Voz founder Jasmine Etoile Aarons. Photo Credit: Kat Westerman. Photo courtesy of Voz.

Brands and retailers are polishing their supply chains as consumer demand for ethical and sustainable fashion continues to swell. And part of refining production processes is ameliorating the adverse effects of counterfeit materials and products, which have wholly impacted the industry itself and the people who support it.

The amount of total counterfeiting globally reached $1.2 trillion in 2017 and is projected to reach $1.82 trillion by 2020. Estimated losses due to counterfeiting of textiles, apparel, footwear, cosmetics, handbags, and watches amounted to $98 billion, which included counterfeiting from off-line and online channels, all according to the Global Brand Counterfeiting Report 2018.

See related story: Artisans Speak Out on the Effects of the Counterfeit Textile Trade

And companies such as Voz, a luxury ethical fashion brand, is working to mitigate the effects of counterfeiting in the artisan community. Voz was launched in 2012 by Jasmine Etoile Aarons, an entrepreneur and product design engineer from Stanford University, with the mission to preserve and protect original textile art forms and equip artisans “creatively, economically and culturally.” Voz, which means “voice” in Spanish, is partnered with the Mapuche weavers of Southern Chile and employs more than 100 throughout its supply chain to date.

Here, Aarons discusses the importance of preserving cultural identity and the “true modern tragedy of counterfeit textiles.”

WWD: What experiences have you had firsthand with counterfeit textiles?

Jasmine Etoile Aarons: To understand fashion, one must first know cloth. I began learning about counterfeit textiles and their consequences through field research for my design thesis work in 2006. A passion for ceremonial design methods and uses led me to study global forms of art, design and adornment early in my education. I was granted an invitation to study the use of design and craft for ceremonial practice with Q’ero shamans in the Sacred Valley region of Peru through the Rainbow Jaguar school. More than one hundred Q’ero weavers, silversmiths and shamans generously opened their world to me through interviews and conversations — teaching me about their culture’s exquisite craft tradition, the character of each shape, symbol, color, the intended use of their designs, and the anthropological and spiritual significance of their craft.

The more open questions I asked, the deeper my understanding of this ancient cultural craft became. Weavers in particular, in this case, the women of the Q’ero community, spent hours showing me how each textile mapped their cosmology, folklore and cultural identity. Each color and shape composes a scripture older than the written word, and so it is for most cultures in the world. Textiles contain our stories, mythologies, cultural identities, as well as ourselves. Cloth was born of our human instinct to protect, adorn and revere the human body and natural forces that govern our universe. Through the continuation of weaving textiles, a culture’s knowledge, religion, and aesthetic are protected and expanded.

In this manner, textiles have been woven since the beginning of human history to tell stories, to be worn for ceremonies, decorate hearths and heal ailments. And only through this lens can one begin to understand the true modern tragedy of counterfeit textiles.

A look from the Voz FW18 collection. Photo courtesy of Voz. 

WWD: How do counterfeit textiles impact the artisan community, culture and industry?

J.E.A.: Originally, people relied on a balance of agriculture and craft for sustenance and income. This is still true in communities throughout the world. Today, the handcraft and textile industry makes up the second largest industry worldwide, second only to agriculture. Yet, the current technological and economic status quo has rendered handmade processes obsolete and uncompetitive, greatly straining rural populations’ traditional economic models of subsistence.

Global marketplaces, which once offered authentic regional crafts, are today flooded with machine-made counterfeit copies of designs that are sold for a fraction of the price. Artisans who employ handmade traditional techniques cannot compete with these prices, and tourists are not equipped to tell the difference between an authentic design and Asian-made import. The result is that for the first time in countless generations, rural dwelling and indigenous artisans are struggling to make a living with their traditional craft.

