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Sunday, 15 November 2009

An art-deco ballroom, hundreds of people on red plush chairs, big white balloons hanging from the ceiling like full moons on a dark night, camera people on the stage awaiting the start of the show. And then the music starts. Models in white outfits stride into the room. The light materials of the dresses, shirts and pants seem to flow around their bodies. The woven pleats and contemporary shapes of the garments give the simple organic cotton a transparent and chic appeal. But the real surprises are the intricate jewelry pieces: thousands of tiny white beads gathered on iron frames bended in traditional, yet modern geometric forms. I have seen this kind of beadwork before: in deprived communities of Sub-Saharan Africa. After the show I talk with designer Imane Ayissi who tells me that the jewelry is handcrafted by a women’s group in Kenya. The shapes used are derived from the authentic forms that these women have been creating for centuries.


This authentic touch is called savoir-faire by ModaFusion, a design collective that works with women in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their aim is to preserve traditional techniques such as embroidery and crochet by working with local women to create high fashion. Original fuxico patterns are woven into bamboo dresses, giving the garments a definite fashion-feel while maintaining Rio's unique flavor. Their work with ModaFusion has opened new doors for many of these women, who are now working from a new building housing an atelier, exhibition space and store.


Thanks to programs like the International Trade Center’s Ethical Fashion Program, fashion for development is an increasingly popular idea in the fashion world. Even the link between fashion and garbage is turning mainstream with the creation of trash fashion, or “trashion,” shows like Haute Trash (San Francisco, California) and Recycle Runway (Sante Fe, New Mexico).


Trash Fashion is also a growing trend in Asia with organizations like Jakarta-based Monsoon Vermont. Monsoon buys plastic at above market price from scavengers and then triple disinfects and transforms this plastic into colorful accessories like umbrellas and rolling luggage. With Monsoon, designer and founder Julia Genatossio aims not just to create beautiful products, but also to educate people about plastic. Her website provides a wealth of information, explaining everything from the problem with petroleum-based polyester to textiles made from recycled plastic bottles.

Another group working with plastics is Anita Ahuja’s New Delhi non-profit Conserve. Conserve purchases plastic from Indian ‘rag pickers,’ and heat-presses the plastic into a durable textile for accessories. Because of the stigma associated with rag pickers and garbage in India, Conserve is as much an activist organization as it is an accessories company. The organization has been stolen from, threatened and relocated because of its work with rag pickers. Their products, while beautiful and popular outside India, are not typically purchased locally because of their relationship with rag pickers.


This is different for Rags2Riches, which mainly serves the local market. By attracting designers with a name in the Philippines, their bags made from scrap fabrics enjoy a wide clientele. Founded in 2005, Rags2Riches started making profit within one year and is now so popular that it is unable to even meet local demand for their products.


Back in Brazil, companies like Escama and Pretinha utilize non-textile trash, transforming metal can tabs into elaborate bags and outfits. In a country where craft is notably undervalued, Escama provides living wages for artisans while improving the dirty reputation of garbage. Pretinha does the same, buying their materials from informal recyclers and using proceeds to help fund women artisan groups in low income communities. Other fashion for development organizations, like Coopa-Roca, a cooperative of low income designers in Rio de Janeiro, began using reused materials out of economic necessity rather than ecological intent. While the group no longer uses trash in their work, Coopa-Roca has been extremely successful in improving the reputation and value of Brazilian craft and fashion while employing marginalized women in Rocinha, one of Latin America’s largest slums.

All these initiatives have one thing in common: they work with deprived communities in developing countries with the aim to empower them. There are many challenges in doing such work due to the nature of the labor: women often work from home to be able to take care of their kids at the same time, which repeatedly causes delays in the product delivery to shops. But we also see that these initiatives are successfully supporting low-income groups around the world, establishing a sustainable model for eco-based self-sufficiency. Fashion at its best!

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