Ethical fashion: Hip and helpful

The new Karen Walker Eyewear campaign, photographed by Derek Henderson, features those who work on the Ethical Fashion Initiative project.
The new Karen Walker Eyewear campaign, photographed by Derek Henderson, features those who work on the Ethical Fashion Initiative project.

Not charity, just work - the mission statement of Ethical Fashion Initiative couldn't be clearer.

Run by the International Trade Centre - a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization - the initiative aims to connect the world's most marginalised people with the top of the world's fashion value chain for mutual benefit.

The programme does so by connecting micro-producers in impoverished countries with fashion labels looking for a more ethical, grass-roots product, far from the fast-fashion pumped out quickly and poorly for the masses.

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Brands which have signed up and stayed with the initiative to date include Vivienne Westwood, Ilaria Venturini Fendi, Carmina Campus, and Stella McCartney, and more recently, New Zealand's own Karen Walker.

Read more: Karen Walker dissed for 'disingenusous' campaign

The initiative's founder, Italian Simone Cipriani says women make up 90 per cent of the initiative's workforce and the majority are the sole breadwinners in their households.

"What we do in Africa, we don't work with formal companies...we work with people who are living in very marginalised communities, in the slums, in very remote rural areas."

The initiative allows them to pay for food, education and medical costs while providing an escape from more dangerous means of survival.

"Work works", Mr Cipriani says, and the empowerment of the women the initiative employs is one of its greatest successes.

Adorning a multi-coloured beard, linen shirt, tailored jacket and emanating with an endearing charisma, Mr Cipriani greets me in an Auckland hotel lobby with an enthusiastic handshake while here on a whistle-stop trip.

He explains that the initiative first started when he was visiting Korogocho - one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

"We started in Kenya because I was living in Ethiopia, I was going very often to Kenya to live in the slums with some missionaries," he says.

One of those missionaries was Gino Filippini, who was creating cooperatives and work opportunities for people living in the slums.

Mr Cipriani describes Mr Filippini as a more of a layperson than a priest, and as someone who had firmly established himself among the micro-producers working in the slums.

"I went to see him and this guy taught me how to work with these people...how to work in the slums, how to frame business...how to give work, and not charity.

"I would say that all of the success that we've had is due to him, all that we do is due to him."

Mr Filippini later died as a result of his benevolence, Mr Cipriani says. He was poisoned by the asbestos in the dumpsite which he lived next to.

Their work in Kenya started with teaching people living in the slums how to make shoes and bags using locally made and recycled materials.

After the local artisans are mentored, they then go on to train other people, creating a social enterprise.

Although Kenya may not seem like the first choice for high-end fashion production, the artisans there harbour skills that have been passed through generations, Mr Cipriani says.

"We work not only in Kenya, we work in Burkina Faso, Mali, West Africa, we work in Ghana - there you have for instance some traditions in textiles, in decoration of textiles which are unbelievable, unbelievably beautiful.

"In Mali you have a lot of dyeing, a lot of decoration of the fabric, then in Kenya you have a lot of embroidery, a lot of bead work and indigenous traditions."

The initiative has also expanded more recently into Haiti, Palestine and Brazil.

In Kenya alone, 1250 artisan workers were employed by the initiative, Mr Cipriani says.
"In total we have around 7000."

Simone Cipriani and Vivienne Westwood in Kenya.
Photo / Chloe Mukai
Simone Cipriani and Vivienne Westwood in Kenya. Photo / Chloe Mukai

Before his work with the United Nations, Mr Cipriani was working for a company providing services to Italy's leather and footwear industry.

He says he decided to work in development after accepting an offer from the UN to work in Ethiopia.

"I came to Geneva with this business plan... because when I was in Ethiopia I realised that the things done by those people at the UN were wrong, because they did a lot of training but they had no market idea.

"It was managed in such a way that it was totally disconnected from the market.

"I've always been in the industry so the idea was to use this new emerging trend of ethical fashion to re-establish a whole supply chain with the artisans."

