17 August 2012

Conscious Collaborations: A Panel of Eco Design Minds in NYC RECAP

So last night, Francisca Pineda, creator of the Ethical Fashion Academy , brought together a group of women, designers, and leaders in all things conscious and fashionable.

Conscious Collaborations, a panel of nine conscious design minds, took place at the fabulous Williamsburg concept shop, the Ggrippo Art + Design Gallery, a building built off the electrical grid so that it only uses approx. 5% of the total electricity consumed by a normal NYC, city that never sleeps, establishment. Talk about green and ideal for this event!

The evening began with networking with fair trade wine and chocolates in hand and drooling over the amazing accessories and clothing produced both locally here in NYC using truly renewable or recycled materials and abroad in partnership and "conscious collaboration" :) with fair trade cooperatives in Peru, Costa Rica, India, and Cambodia, to name a few. Handbags, earrings, coats, and placemats, the essentials for a Fall/Winter wardrobe and holiday season. It's August. Get your (conscious) Fall wardrobe together!

After some time connecting with some fabulous fellow New York Fair Trade Coalition members and many an eco-fashion blog editor, designer, and image consultant alike, the 50+ attendees and I hovered, in eager anticipation, around the group of women who were about to inspire us like nobody's conscious collaborative business.

Here are their stories:

Jennifer Gootman, Exec. Direct. of Global Goods, works with, as she says, organized groups of women making significant changes in their communities. And the ways in which she and her organization assist women doesn't just stop at the artistic levels. Women artisans that work with the program can receive grants for anything from artistic development to funds to drill water wells in their communities. Whether it's clean water or design development, this is about working with creative women community leaders and ameliorating lives. The other side of Global Goods is the matching process: matching up designers from the U.S. who want to work with cooperative groups. Are you a designer who wants to get serious about fair trade and cooperative produced design? Contact Global Goods. Jennifer fell into this position through a myriad of paths which include, but are not limited to, 10 years of experience in arts management, an MBA propelled from observing how arts organizations function better as businesses, and a life enhancing summer working in Nicaragua with an organization that had worked with giving residents who worked formally as garbage pickers an alternative career route: jewelry design. No matter who you are or what you do, circuitous career paths always make for the most powerful and revolutionary career paths.

Monisha Raja, founder of Love is Mighty, also works with artisans. Specifically, she works with three different tribes of artisans in India, a country where she was born and raised and a country where she has since returned, after studying fashion at Parsons and working in the fashion apparel and shoewear industries, to help restore ancient artisan practices. Her line features the most stylish vegan shoes I have seen yet, and as a vegan, I am absolutely positively amazed, floored and appreciative of the fact that they exist! And they are not only vegan! They reflect a truly conscious collaborative partnership between a designer who has returned to re-engage a now dying artistic practice with artisans who, in order to realistically support their families and themselves, have had to turn to construction work for livelihood. But through Love is Mighty, they no longer have to. One statement that particularly resonated was one where she reflected on pace. And producing at a pace not based on some inhumane, New York/Western world fast fashion schedule. But one based on the artisans. They are the ones making these beautiful products. They are the ones who have been doing these weaving and dyeing techniques for generations and generations. They are the ones who are in command of the pace. And in the words of Monisha, "Their slow pace actually add to the quality of my line." Conscious design is not only a theory. It is a concept that should really be reflected throughout the entire design chain. As a fine artist and designer herself, her mission through Love is Mighty is to collaborate with the artisans as artists, not as employees. AMEN.

