Consider the time you spend on laundry each month, folding, hanging, looking for escaped socks. Now imagine a shirt that stays laundry fresh after you wear it to the gym every day for a month. With Ably apparel, Raj Shah and his brother Akhil have developed a technology that makes cotton and linen moisture, odor, and stain resistant—a development so promising the brothers raised over half a million dollars on Kickstarter. The Kenyan-born Raj explains how he went from selling African garments in Edmonds to potentially changing apparel forever.
From Kenya to Edmonds
I was born in Mombasa, Kenya, and I moved straight to Seattle when I was 16, courtesy of my older brother who was working at Boeing. Right from the get-go I wanted to start a business and make money. Back in Kenya the tourists would buy these dashiki print shirts, so I knew I had to carry some with me to the states. My first sale was to the Edmonds High School bookstore during my senior year in 1971.
The Brothers Shah
Soon after, my younger brother Akhil moved to help with the business. This was the early ’70s, when people started to fall in love with denim. In 1975 we officially started Shah Safari Inc., selling to Nordstrom, the Bon—what we call Macy’s today—and Squire Shops, which were the coolest chain of denim stores. [For decades] we grew by looking five steps ahead; new trends, new fabrics. Major stores would say, “If the Shahs bring you something new, pay attention.”
When I saw more synthetics like polyester and nylon introduced to the market, it puzzled me. These companies told people to wear oil on their bodies while doing yoga. I thought, They are discrediting natural fabrics. People like organic materials like cotton, but they are too absorbent. So around a decade ago we began to think and experiment. The challenge came from how pissed off I was.
Once our team started showing results over the last few years, major brands saw what we created and asked for an exclusive. I want to get to all of that; we’ll need to partner and license eventually. But I kept thinking for the first product, the story should come from us. No one will be able to tell it like we will. That’s why we brought it to the community through Kickstarter. That’s why we created Ably.
Down with Laundry
I’ve been told this could be the biggest change to our industry in maybe 100 years. But this is bigger than just apparel. Because if we are successful with even 2 percent of the global market, I think we will have brought a positive change to the world. The benefits to the environment and day-to-day life, the time you get back, are invaluable.