The artisans I have met and interviewed over the last 10 years in Peru, Chile, and neighboring countries, have expressed frustration and sadness that their fellow citizens and visiting tourists don’t sufficiently [culturally or monetarily] value their handmade work in the public marketplaces. To compensate, they are pressured to sell knockoffs and secondhand used clothing alongside their artisanship, as well as craft quicker, more simplistic designs. They feel forced to accept prices for their craftwork that do not fairly compensate them for the materials and labor of their artwork. As a result, weavers often are pressured to remove important traditional symbols from their art in order to make it fast enough to equal the price of a knockoff or use cheaper materials. Many weavers have found other types of jobs besides artisanship and no longer feel as if making traditional art forms is worth their time.

Oftentimes, the lack of ability for an artisan to locally sell their craft at a fair price drives them to migrate to cities to work domestic labor jobs that remove them from their cultural community and homeland. After years of learning about the consequences of counterfeit textiles, I founded Voz to create rural work opportunities for artisans so they could continue their cultural art forms and symbolic practice and make a fair living from their talents and heritage.

A look from the Voz FW18 collection. Photo courtesy of Voz. 

WWD: How does Voz encourage economic growth and development for weavers while preserving their culture and aesthetic?

J.E.A.: Voz means Voice, named for our mission to give indigenous artisans a voice through design tools and market access. Since 2011, Voz has partnered with Mapuche weavers of Southern Chile to respectfully provide design and business tools, scalable ongoing work opportunities, and fair trade wages for the handmade textiles that comprise our collections. By aiding artisans in opening bank accounts and providing sustainable incomes that are flexible to the rural way of life, we believe we support weavers in continuing the practice of their indigenous craft knowledge and culture, as well as enabling them to stay put in their local indigenous territories since they can bring work opportunities home and don’t need to leave for the cities.

Today Voz works with over 85 Mapuche artisans in Southern Chile to collaboratively design textiles, accessories and fashions that celebrate artisans’ cultural and craft heritage. We pay democratically decided fair trade wages for each piece, and buy all the materials in advance, removing financial obstacles for our weavers to make a living with us. We also take full responsibility to buy each item and sell it through our international brand channels (madebyvoz.com, Farfetch, the Maiyet Collective, and our global stockists).

Additionally, Voz works with the University of Chile’s Kinesthesiology department and the local Lions Club to provide a tailored health care program to our weavers: free kinesthesiology workshops and take home treatment tools, free eye tests and glasses, and free focal lamps to improve lighting conditions and protect their eyesight.

Through this partnership, we are witnessing weavers flourish. We have provided dozens of artisans over seven years of steady employment as a start-up and sold their handmade pieces in some of the most luxury boutiques in the world. Through our design collaboration and aesthetics-driven approach, we have gained a loyal international clientele that continues to grow. Our weavers design with me, and inform Voz which symbols are appropriate to display and on which garments. Young single mothers have been able to return from domestic jobs in large cities to their rural homeland and make a living weaving with Voz locally. Through our flexible production structure, weavers can balance a traditional way of life with weaving and agriculture. We embrace beginners and experts, through a patient educational system that graduates weavers from beginning to advanced, offering opportunities to all who are willing to learn. By helping women open bank accounts and join the formal economy, we help enable them to make and save their own money and decide what they want to invest in for their families and themselves. Through weaving, Voz artisans are able to feed and educate their children, as well as invest in vital costs such as medicine and transportation.

Voz weavers are cultural protectors in their community as mothers, storytellers and artisans. Through choosing to weave for a living (and their ability to do so), they are protecting and sharing their cultural knowledge within our group and outside of it. The elders in our group teach the youth about the significance of the colors and symbols as well as ancestral techniques to the loom. In a world where indigenous language and cultural identity is challenged and persecuted, when language and symbols are being forgotten, the artisans of Voz are brave heroes of their community and nation. Voz is their partner in their mission to protect their culture, providing design innovation and production tools, quality materials, and ongoing market access through our brand’s expression. Voz is B Corp certified for our labor and environmental practices.

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