Carmen Artigas, professor of Ethical Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a woman who helped to alter my world and concept around ethical fashion, and an instructor who has helped to impact the lives of, ironically enough, many of the women on the panel, also had an interesting and circuitous career path. Long story short, she worked in Milan, worked with Donna Karan and others, did the corporate fashion thing. Then got burnt out. Took a sabbatical to India, worked with U.N. project SEWA, which ensures job security for women in India. Ended up meeting India's, and the world's for that matter, guru on natural dyes and took a course on the "Spiritual Benefits of Color." (AMAZING!). Traveled around some more. Met this interesting guy from Spain claiming to have organic cotton. Found out he really did and started a line of spa wear- towels, yoga pants, and more- which they then exhibited at Biofach, the World Organic Trade Show (essentially, Organic company heaven!). After that journey, she then returned to New York, linked up with her alma mater, Parsons, and FIT and became one of my and many other's favorite sustainable, ethical and conscious design lecturers. Some final words from the woman who sparked the plug in many a designer minds: Getting the industry to become more sustainable is like "turning a cruise ship around, moving it towards sustainability." And let's not forget, "the cost of the product is VERY different from the price." (More consumers NEED to understand that that $5 shirt from Forever 21 did NOT cost $5 to make- think about the growing of the cotton, the cost of the pesticides, the paycheck of the pesticide sprayer, picking the cotton, shipping it to the factory, converting that cotton plant to a fiber, dyeing it, bleaching it, sending it to the production house to get made...shipping it to the store...paying that Forever21 employee to greet you at the door and cash you out...and the cost of the global warming and environmental campaigns to counteract this whole process). However, with conscious design choices, we can turn that cruise ship around together.
(From NYWSE's Fashion Week 2011 Article on Carmen!)

Swati Argade, Creative Director of BK based line Bhoomki, was born in the US but both parents are from India, learned the geography of India through her mother's saris. And it was through that early initiation that she learned how women tell stories through their clothes, a concept that would continue throughout the future of her design career. As a trained dancer, her first designs were for the stage. But then, after a trip to India where she got some more wearable pieces made for herself, compliments in the street upon her return to NYC propelled her to start her ready to wear line. At that time, it was the early 2000s, and she was creating two seasonal collections a year. However, she had a breakthrough, similar to many of the designers already mentioned: "If this is a sustainable model for us as a designers- rushing and working so hard to meet the deadlines of these larger institutions, how can we find our own way?" And find her own way, she did. Instead of the conventional two season a year mega collections, she decided to produced more, smaller, but better quality collections throughout the year, removing herself and the artisans that she works with from the conventional, mad-dash fashion cycle, into one that would allow her to more intimately tell the stories of the women who created her pieces. More opportunities to tell the her-stories behind the clothes. More opportunities to create beautiful, thoughtfully created, quality garments. Smaller collections, bigger social impact. Through her line, Bhoomki, the Brooklyn based ethical fashion line that creates about four collections per year, she is able to tell more stories outside the conventional wholesale market. Ingenius.

(Temple Tower Coat of Organic Cotton and Repreve. Check out their site! bhoomki.com)

Tara St. James, owner and head designer of critically acclaimed line Study, entered fashion studying menswear design in Montreal and, like Carmen and Monisha, worked in the conventional fashion industry. Afterwards, she got tired of the conventional unconscious industry and started Convet, a sportswear line of soybean rayon, organic cotton, bamboo, and vegetable dyes, a line that in many was fit the eco-fashion matrix. I, for one, explored many of these materials for my Occupy54 collection. As she says, she was "using bamboo like crazy until [she] realized what it was." (I'll go into that shortly in next week's Wednesday blog post. It's a renewable fiber but not perfect). This first line, Covet, reflected quite the learning process and the playground through which she engaged truly hands on eco design research. That research led to the creation of appropriately named Study, a line currently produced in the garment district of NYC with textiles produced through cooperative partnerships abroad, which showcases a different ethical design practice (or "study") each season. One season focused on zero waste, and this upcoming Spring/Summer 2013 collection focuses on Transparency, literally, hence the need for some eco lingerie! :) and socially. In the words of Tara, "There is a need for consumers to understand more how things are being made."Her next conscious collaborations, aside from her partnership with textile weavers in India through Indigo Handloom, knitters in Peru, and local garment production in the fashion district, is to bring in an inhouse seamstress to re-engage the conversational element of fashion that has been somehow lost of the years. And with this upcoming Spring/Summer 2013 line, it is now about bringing that conversation out of the studio and back to the consumer. Touche!
(From Ecouterre's article on Tara's Fall/Winter 2010 Zero Waste Collection)

