain Resort in Maine, while also reaching out to celebrities to promote their products.
Ellenhorn, who also founded a record label called Movement Music in Los Angeles in January, used his connections to introduce the sweaters to musicians such as Luca Lush, Sober Rob and Oshi, as well as a Hawaiian surfer named Jamie O’Brien. In October, Ellenhorn set up a meeting between Cody and Chance the Rapper near the University of Virginia.
“It was so amazing for him to process and feel our sweaters because I’ve just never seen someone so absorbed in the present moment,” Cody said.
Ellenhorn said he has seen many people have this type of “moment” when they are first introduced to the sweaters.
“If you know the story beforehand and are being told it as you look at it, it sounds corny, but it becomes a little more than a piece of clothing,” Ellenhorn said. “It becomes this interconnected path of all these different things that lead up to this physical object.”
The trio hopes to utilize what they call “positive consumerism” in order to support talented workers in Peru.
“We want all of the people who are working, the weavers, the photographers, anyone down in Peru, we believe they should be getting the benefits because it’s their work,” Mahoney said.
The sweaters are made with all-natural materials, namely wool from alpacas that are native to Peru, which is then spun and weaved. The weavers use the Cochineal parasite, found in the “prickly pear” cactus, to dye the wool a burgundy color for their “Cusco” sweater design.
Ellenhorn said he doesn’t want PAKA to be seen as just another group of college students trying to save the world. Still, he hopes people can learn from PAKA’s story.
“I would like to show people what’s possible through positive consumerism and compassion and understanding for the things we surround ourselves with and the clothes that we wear and the things that we use,” Ellenhorn said.
Photo courtesy Zael Ellenhorn