Women are the backbone of the fashion industry.
The vast majority of the sector’s garment workforce are women, and brands that bolster female artisan makers with dignified work and embrace responsible modes of production are paying it forward for the industry’s future.
All Aboard the Rainbow School Bus
As a global industry, with low barriers to entry — fashion’s impact is far-reaching. Where communities rely on informal economies — including income from markets, handicrafts, seasonal work and tourism (areas severely impacted by the pandemic), support is vital.
This support is being provided to indigenous communities in the Southwest by brands like Orenda Tribe. Everything the brand does, as dictated by founder Amy Denet Deal (Yeung) — whose last name is written as such to signify reclaiming her indigenous mother’s last name — is colorful.
Intricately woven designs and upcycled vintage in an array of tie-dye designs populate the shop, where Deal (Yeung) hand-dyes the pieces in the sun most weekends.
As a designer who is half Diné (which means “people” and is a preferred term by indigenous communities in the Southwest U.S.) and half non-native, Deal (Yeung) supports her community by working with New Mexico-based Diné artists like Mary Jane Garcia who is of the Tl’og’i (Zia People) and Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House People) Clan. Garcia’s work includes pieces like the rainbow ring in a traditional Naja (or crescent) design, “heart and soul rings,” handcrafted in sterling silver and cut from the same turquoise gemstone.
For the past two years, Garcia’s decades of experience has found its home with Orenda Tribe. Her artisanal fine jewelry pieces are listed at retail on the brand’s website, where she receives the full profit less transaction fees. Orenda Tribe also commissions items from Garcia, paying wholesale prices.
Having spent two decades working in the Los Angeles fashion industry, some of which was spent in fast fashion, Deal (Yeung) believes every brand should have a conscious approach today. Her personal reckoning was brought on by reconnecting with her ancestral roots, a turning point marked by a move back to the Two Grey Hills chapter of the Navajo Nation (New Mexico) and raising her daughter Lily, now a 20-year-old model for Orenda Tribe’s Instagram who is pursuing a career in sustainable fashion.
“I carry my ancestors all those years of those who came before me here.…It’s creativity and ideas for other things besides clothes but that creative power can change the world. That’s what I say for the fashion industry. You’re some of the most highly powered creative thinkers in the world, let’s not limit ourselves to fashion week, let’s think bigger than that. Let’s take that creative brain and think about other stuff. I think so much could be solved versus waiting for other people to figure it out for us,” said Deal (Yeung).
Last year, Orenda Tribe raised more than $800,000 for mutual aid projects — some of which were supplied by the brand’s curated marketplace (the “Spread Love Shine Light” auction), which also champions the work of local makers. Auction proceeds went toward firewood to heat homes, to support survivors of domestic violence and the latest — a skatepark and community garden project, currently in the works.
The ongoing auction offers an added platform for indigenous artists. Celebrities like Jewel and Tony Hawk, and brands like Rag + Bone and indigenous-owned label Yellowtail, have offered up items and support. Orenda Tribe also has its Sheep Is Life collection, giving back 100 percent of profits to artisans, who equate intricate pieces like horizontal loom-woven shawls or rugs as journeys, songs and meditations.
With fashion trying to climb back from record-low profits for 2020, it’s about finding new solutions for moving forward. Deal (Yeung)’s vision for community is there, but the rest of the industry is still catching up.
“It’s 2021, and we are not represented in the fashion world,” she said, underlining the industry’s desperate need for more mentorship programs and collaborations that bolster indigenous talent. “We need to have a safer space for creative ideas to blossom — that only happens when we let go of the idea that it needs to be the way it’s always been.”
Deal (Yeung) equates her brand to “a giant rainbow school bus” where she’s in the driver’s seat. “This journey is all about doing good stuff in the world.…Yeah, I sell clothes, but for me it’s more about the community.”
Preserving Peru’s Textile Tradition
As with Orenda Tribe, slow fashion brand Escvdo links modern designs with heritage handwork. Peru’s rich millenary textile tradition was inseparable from its foundations.
“We focus primarily on helping artisans preserve their traditions by encouraging the younger generations to learn from their parents, as these techniques are taught from generation to generation. If we don’t value these crafts, there is a risk of losing them. If, instead, younger generations see craftsmanship as a viable career and a sustainable source of income, these traditions stand a better chance of enduring and even gaining relevance,” said Escvdo founder Chiara Macchiavello, who was born in Peru and early on fostered ties with artisan communities.
In 2019, the percentage of informal employment in Peru stood at around 70 percent (that number has risen amid the pandemic) of the total employed population, according to the International Labor Organization. With women comprising roughly 80 percent of the company and the majority of the artisans the brand collaborates with being women and women of indigenous descent — providing visibility to these crafts and the hands and faces of the communities behind them has been essential.