Anh-Thu Nguyen, co-founder of Cambodia based artisan initiative Akuhn, provides access to the US markets. Her experience in fashion, another circuitous career journey, began as an international human rights lawyer. When the seed for the line was hatched, Anh-Thu was at the Tribunal Courts when across the street she would notice how every day, busloads upon busloads of women and young women and younger women/girls! be deposited and then scooped up again in front of the fast fashion textile factory. She watched this every day until she couldn't take it anymore. Thinking to herself that she has defined herself so much around the principle of justice, she didn't understand how this did not relate to the clear social, worker, and human rights violations happening before her eyes across the street. In the words of Anh-Thu, "fashion is about feeling good but not necessarily about doing what feels right." Time to feel right! Hence, she began her journey co-founding Ahkun, an initiative to promote and consciously collaborate with artisans in Cambodia who had received micro finance loans. Like mentioned before by Swati and Monisha, it was important for Anh-Thu, through these collaborations, to manage her expectations as a westerner coming into someone else community without coming across as inherently exploitative. So through conscious partnerships, she was able to build true relationships. Whatever you do, says Anh-Thu, ask yourself, can you do it better and form true partnerships. That is the key.
 (Check out their blog! blog.ahkun.org)

Jessica Marati, NYC based fashion writer and consultant, began her journey into eco fashion born from, again like many others, frustration. Working for an organizations that is not affecting positive change will do that to you. While working for this startup, she had this desire, burning desire, to create a line of ethical accessories in Cambodia with a group of women who were survivors of trafficking. A lofty idea, an idea that would change many lives and give economic freedom to women who were trapped in modern day slavery through the uplifting medium of fashion. A lofty idea that required funds that Jessica just did not have. So she started taking Carmen's class (see! this women is inspiring us all!), left the job, booked a ticket to Cambodia...and then got cold feet. So she did some re-evaluating. Instead of making this about material sourcing and jump starting her company without any conscious collaborations to build upon from, she made that three month trip to Cambodia about research. Through that trip, she linked up with organizations that gave birth to her current project, a line of five products, which she now sells at local NYC markets such as the Hester Street, an experience that is truly a continuation of the research, seeing how people really react to the product. The fashion experiment is coming full circle, beautifully.
(Check out her shop! http://toutlemonde.bigcartel.com/)

Amy Decew, another student of the FIT Sustainability Program and another one of Carmen's inspired mentees is currently creating a collection of knitwear created in collaboration with a cooperative of knitters in Peru. Her background came first from biology and anthropology, where she used her experiences connecting with people beyond the divides of culture and geography and moved into fashion as a Parsons student, after which she then worked for designers like Stephen Burrows, from whom she saw firsthand the power of thoughtfully produced handmade technique. Then upon the onset of the 2008 economic crash, she was led to a time of conscious reflection, like so many of the other designers on this panel. That time of reflection led her to the Sustainable Design program at FIT, Carmen's class, and the spark for an idea to work with cooperatives in Peru. She then linked up with a company in Peru who facilitated her working with a cooperative and who reflected supply chain practices that she could honestly stand behind. The yarn, for instance, is sourced and dyed by batch, so while the timeline is extended, the waste is significantly reduced. And when the lifecycle of a sweater is over, it is then unraveled into yarn and remade into another item. In addition, she also works with a cooperative here in Brooklyn with artisans of various medical disabilities. More than just social endeavor, this project has been a healing process for her in light of her own health challenges, in light of her her challenges with the conventional fashion industry, and in light of the social impact that this endeavors have on turning that cruise ship of eco fashion back around.

 Now what are you waiting for? This movement needs you! Now go team go!

If you'd like to get more involved in this movement, come to the New York Fair Trade Coalition meeting next week, Tuesday night, at Sustainable NYC. We would love to have you :)

And if you're free in October, and want to go have first hand experience with conscious collaborations, take a trip with Francisca and attend her Ethical Fashion workshop in Costa Rica! Spots still available! :)

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