Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Can Fashion Fight Poverty?

Borrowing from the title of a recent forum sponsored by Fashion Fights Poverty, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, a panel of experts enlightened an audience of fashion mavens and activists on the global landscape of poverty.

According to UNICEF, one billion children live in poverty – half of the world’s population of children. Six million children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday every year. 218 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 work in developing countries. Startling numbers in an age where wealth knows no boundaries.

The fashion industry - in collaboration with international humanitarian organizations and fair trade federations - have a solution: creating sustainable economic markets through employing local artisans (of working age) and using environmentally-sound methods to produce fabric. For an industry that is the mastermind behind fads, this is an idea that took root more than five years ago. However, the fad is growing in momentum and the international community sees room for improvement.

The forum provided a platform for experts to share challenges and solutions. A representative from UNESCO calls for capacity-building, investing in local markets, and creating networks for local artisans.

Kimberley Person of Gecko Traders, a Virginia-based fair trade company, cited difficulties working in developing countries but has found success in implementing sustainable employment strategies as a method to alleviate poverty. This sensible and long-term approach is at the heart of the fair trade industry, which has become a $220 billion industry – we love fair-traded products!

The panelists were quick to point out the one person not seated amongst them. That person occupied the seat across the room. An equal player in alleviating poverty is you, the consumer. Stop and think about it. Where do your clothes come from? Where was it produced? How was it produced? By whom was it produced?

It is disturbing to think that while hundreds of thousands of children take to the streets peddling everything from candy to themselves worldwide, we agonize over what to wear to an upcoming gala or whether or not we want the Prada or Louis Vitton handbag. This is not a guilt versus selfish argument I’m making. It is more an argument for responsibility. As echoed in earlier blogs, each and everyone of us has a responsibility to our environment and social infrastructure beginning with awareness. Just as you may be aware of the harmful effects of sun damage, you may want to consider the origin of that $300 blouse – was the fabric dyed or spun from 100% organic cotton? Was it sewn by the hands of a 6-year-old or working-aged adult for $1.00 an hour or a decent living wage? Was it made in the confines of a safe environment or a poorly vented warehouse?

These are not tough questions, but the answers are not always easy to find. Sure, transparency is more widely enforced than ten years ago but what anti-poverty groups want to know is where are you willing to draw the line?

If anyone or anything should raise such questions, it should be the fashion industry. These are provocative questions coming from a provocative industry. It is only fitting that an industry synonymous with self-expression, innovation and trendsetting, plays a role in alleviating artisans and communities out of poverty.

The third annual Fashion Fights Poverty Fashion Show followed on the heels of the forum, igniting further attention to global poverty and global issues.

The show featured eight international designers selected because of their commitment to ethical fashion. The designers hail from the far reaches of Russia to Brazil unified in implementing eco-friendly practices and sustainable economic development throughout its supply chain.

“This kind of fashion is just as much as Vogue as it is Greenpeace,” said Michael Dumlao, co-founder of Fight Fights Poverty.

This year’s beneficiary was Aid to Artisans, an international non-profit focused on preserving artisan traditions through sustainable economic and social development for craftspeople worldwide. Past beneficiaries included United Nations Developmental Programs and Bead for Life.

“We are fighting fashion through beauty,” said Clare Brett Smith, President Emerita of Aid to Artisans.

I would be remised if I did not comment on the fashion show itself. Rickey Medlocke from Lynyrd Skynyrd fame, led the catwalk with guitar, courtesy of Gibson Guitars (eco-wood), in hand showing off the craftsmanship of Elizabeth Muir, the self-titled clothing label. “Sweet Home Alabama” rocked the house as the models strutted in the Afghanistan-inspired cloaks and accessories met with rock, country influences. The ready-to-wear portion of the evening concluded with Organia, a collection of feminine mini frocks and loungy tracksuits created by Miami-based designer Janelle Funair and graphic artist and designer Rodrigo Londono.

