Craft May Be Fashion’s Answer to Greater Cultural Collaboration

MILAN — Young creatives are discovering craft, and building a new model of cultural collaboration.

Partnering directly with local artisans and crediting their craftsmanship has proved an effective way for brands to shine a light on often underappreciated skills, while offering business opportunities to craftsmen off the mainstream fashion radar.

“The fashion industry is one of the most important drivers for social communication and cultural preservation. We must use our voices to create positive impact,” said Adriana Cachay, a Peruvian-born designer who in 2009 cofounded women’s fashion label Ayni with her Danish business partner Laerke Skyum.

“Preserving a country’s culture requires courage and local communities who believe in the importance of it,” she added. “It also involves the industry, consumers and policymakers. We believe the key is building partnerships throughout the value chain and authentic relations.”

Ayni was established after a fortuitous encounter between the two people who shared the same desire to combine “ethics and aesthetics” in their fashion business. It translated into a selection of high-end Peruvian fabrics including Pima cotton and alpaca handcrafted with traditional techniques by local artisans, especially women, “often without any other source of income other than producing for us,” Cachay explained.

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“Fashion has always been not just about wearing something on your body, but it allows really to express yourself individually and as a community, a country or a culture and so it’s a good way to address inclusivity and show the world what your culture and country are about,” echoed Hélène Lucas, a cofounder of French-based Made in Africa footwear label Panafrica, established with business partners Hugues Didier and Vulfran de Richoufftz.

“While we really wanted to create a bold and comfortable style, we wanted it to also have a positive impact on people and the planet. That’s why we decided to create a whole ecosystem around us in Africa,” she said. The company produces sneakers with bold patterns crafted from wax print fabrics sourced from Ivory Coast’s Uniwax; woven canvas from Burkina Faso’s Centre of Textile Excellence Afrika Tiss; batik from Ghana, and raffia handwoven by a family workshop in Morocco.

A lookbook image from Panafrica. Courtesy of Panafrica.

Lucas calls each supplier a partner because “they really work with us and are involved in our growth as much as we’re involved in their growth. We want to develop together.” The partnership is based on a fair-trade scheme with 10 percent of Panafrica’s profits going directly to the local businesses it works with.

Fair trade is also key to Folkdays, a Berlin-based emporium and fashion brand established in 2013 by former Oxfam alum Lisa Jaspers. It specializes in handmade, one-of-a-kind garments, as well as jewelry and design knickknacks realized in partnership with the 40 small and family-run artisanal businesses the company has aggregated in 20 countries.

For example, the Wayuu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous group, supplies the colorful mochila bags, which require two to four weeks to make, while Cambodia’s social business Color Silk, which employs 400 weavers in the remote Takeo province, is responsible for textiles crafted using the local ikat weaving technique.

A Folkdays’ mochila bag crafted from the Wayuu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous group. Courtesy of Folkdays.

“At the core of our work lies the belief that some of the poorest regions harbor the most exceptional creative geniuses. We want to learn from them, but also help them understand our product development process and how to create products for a new target group,” Jaspers said. “We call our creative process a ‘strength-based design approach’ and it is more a co-creation process than a traditional one.”

“One reason we started Folkdays is because we wanted to shift the discourse about countries in the global south away from their ‘deficits’ and toward their uniqueness and strengths,” she added. “We are aware that local craftsmanship is a very limited view of that, but by communicating about this matter in a sensitive way we try to create awareness.”

Marcella Echavarria, founder of the Noir Handmade unisex clothing brand that she established to honor the Southeast Asian technique of mud silk production, is convinced that “the products should be made by the people who give the inspiration,” and companies are required to credit them.

“The main problem with cultural appropriation is to decontextualize the origin and source. To think that century’s old traditions could be done by someone who has no connection,” she mused.

Mud or gummed silk is a textile tradition perpetuated in several areas, including along China’s Mekong River since the Ming dynasty. An articulated process that requires a tannin-rich mud from subtropical river deltas and intense sunlight to obtain the liquid-looking dyed silk, it “takes approximately 20 days and is done entirely by hand and led by master dyers with more than 10 years of experience,” Echavarria explained.

Hinged on the collaboration with small workshops and independent craftsmen in South Korea and in other Asian countries, Oma Space — a Seoul-based textile atelier founded in 2012 by Korean artist Jang Jiu after seven years working in London for Michio Koshino and Alexander McQueen — was born out of a desire to deliver ethical fashion at a time when consumers’ demand for sustainability was gaining steam.

