When you’re a brand that carries a certain amount of influence in the industry, it’s important that you use it in a way that has a positive impact.”
These are the words of fashion designer Karen Walker, words she has backed up by collaborating with United Nations project, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI). It’s a relationship she intends to be ongoing.
Founded in 2009 by UN worker Simone Cipriani, EFI provides work that is dignified and well paid. Currently EFI operates in Kenya, Haiti and West African nations Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso.Soon Brazil, Palestine, Kashmir and the Mekong regions will be added to the list. It supports artisanal manufacturing and enables micro-producers and designers from the developing world to create value and share it with international brands and distributors.
Walker joins a growing list of designers who support EFI, which includes Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Ilaria Venturini Fendi, Sass & Bide and Marni.
Over the past few months, artisans in Waithaka, Kenya have been producing thousands of bags for Walker’s new “Visible” eyewear collection. The designs, which were created in-house by team Karen Walker, range from the simplest of screen-printed calico pouches to completely beaded and tasselled options.
It is the artisans, not models, who are involved in the campaign’s imagery, which was shot by leading landscape, portrait and fashion photographer Derek Henderson. Machinists, cutters, tailors, beaders, production managers and metal workers are also involved, as well as members of the Maasai group who create the elaborate beading work. The images are set against the local landscape and provide a glimpse into the world where the work comes from.
It was a way of taking the project a step further, says Walker.
“Karen Walker Eyewear has always had an optimistic outlook and has always been about standing out from the crowd. This campaign captures both this innate optimism and love of maximum impact in the images themselves and also the way in which they direct our attention to this part of the world and the work being done there.
“In short, the images help to bring visibility to this place, these people and the work of the EFI.”
Walker’s first association with EFI was in 2012 when they created a bag together to sell throughout Myer stores in Australia for a project with NGO, Hands that Shape Humanity. The bags were produced in Kenya and Walker was thrilled with how they looked.
Cipriani, now chief technical advisor of EFI and head of the Poor Communities and Trade Programme (ITC) that runs the UN initiative, says his work with the Italian leather industry inspired him to create a system that allowed the poorest of the poor to be part of the fashion industry in a fair and sustainable way. The work involved industrial collaborations and setting up service and training centres in developing countries. “It struck me how these places were home to some of the most incredible artisans in the world, with skills that could add tremendous value to fashion.”
Cipriani believes offering work is more important than the charitable activities many fashion groups engage in. EFI works with brands committed to a better world and to the idea of ethical fashion; these brands are usually ready to engage on a permanent basis, not just for a one-season PR stunt. The success of the EFI depends on regular orders that create long-term jobs for the micro-artisans involved.
By ethical, Cipriani means taking an active role in the reduction of poverty and creation of sustainable livelihoods, as well as protecting and cleaning up the environment. “This is why we work directly with those living in slums and barren rural areas, with the aim of empowering them through quality work that minimises the negative impact on their surroundings,” he says.
Consumers, he believes, are becoming more conscious of a connection to the people who make their clothes. “More generally we are seeing recognition of the value of handwork, honestly crafted and paid for in a fair way,” Cipriani says.
And, of course, fashion is a great platform to promote the work of these artisan communities.
“Of all industries, it has a very unique power to captivate and to move people. When important designers such as Karen Walker, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney are engaged in working sustainably in Africa and commit to create a better world, an entire community (the consumers) looks up to them,” he says. “Also, by having these names engaging in such schemes gives Africa credibility and places it on the fashion map.”
The eyewear will be shown on the runway at Walker’s show at New York Fashion Week on February 10.