From Buenos Aires to Tanzania, ethical designers are looking to nature and age-old artisan skills to produce consciously created clothing.
By Leah B. Stern
Once upon a time, making clothes was a labor-intensive procedure that involved many hours of specialized workers cutting patterns and sewing fabric by hand. It was a process that took days to churn out one garment in what was quite an intimate process.
Our relationship with clothing has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, and somehow, we have fallen into a monotonous cycle of shopping, stockpiling, and then tossing out our clothes — rather than cherishing, valuing, and loving them. Last year, in New York City, clothing and textiles accounted for more than six percent of all garbage, which translates to 193,000 tons tossed annually.
This lackluster behavior is now generating a serious waste problem, but it’s not just physical waste. Along with the piles of clothes in landfill sites around the country, most of which are failing to biodegrade, there is the huge waste of resources that bring the clothes to life — the water, energy, time, money and labor.
There are companies that are keeping artisanal skills intact — preserving the skills of sewing, weaving, and beading, passed down through generations. They frown upon mass production and manufactured products, and instead, value the creation of goods made in pollution-free natural habitats.
Fashions and accessories made in the most ethical of ways have a beauty that goes beyond face value: ponchos that are hand crafted out of bike tires in the Northern Hills of Buenos Aires; side-slit knit tunics from pure sheep’s wool, made in Madagascar; and brass necklaces and bangles adorned with hand-blown glass beads, handmade in Kenya. Sustainable and successful, there’s no need to sacrifice style for the betterment of mankind.
INSPIRED BY CULTURES
From SoHo to Africa, ten-year-old fashion venture Edun — founded by the band U2’s front man, Bono, and his wife, Ali Hewson — was inspired to promote economic development in sub-Saharan Africa by looking at Africa as both a manufacturing hub and a creative source of inspiration. The company partners with African artists and artisans. Currently, 9,000 displaced farmers in Northern Uganda are supported by the work provided by Edun.
The masterminds behind the designs are some of the industry’s most talented and respected designers. The brand’s creative director, Danielle Sherman, cofounded The Row with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and was design director for T by Alexander Wang before heading to Edun. When she was brought on two years ago, Sherman was given the task to deliver Bono and Hewson’s ultimate goal of producing the entire collection in Africa — production is currently at 95 percent — and to reinvent the line out of the company’s SoHo atelier by injecting Africa into high fashion in a big way — to be “not just out of Africa, but of Africa.”
Following visits to Kenya, Madagascar, and Tanzania, Sherman trekked through Morocco with her celebrity bosses on a 2014 Christmas vacation, where she commissioned an artisan — whom she met in an ancient walled medina in Fes — to make the fringed brocade coats that closed Edun’s Fall 2015 show. Her first collection, for spring 2014, included a graphic honeycomb pattern — woven from leaves — that referenced Zanzibar fishermen’s houses.
In Tangier, Sherman found the core of the collection — the cross section of European and North African culture. Her latest collection is full of side-slit knit tunics made in Madagascar and de-constructed pea coats.
Edun shows up in some of the most noteworthy of retailers, including Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Net-A-Porter, Shopbop, Mytheresa, and The Corner.
INFLUENCED BY EARTH
Across the Atlantic, in the open air mountains of North Buenos Aires, Argentina, the environment is the muse behind Manto’s designs. Founded in 1996 by Clara de la Torre — with the environment, people, culture, and energy from that region in mind — she brought on partners Diana Dai Chee Chaug and Veronica Olavide to fulfill her vision. The trio seeks to preserve the way the native inhabitants of the Andes treasure their textile art and work, taking influence from the “luxuries of the planet.” Inspiration comes from trees — the roots, barks, and trunks — and sources of clean air, as well as more ethereal energies like feathers, wings of butterflies, dragonflies, and all Earth’s colors and shades.
Meanwhile, nothing goes to waste. Long-flowing coats and hand-knit ponchos with an ethnic twist, along with scarves, wallets, quilts, and pillows are made from the rubber of car and bicycle tires and pure sheep’s wool, which is cut into threads and then produced by families of weavers in San Isidro.
The women spin and dye the fabrics, and the men weave in a very traditional, Argentinian way. No piece is exactly the same, and each design is purely unique, with irregularities and imperfections in its finishings being a trademark of Manto. Lines are done and undone, regularity is broken up, and color resonates in scales and sequences, synthesizing both the elements of nature and the urban.
Manto’s founders believe that their aim is to “contribute to a community — generating sustainability, optimizing its resources, bringing a new vision, respecting cycles and the relationship with nature.”
They are determined not to interfere with what they call the “cosmos’s vision” where artisans work freely in the environment “in the open air, immersed in the immensity of nature, with no pollution and at their own rhythm.”
Manto designs are available at their Darwin 1154 showroom in Buenos Aires or via special orders. Some shops in Miami and New York carry several of their goods. Information is available at www.mantoabrigos.com.ar.
MADE FOR SUCCESS
Global artisans from unexpected places is what drives a new type of luxury. Hand-cast jewelry and fashion designs celebrate rare artisanal skills. Maiyet partners with master craftspeople — in India, Mongolia, Peru, Kenya, Indonesia, Italy, and France — who have been plying their art for generations.
In addition to sourcing from these global artisans, Maiyet has customized training programs that allow its partners to create higher-quality, exceptional products and promote stability and prosperity in their communities. The creative director behind Maiyet is Declan Kearney, who began his career at Halston, previously serving as design director at Alexander Wang and then at Jason Wu. The line’s signature skinny bangle — in 18-karat, gold-plated brass with the logo carefully inscribed in its interior — is a top selling item, along with hand-beaded dresses, embroidered mules and sandals, calfskin Sia Shopper tote, and geometric-block scarves.
Keeping the artisan’s craft alive is part of Maiyet’s business practice. They’ve forged a strategic partnership with Nest, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to training and developing artisan businesses to “promote entrepreneurship, prosperity, and dignity.”
Designers are working with some of these sustainable brands, too. Jamie Rubin, London-based jewelry designer to the stars — whose personalized handmade pieces are worn by the likes of Victoria and David Beckham, Kate Moss, Emma Thompson, and Halle Berry — is collaborating with Made, a United Kingdom accessories brand. “It was a family trip to South Africa that inspired my interest in the work of Made,” recalls Rubin. “I believe in designing jewelry that looks and feels beautiful, both aesthetically and ethically, and we collaborated on a collection that was highly successful that totally sold out at Top Shop and Jigsaw.” The collection was a series of brass necklaces and bangles, adorned with hand-blown glass beads, handmade in Kenya.
Made collaborated with Louis Vuitton to produce a bag charm that the luxury brand featured as part of their Core Values campaign with an inscription, “Every journey began in Africa.” In 2011, Made and Club Monaco worked together on a unique, bespoke collection that was available only in the United States.
Made’s accessories workshop in Kenya was founded in 2005 to harness the talent and skills of artisans in the area, while providing them with a safe working environment, long-term job security, and training. Now, there are 60 men and women in the workshop — from highly skilled craftsmen and women to novices eager to learn. Made’s signature style comes from its extensive use of reclaimed brass in the production of rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and bags.
Rubin found the collaboration with Made to be a game changer. She encourages all of her clients to wear sustainable jewelry because, “…It is not only a statement that ‘I want to look beautiful,’ but ‘I also want to be responsible.’ ”