Fashioning Human Rights

By By Sienna Merope | 21 May 13

By Sienna Merope

This article is part of our April & May focus on Art and Human Rights.

Writing about the contribution of fashion to human rights can feel like a bit of an uphill battle. First, there is the not totally undeserved perception that as an industry and a creative practice, fashion has little of substance to say. Then there are the litany of sins that can be traced back to the fashion industry, of which the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh is just one, albeit particularly horrendous, example. Even when the fashion world claims to be making a social contribution, it often seems to be through ritzy charity balls, or a collaboration between an NGO and design house involving some part of the profit on a $5000 bag going to supporting a development project, the exact nature of which often seems to be unimportant.  It can be hard to take these efforts seriously.

These are real issues that shouldn’t be downplayed. Equally however, they should not be allowed to represent the full story. For all its faults, fashion, both as a process of design and manufacture and as a worn form of self-expression, can play an important role in empowering individuals and communities.

At the most obvious level, fashion can make a real contribution to economic development. For all the cringe worthy “fashion aid” projects out there, there are also an ever increasing number of dedicated social enterprises that are providing empowering livelihoods in the developing world. Over the last decade or so, these types of projects have become so popular that it can almost feel trite to recite their virtues – but they are worth reciting. While this is an inevitable generalisation, most fashion-based social enterprises operate by selling products that have been made under fair trade conditions, by artisans and garment manufacturers in the developing world. Overwhelmingly, it is women who are employed, including those who are particularly marginalised, such as survivors of sexual violence or widows. Often the products made are inspired by and draw on locally produced objects or traditional handicrafts and generally they are sustainably produced. If a profit is made by the organisation, it is usually put back into training or redistributed to charity.

These enterprises provide fair working conditions and regular income. They are based, not on charity, but on recognising the economic value of an existing skill set, and providing opportunities to improve those skills and therefore employment prospects and mobility. The fact that the majority of those employed are women is also important. Fashion focused social enterprises ascribe value to traditionally feminine skills such as sewing and weaving (which otherwise tend to provide only extremely badly paid and precarious work) allowing women to develop financial independence and placing greater social value on “women’s work”. These are significant benefits that deserve recognition.

There is also a more intangible value to fashion as a creative process. Last year, both Sierra Leone and the Republic of Congo held their first fashion weeks. Equally as important as the employment opportunities those events provided was the message they sent. They showed an image of the countries that was neither war torn, poverty stricken, nor traditional and tribal. Instead of a two dimensional image of starving victims, the individuals who were front and centre were a group of designers and models of many ages, ethnicities, professional backgrounds and visions. Their designs were innovative, influenced by international fashion, music and art, and incredibly diverse.

In a TED talk a few years ago, author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie spoke about how, as a middle class Nigerian child, she visited the village of her family’s live in servant, Fide. She recalled being shocked when she was shown a beautifully patterned basket that Fide’s brother had woven. As she puts it:

 That is a long way from the image, which was around only a few years ago, that ethical clothing basically meant hemp.

“It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

Narratives that tell us only how poor, or desperate, or vulnerable a country or community is stop us from seeing the people in it as complete, complex humans. It is a process of othering that allows us to relate through pity rather than empathy and that robs people of the chance to tell their own stories. In some, admittedly only small way, seeing Sierra Leonians or Nigerians or Bangladeshis create beautiful, modern, fashionable clothing challenges the single stories we tell about those places and allows a more complex reality to be portrayed.

A similar thing can happen through individual clothing choices. During uni, I volunteered at an asylum seeker organisation, helping refugees write their applications for protection visas. I remember working with a Zimbabwean woman during the worst of Mugabe’s crackdown. She was an opposition party activist who had been through some terrible things before she came to Australia. On her second or third appointment with me, she showed up wearing a beautifully patterned orange skirt and when I commented on it, she told me that she had made it. I remember being amazed that with everything she had and was still going through, she would care about what she wore at all, let alone enough to make something so bright and beautiful. It changed how we related, because I started to see her as much more than the sum of her trauma, or the heroism of her activism. It’s not that those things became less real – any more than poverty in Sierra Leone disappears because some people make beautiful clothes – but I began to understand that they were only part of her story.

Not all social enterprises tap into this potential to use fashion to both economically empower participants and also dismantle stereotypes. All too often participants are provided with a fair wage, but not a stake in design, or they are invisible in the brand’s image, instead just being acknowledged in the “mission statement” of the webpage. The enterprises that do harness fashion’s social role however, achieve something truly valuable. At the Melbourne based Social Studio for example, participants study at the in-house design school, earning recognised qualifications and honing expert seamstress, tailoring and design skills that provide them with pathways into independent business or jobs in the broader fashion industry. Men and women from countries as diverse as Burundi, Burma and Afghanistan work and study together. Currently, four graduates of the school serve as the brand’s lead designers, while a skilled manufacture team is also involved in designing clothes that more than hold their own on any quality or aesthetic criteria. Participants’ design role is publicised, and the Studio is open plan, so that you can see the production process from the shop. Many of the brand’s models come from refugee communities and there are opportunities for the wider community to attend classes in various design techniques. It could not be a more different image from the “single story” that dominates our perception of refugee communities.

 To succeed, a social enterprise model has to be more than a better form of charity. It has to be good business.

Of course, organisations like the Social Studio are not the norm in the fashion world. Luxury fashion remains almost proudly unethical, as the recent resurgence of fur and repeatedly racist offerings in Vogue show. The tragedy in Bangladesh has prompted some “high street” retailers to sign onto higher safety standards, but many more are trying to avoid making any real commitments. However, responsible, empowering fashion social enterprises are growing more prominent. Indego Africa, for example, which emphasises its business model of partnership with independent Rwandan artisans, is stocked at huge retailers such as JCrew and Madewell, as well as online sites with significant cultural capital like Anthropologie. That is a long way from the image, which was around only a few years ago, that ethical clothing basically meant hemp.

The fashion industry may always contribute to social problems, but the extent of the positive role it can play is largely up to us.  Because fashion is so mobile and ubiquitous, clothes that provide economic empowerment and challenge social stereotypes can find themselves on blogs, store floors and bodies around the world and reach even those people who have no particular interest in the issue. As Social Studio founder Grace McQuilten points out, part of the responsibility for achieving this is up to designers – to make clothes that are aesthetically as well as ethically pleasing. To succeed, a social enterprise model has to be more than a better form of charity. It has to be good business.  It is also up to us as consumers, to demand better. That requires not only that we resist the lure of $20 pants and sign petitions for better standards in Bangladesh, but at a deeper level that we stop writing fashion off as merely vacuous and give serious thought to the industry’s potential and our interaction with it.