The intermission did not let you off the hook. Not that you would have wanted to make a run for the restroom or chocolate room – yes, a heavenly-scented room of chocolate. Guests refrained temptation in order to learn more about the beneficiary, Aid to Artisans, and watch the wives of the NBA Wizards model accessories by local craftsmen supported by Aid to Artisans and The D.C. Fashionista Group’s very own Abigail deCasanova. The finale was reserved for designers showcasing haute couture. My Signature Look had the pleasure of assisting the design duos behind Ecliptica. Norein and Michelle Otero presented evening cocktail attire favored by celebrities such as Hilary Duff, Roselyn Sanchez, Dayanara Torres, Carmen Dominicci and 2001 Miss Universe, Denise Quinones. The use of sequins and satin fabric was timely given to the volume of sequined mini dresses and tops found in every major chain department store, but they capitalized on their Spanish culture in the chosen vibrant colors and patterns. For a second, you imagine every female the luxury of wearing a dress so pretty.

But the reality is, no stress caused dressing 15 women in a matter of seconds compares to the stress of earning enough money to feed your family daily. Awareness may reveal ugly images, which is contrary to the glamour associated with the fashion industry. However, thanks to organizations such as Fashion Fights Poverty and Bono’s One Campaign, not only is global poverty more visible, these campaigns are providing real solutions, raising awareness and bringing an ever-increasing number of fashionably responsible options to you. If buying Edun or Del Forte jeans is not realistic at this time, then act by educating yourself and others on the issues, volunteering at an organization that addresses global poverty issues, or simply make a commitment to be part of the solution.

To find out more about global poverty and ethical fashion, check out the following links:

Aid to Artisans
Bead for Life
Ethical Fashion Forum
Fashion Fights Poverty
Fair Trade Federation
Gecko Traders
United Nations Association

To shop local examples of responsible dressing, check out these D.C. retailers:

Alex Boutique - clothing
American Apparel - clothing
Pangea World Market – clothing, accessories
Relish - clothing
Setchi Boutique – clothing, accessories
Tabar Boutique - handbags

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

D.C. Fashion Week Goes International

D.C. Fashion Week came to a close September 30, culminating in the Cojor International Fashion Show featuring a contingent of international designers such as Yosoy Fashion, Studio D-Maxsi, Motlapele, Symbat, and Sophia Ali. Runway Africa jumpstarted the week with what could be described as electrifying, followed by collections from Central Asia’s leading fashion house, Symbat, and four international designers in the Ethical Fashion Show.

Did I mention this was D.C. Fashion Week? After all, the nation’s capital is the epicenter of multiculturalism and international designers speak ready-to-wear and haute couture.

My Signature Look had the fortune of styling the Suutra collection for the International Ethical Fashion Show. Suutra was founded by two Indian women, Avni Jamdar and Mona Shah, to offer contemporary women’s apparel and accessories while creating sustainable employment opportunities for women artisans in India. Suutra’s clothing integrates a sophisticated fashion aesthetic with exquisite, age-old artisan techniques. In support of the sustainable and green movement, the fabrics are organic and eco-friendly that do not harm the environment. The models walked the runway as if they were going to a farmer’s market or meeting a friend for coffee – moderate pace, hips swaying, and smiling. The outfits were accessorized with CG Originals’ colorful beads and silver and high-quality handbags from TABAR Boutique.

Priya Pratel, founder of Avani Ribbon, produced the show in collaboration with Fashion for Development, a project started by Pratel at the World Bank. Pratel’s mission to promote ethical and emerging market designers became realized through the show’s mix of trade show and fashion show. Vendors and designers, whom all endorsed an Ethical Code of Conduct, impressed the attendees and each other with natural fabrics transformed into exquisite clothing, precious jewelry, and durable handbags. The union of creative talent sparked future business relationships and impulse purchases that validated the night’s purpose.

The week’s events brought the world to us. We sat entranced by the bold use of color and fabrics that conveyed the designer’s worldview - perhaps influenced by their cultural identity and belief system. If there were any shared views, then I hope it was in the social responsibility we have to sustain an industry built on fairness and respect for workers and the environment.

Save the Date: D.C. Fashion Week Spring 2008 February 24 - March 2, 2008. Don’t forget your passport!

For more information about Avani Ribbon and the other participating designers and vendors visit www.avaniribbon.com. Photos of Suutra collection posted above (see Avani Ribbon for more pictures of this collection).