Its offering was expanded to include artworks, design pieces, immersive installations and interiors. The team currently includes Gil Kyoung Young and Daniel Kapelian, too, the latter serving as partner and art director.

A look from Oma Space. Courtesy of Oma Space.

“It is our privilege to enjoy searching, finding, meeting and collaborating with talented good people wherever we can. Our real impact is based on our will to save some traditional techniques from extinction and to bring them back to life in contemporary ways and forms,” explained Kapelian.

The studio is working on a project related to the use of hemp, in partnership with Lee Chang Sik, one of the last hemp growers and paper makers in South Korea. Kapelian said the brand tends to avoid any folkloric mark, a way to “spotlight a country’s culture, to discover it in a broader way and to appreciate it with no formatted judgment,” in hopes of establishing a win-win match with artisans.

The Oma Space thinking is rooted in the belief that “culture needs to be shared, to be transmitted, appropriated and transformed in order to survive, to evolve and to reproduce. Cultural reproduction is the driver of human and art history,” Kapelian noted. “It’s about time to cultivate a new way of togetherness.”

To be sure, these companies show not only appreciation for the countries and crafts they decided to engage with but also a commitment to support local manufacturers with concrete actions.

Aiming to create value across the entire supply chain, in 2012 Cachay and Skyum established the Ayni Certify program with the support of Peru’s Ministry of Employment. The kickoff initiative encompassed a collaboration with a small community of craftswomen living on the Amantaní island on Lake Titicaca that Ayni trained and offered work in an attempt to preserve local handicraft techniques such as crochet, macramé, and pedal and backstrap weaving.

As part of the initiative, 2,116 artisans have been certified across regions in Peru, including Marcela Perea Tapia, a workshop leader from Carabayllo, north of Lima, who, because of the program, was provided the means to raise her three children and for them to become professionals.

Seeing each artisan as an “equal and lasting partner,” Folkdays buys the products directly from them at a fair price determined by the artisans themselves, ensuring that the prices are not subjected to wage-dumping or financial pressure. It tends to pay suppliers as quickly as possible so craftsmen don’t have to shoulder the cost of raw materials and production.

“We also connect the artisans to other buyers and explicitly do not reserve the right to be the sole buyer of jointly developed products, so that they can independently grow their business,” Jaspers explained. “The last thing we want is for people to think we are helping people. All we do is using our privileges…to develop a new market for the artisans we work with and give people in Europe access to beautiful and unique products.”

A view of the Folkdays Berlin store. Courtesy of Folkdays.

Similarly, the Panafrica cofounders are engaged in a range of initiatives so that the brand’s African partners can become independent and viable businesses beyond their collaboration with the French label. For instance, they started a training program on ecological dyes with Burkina Faso’s Afrika Tiss and bought the association more efficient looms in an attempt to foster employment and productivity.

Leveraging two partner factories based in Morocco, Panafrica has been working “with the exact same employees and team there for the past five years, so we know people are not quitting their jobs meaning they’re content with their positions and have good working conditions,” Lucas said.

In sync with the brand’s ethos and in order to avoid any claim of cultural appropriation, Panafrica has been vocal about its social and cultural commitment to the African continent as Lucas believes that having a direct access to creators behind a given product is a top priority for today’s consumers.

“That’s our main goal, to highlight the know-how to be found in Africa and also the creators and to offer a platform where they can express themselves, to make sure that they’re part of our ecosystem and are not hidden from the consumers or upstaged by the brand,” Lucas said.

Similarly, Cachay stressed Ayni’s fair business model. “Since it was founded, Ayni has been a purpose-driven business combining our passion with a deeper sense of purpose, social engagement and focus on real impact,” she noted.

A group of Peruvian artisans Ayni works with. Courtesy of Ayni.

“Peru is our constant inspiration, but we always work with the artisans of a specific region when we are inspired by it or them in particular. We find beauty in Peru’s diversity in both nature and people, and it is important to keep its rich textile tradition alive by clearly acknowledging its history and makers,” she said. For their most recent resort and spring 2020 lineups, Ayni found inspiration in Peru’s Colca region, pledging to produce all traditional embroideries of that area with local craftswomen.

The Folkdays founder said she’s not very interested in fashion per se. Rather she’s focused on “the process of designing and crafting a product, especially if it is empowering to the people that are involved.”

“I do think that our western world needs more cultural diversity; If that can come through fashion: Great!” she said.

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