Age-old weaving techniques find their market via Escvdo, where the craft finds new relevance in pieces like the meticulously made crochet dresses — just some of the brand’s bespoke designs.
“Working hand by hand on the textile design process with the artisans is such a rich experience for both parts; we believe it nurtures our culture by finding common languages and expressing our identity. Escvdo is a slow fashion brand in every way and we believe that being so adds to the movement of a more conscious and sustainable industry,” Macchiavello said.
Organic pima cotton is sourced from the coastal region of Pisco, Peru, while its alpaca wool is sourced from the Peruvian Andes — a tradition all its own (the country is the leading exporter for alpaca fiber).
Breeding a mutual sense of passion, love, respect and transparency, Escvdo partners with women leaders in a way that works for them.
“Most of these women prefer to work from home, since they command their own households while at the same time taking on leading roles amongst knitting or weaving cooperatives,” said Daniel Huby, commercial director of Escvdo. “Working from home usually allows for more multitasking amongst women, who unfortunately are still typecast under the traditional domestic and child raising roles that society assigns them. We believe financial independence and stability is one of the most efficient ways to tackle inequality, and that’s one of the reasons why we choose to work primarily with women.”
Partnering with a local NGO called Knitting Hope, the brand bridges further opportunity to women living in remote areas of Huascarán (essentially a mountain peak) and Áncash, offering knitting and professional skills aid. Training for technical skills in accounting, general management and Microsoft Word are some of the gaps Escvdo is helping to close.
The brand’s approach is what production manager Blanca Díaz called a “truly transcendental” way to build a responsible society, “even if it’s just with a single thread” at a time.
Responsibility Through Collaboration
Legacy fashion houses were once built on the premise for ever newer, faster collections and more outrageous shows, but now (not only due to the pandemic-prompted values shift) — designers are being more mindful and building businesses that center collaboration and community.
“For me at least, I’m such an intentional shopper making sure I know where I’m buying my stuff from and that I’m connected with the artist who is behind these things,” said Edas designer and founder Sade Mims. “Those important values mean everything to me when I’m buying. I think about that as a designer or business owner.”
With slow fashion said to be the marker of a new era in fashion, how a company chooses to produce matters. As a buzz-worthy accessories brand operating off of a made-to-order model, Mims marries her eye for the eclectic (partnering with independent artists for one-off collaborations) with timeless silhouettes.
Newness comes in the form of fresh colorways and “slow,” limited collaborations (even as small as 60 units), like the one with Los Angeles-based craftsman Cameron Tea. For this and most collaborations, the retail profit is split 50-50.
In another collaboration designed and produced in Mexico called “Edas x Mexico,” Mims designed a collection inspired by cities in Central Mexico like San Miguel de Allende and Léon — hiring a small community of craftsmen and craftswomen in León. The team ventured South to Oaxaca to film its look book with Oaxaca-based photographer Luna Antonia Arboleda and home and interior design studio Rrres. The studio works with Zapotec weavers to preserve the enduring textile traditions in Oaxaca.
Although collaborations can sometimes be seen as futile in the long run for artisan communities — and a test of patience for consumers — Mims put the worries to rest.
“Our production process is definitely something I’m intentional about and taking my time. I know as we grow older, I’ll face more questions on ‘how do we sustain ourselves with that model?’ People ask me that question often, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about, too, when we talk about strategizing, but it’s also something that I’m not letting worry me too much because I feel confident if people want it they’ll wait for it.”
How the pre-order model works is at the start of each week, orders placed over the past week are grouped and go into production with Edas’ manufacturing team, taking anywhere from three to six weeks to be shipped from the date of the order being received. Customers receive biweekly updates on the production status of their orders.
“I am looking forward to continuously creating pieces and creating new iterations so that we do become a legacy brand, we do become a household name,” Mims said. “It’s less for me about dishing out a bunch of new great product, but it’s more about finding new ways to home in on older styles that people love and bringing them exciting new iterations of them, so that when you see this bag you know it’s an Edas bag.”
Carrying a conscious approach to every aspect of her design process, Mims imbues the same virtues in and outside the office.
“That comes from how I show up in the world, simply outside of being a business owner — how I interact with my community, how I speak to my neighbors — all of it is all-encompassing, and it all matters to me,” Mims said. “Particularly when I talk about the design realm of things, how I collaborate and pushing the narrative forward, like working with Savannah [Falzarano, who runs Edas press]. I wanted to ensure that my PR and publicist was a woman of color, that’s something that I valued,” said Mims, in a nod to the industry’s lack of representation and access.
Mentorship, community gardening projects and local farming projects have also been at the forefront of Edas. Saying how some may view disparate interests as not having a place within fashion, she continued: “For me, I’ve never subscribed to that. I use Edas as a catalyst to do all the things that I care about and that are important for me and for the world around me.”
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