NJAL: Power Pioneers

[Originally posted on Not Just A Label, 29th September 2015]

Power Pioneers

- by Camilla Sampson

NJAL’s Camilla Sampson evaluates how design can be an instrument to empower women and indigenous communities that have long suffered from decades of armed violence through grassroots driven social entrepreneurship. How are independent designers and brands championing centuries-old artisanal skills and craftsmanship that’s on the edge of decline?

In many cases, it is not plausible for women to vocalise their identity, acquire economic independence, or assert themselves in their community. This is particularly true for indigenous women, those in areas of cultural degradation, and those trapped in conflict zones. Brands such as Abury, NJAL’s own Carla Fernandez, and The Fabric Social, are seeking to connect with these women and find opportunities to give them a voice, and livelihood, through apparel by buying their wares, and selling them on in the Western world. Of course, one must be cautious of the threat of colonialism and “white saviour syndrome”, but in most cases, as NJAL discussed with Abury, positive results outweigh potential issues.

Clothing is universal to women. Carla Fernandez founded Taller Flora, a workshop and laboratory, which works with women throughout Mexico who produce handmade textiles and clothing. In a similar vein, The Fabric Social works with women in conflict areas of India to sell their products to the Western world. Abury, a Berlin-based brand came to life following a visit to Marrakech in 2008. Abury sources beautiful garments, hand crafted by locals and its founder, Andrea Kolb, fuses these with more avant-garde and contemporary creations, to ensure their commercial allure in the Western world. In doing so, Kolb feels that she is keeping alive cultural heritage that would otherwise be wiped out by mass consumerism and 'fast fashion'. Many of the women she works with find their wares to be “an essential part of their identity,” as the traditional methods of making are filled with rituals, meanings, and stories–“a substantial part of the identity of the culture,” according to Kolb. In questioning why this notion of cultural identity is so integral to our world, she emphasised that “Cultural diversity is as important to humankind as biodiversity is to nature'”. Essentially, without any variations in culture, we fail to have the tools to innovate, learn, or explore.

Aside from preventing the degradation of culture, The Fabric Social is working to empower women both economically and politically in India's forgotten conflict zones. Everything they sell is made to order, and by hand, avoiding mass production while creating garments that are sustainable for the community and environment. In providing these women and their families with an income, The Fabric Social has enabled these communities to become more politically involved and assert their own interests. The purchases made by consumers indirectly translate into political power for these women, which is of the utmost importance in areas of conflict where women rarely have a voice.

It’s unlikely going to be a simple task to collaborating with these women placed all over the world. The language barriers remain a particular challenge, yet it’s something that Carla Fernandez feels the garments themselves can help transcend, as women throw their ideas into their designs, rather than speech. Andrea Kolb found cultural differences in the way conversations were executed to be both intriguing and “very grounding”. The realisation that being taken by her word, “very literally,” was a novel concept, showed her “how superficial our world has become”, in that we are unable to necessarily take things at face value. Kolb continues to tell NJAL, “Here, we see women helping women from both sides; there is a lot to be said of these traditional communities, and a lot to be learned about their simpler ways of doing and seeing the world”. It seems that there’s a need for honesty that’s required in order to overcome the hurdle of winning the women's trust, and being deserving of that trust. “It is all very well explaining your ideas, attempting to put them into play, but the only way to secure and keep this trust is to prove again and again that you mean what you say, that you do what you say,” explains Kolb.

Nevertheless, the stain of colonialism still resonates with some of these women. It is something all of these companies have had to be wary of and navigate carefully. Abury tries to be “very careful to not destroy the local structure completely”. Kolb explains that, “it is not about bringing our ideas of “a good life” to these women and cultures...it is about learning from them as well, it’s an exchange and a dialogue, it is about respect and also about accepting different views on life”. These Western women are there to help enable the local women's ideas, make them come to life, and pursue customers. They are there to empower, not lead, and in doing so have continued to learn themselves. It is a conversation not a monologue. To encourage this creative discourse, Abury's designers live and work with the communities for at least two months that Kolb believes makes a real difference. They don't simply send them designs, but instead work with these indigenous women to ensure they’re always a part of the process with creative control and [Abury] respect their work and ideas.

In the Western world, money is all too often a central issue. The aim of many of these brands is to empower these women by giving them a livelihood, but even in this there can be ethical issues. Some companies seek to take advantage of these communities by buying at low prices and gaining a huge profit. The brands, designers and initiatives highlighted in this piece today, actively work to destroy that as an option. Carla Fernandez' company not only pays the women for their labour, but also for the intellectual property of their designs. Abury provides an hour of education for every hour of production, on top of pay. The Fabric Social notes the consumer's purchasing power transfers into not only monetary value for these women, but political power. The company is seeking to provide these women with “economic independence, not charity”, thus providing a sustainable system that does not rely on Westerners.

By returning to and supporting these traditional methods pioneered by indigenous communities, frankly, what can only be described as magic–we are keeping the unique cultural identities of these women alive, as well as returning to 'slow fashion'. In women helping women, these initiatives are collapsing people, environment, and politics together, for positive change and impact. As Abury expands into Ecuador, Romania, and beyond, the brand, along with the others, is legitimate proof that progress can be worldwide.

Photography by Franziska Uhlmann