The Cultural Curator

Bringing you thoughts on feminism, fashion, food, current affairs, and other cultural goodies…

Local Design, Global Mind…

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There’s an old adage that goes ‘you get what you pay for’…

But not until you’ve actually sat in on the production of a good do you necessarily understand what this means, what true craftsmanship really entails, and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into some of our most treasured and prized handmade possessions.

While working with women’s rights and issues has always been my pride and joy, I have taken an equal interest in fashion from before I could even dress myself. Marrying my interests seemed like a natural next step. I had the vision; now I had to follow through with the execution.

During my time in Zambia, towards the end of my stay in the country, I was introduced to a women’s collective, a group of 20 or so retired women, who gather every Tuesday for prayer and jewelry making. My relationship with the collective stemmed from an initial meeting with one of its longtime members, Ethel Jiri, who also happened to be the founding Chair of the organization I was affiliated with at the time. I had been asked to interview Mrs. Jiri in honour of the organization’s 21st anniversary and, as a gesture of thanks, during an anniversary event, Mrs. Jiri brought me a beautiful hand-beaded necklace. Eager to learn more about Mrs. Jiri and her background (outside of the official interview), I extended an invitation for lunch later that week. It was during our subsequent meeting that I was made aware of the Collective.

And so our journey together began…

It has, for an extended period of time, been an ambition of mine to work with collectives of women around the world, who are supremely artistically talented but whose talents might be un- or under-exposed and represented, to create pieces that are a collaboration between local materials and resources and global (this term, in some ways, is broad and subjective, I’m aware) design.

I have already been in talks with some of these collectives, but being in Zambia, and in the presence of these women, offered a particularly accessible and attractive opportunity to get some work done on the ground in the immediate future.

I asked, to start, if these women had any previous experience designing handbags. ‘Not really,’ was the response. I showed them several clutch designs for inspiration, and we agreed to get to work.

Off we went to a local fabric store to select some Chitenge (traditional African cloth) material, followed by a stop at the market for beads, thread, and other necessities. And if you think that picking out cloth and beads is an easy task, think again. Variety isn’t the spice of life when you’re faced with too much choice and too little time… especially when it’s 40 degrees outside and your brain is sweating bullets.

The clutches were a trial-and-error process, but the detail that went into producing them was astounding. Though I oversaw the design and the ‘big picture’, the fine details and the actual assembling of the product was all credited to the talent, sharpness, and perseverance of the women. I was in awe of what they were capable of doing with some material, beads, a needle and a thread.

Two of these women, Maureen (we’ll call her the ‘Bead Queen’) and Angela (the ‘Sensational Seamstress’) took a special interest and lead in the project. Truth be told, without their aptitude and quick thinking on the job, there wouldn’t be a finished product to speak of.

In the past few years, with books such as Naked Fashion and Overdressed hitting the shelves, as well as the horrific – and symbolic – Bangladesh factory collapse that devastated over 1,000 lives and affected the hearts and minds of millions more around the world, it has become clear that, when it comes to fashion, we need to ask more questions about where our clothing and accessories are coming from and who is behind their production. It is no longer acceptable, in this day and age, when we’re confronted with the conditions that many garment workers live and work in, to sit idly by in a state of ignorance and apathy. It is not okay that countless individuals around the world lose their lives so that you and I can buy a $10 t-shirt or a $20 pair of shoes. Unlike such items, people are not disposable.

And so it is time that we become significantly more aware of what’s going on in the industry (since we are all active participants), and that we acquire a more thorough understanding of what goods actually cost. The irony is that the $10 t-shirt you think you’re scoring a great deal on really costs a fraction of that to make – welcome to the world of the ‘mark-up’. If that doesn’t offer you a nice wake-up call, I don’t know what will…

On that note, I love the idea that we can join collectively to ensure that individuals are paid equitably for their work, by demanding more as consumers and making intelligent and informed buying decisions.

The clutches that I made with these women, as an example, took great resources and efforts. One woman even jokingly (or at least I hope she was joking…) suggested that, upon the completion of the prototype clutch, we would have to drive her directly to the mental institution because the process of assembly was driving her toward insanity. It took Maureen over four hours to complete a particularly intricate and small piece of beadwork – four hours… and a considerable amount of concentration and fortitude!

This work is of a high(er) monetary value… a lot more than what you might pay at ‘fast fashion’ stores like Forever21 or H&M, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to know that someone is being paid fairly for her or his work (wouldn’t you want the same for yours?), and to be cognizant of what went into the making of whatever it is you’re purchasing and wearing.

And this kind of work doesn’t come ‘cheap’, but that term has ultimately lost its meaning anyway because today’s big businesses haven’t been truthful about what things actually cost. In the end, all those deals and sales end up costing us a lot more than we initially bargained for…

I urge you to think more critically and to be more discerning about what you buy and from whom. Tell big businesses that you’re not okay with the conditions under which your goods are being produced, that you’re a smarter and savvier shopper than they give you credit for, and that you’re willing to spend a little more if it means that whomever is behind the labour of these goods is living a little better. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense, and it’s about time that we all had some.

Support local artisans, support small collectives whose blood, sweat, and tears go into their craft, support businesses that understand how to conduct themselves ethically and with a bigger picture for a brighter future in mind.

And… support the women I’m working with in Zambia. They make fabulous products, and they do custom work. You’ll pay for it, but it will be worth it. I promise.

If you’re interested in learning more about these women, the collective, and what they are capable of designing for you, get in touch with me by visiting my contact page.

Let’s work together to do better and be better. One stylish (and smart!) person at a time…

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