Mr Cipriani says the initiative's successes were measured in terms of trade volumes and the number of jobs it creates and sustains.

Aside from the PR boon, the main incentive for designers is the opportunity to work with artisan producers, Mr Cipriani says.

"Today, luxury fashion is going back to artisan producers, it's going back to the hands, the craftsmanship."

'Fast fashion' is fine, however mainstream fashion has lost its authenticity, he says.

"It's the reason why fashion designers, fashion brands, are looking for skills."

When the initiative was first established, they would approach designers individually and around 80 per cent would turn down the offer of collaboration, Mr Cipriani says.

Today, he says that figure is more like 50 per cent, and they are in a situation where designers are beginning to approach them.

Brands collaborating with the initiative have to commit for a minimum of at least three seasons, Mr Cipriani says.

"We're not one of those producers in Italy who are very well organised, very skilled, very fast and they can make you something for one season and then disappear and come back after five, six seasons."

They are always on the lookout for new brands, but only if they could commit for several seasons, he says.

Some brands, including the first to sign up to the initiative, had dropped out once their minimum commitment period expired.

"In the case of them, we are too expensive."

Large distributors have also tried approaching the initiative with collaboration ideas, however their prices were too low and their business models didn't align, Mr Cipriani says.

"This is the reason why we work with the industry of luxury mainly, because they can afford the margins, they look for artisans, the quantities are lower, but the margins are higher so you can structure your work [better]."

Consistent work was maintained for those employed by the initiative through connections with repeat customers in the fashion industry, Mr Cipriani says.

"We have a lot of buyers in the industry and every season they do a collection with us."

Karen Walker says her first foray with the initiative was in 2012, designing a tote bag which was made in conjunction with Hands That Shape Humanity and Australian department store Myer.

More recently, she has commissioned the initiative to make screen-printed pouches for her latest eyewear campaign 'Visible'.

Gallery: Behind the scenes of the new Karen Walker Eyewear campaign, photographed by Tahir Karmali.

Screen printing is the first stage on the conveyer belt of skills training as for some women employed through the initiative, it is their first job, Walker says.

She says her attraction to the initiative comes from the opportunity to create new and unique products.

"Working through this chain of supply allowed us to create a product which is much more hand-made and full of imperfections and idiosyncrasies...it's actually very difficult to get that through mass production, to get that really handmade look.

"That allowed us to create a kind of product that wasn't already being made...and it allowed us to collaborate with new people.

"A lot of what they were doing we've never even seen before. We designed it, but when you're starting with what's already available in terms of the material and the skills, they presented to us things that we never would have used otherwise.

"The way they did the twine around the strapping, the way they did the fringing and the beading [on the cases] you can't do that here, you can't do it anywhere else, that technique is indigenous to this group so you can't create that somewhere else."

Walker says she wouldn't have got on board with the initiative without its affiliation with the UN. "It's totally beyond in terms of openness and transparency."

She says they receive reports after each production run, detailing its impact.

"I wasn't really prepared for the emotion that came with that. There's been 170 people working on this so far and their income has gone up by 141 per cent.

"Now we've paid for a generator which allows people to keep working after dark and keep studying and so on."

Walker says she is planning on being involved with the initiative long-term.

"We're intending for the sunglass pouches to be a long-term thing with no end date in sight and then we want to create other things around that. What I would really like to do is a series of small luggage and small bag items.

"What we want to do is obviously work within the areas that are most available to us with these people. I'm really interested in the new supply chains also - Palestine, working in the Mekong Delta - as [the initiative] brings in new communities, that just opens up all these new possibilities."

The initiative had the potential to continue its expansion, and maintain employment for those currently working under the initiative, but only if the fashion houses and distributors didn't pull out, Mr Cipriani says.

"Because, that's the issue. I'm an optimist by nature, but I wake up every morning at 4am or 5am with all my worries...I have the worries and the fears of a person who is responsible for the work of so many people."

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