The Ethical Fashion Initiative, run by the International Trade Centre(ITC), joined forces with the fashion world in 2008 and has been working to use fashion as a development tool ever since. But what is all this about? They say:
The Poor Communities and Trade Programme (PCTP) of the ITC aims to reduce global poverty through the generation of trade opportunities for marginalized communities and micro producers in the developing world by involving micro enterprises in international and regional trade. Its flagship project, The Ethical Fashion Approach, enables international fashion companies and distributors to source from African communities, without bias in price or quality, thus allowing groups of marginalized artisans to become part of the larger value chain. The Ethical Fashion Programme connects some of the world’s most marginalised people to the top of fashion’s value chain for mutual benefit. It enables communities of artisans and micro-manufacturers the majority of them women, to thrive in association with the talents of the fashion world. This develops local creativity, fosters predominantly female employment and promotes gender equality in order to reduce poverty. It also answers the growing demand of consumers that fashion should be fair.
Desirable, ethical fashion products can grab consumer interest and command high prices, thanks in part to the unique stories they carry of environmental improvement and positive social impact. The Ethical Fashion Approach ensures that those spearheading global design agendas can collaborate fruitfully and fairly with African artisans while also being actively engaged in cleaning the environment, joining together to achieve a three-point bottom line:
PEOPLE, PROFIT, PLANET
They collaborate with a network of self-managed, artisanal groups who together, make up an extended “multi-craft workshop”, spread over a vast geographical area. Now both high profile designers Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, are supporting the program creating and placing orders for various designs which will be made by the teams in Africa such as designs of sandals, as well as bags and t-shirts for Stella McCartney.
Guest Contributor Donalea Scott of the blog www.getaperspective.blogspot.com gave us an indepth analysis of this project in relation to Vivienne Westwood in Kenya via the Ethical Fashion Africa project. In the African fashion community this has caused some level of debate and controversy for various reasons and so why we asked Donalea to have a look from a cultural studies perspective with a focus on the fashion industry.
Do have a read and share your thoughts and comments.
Dame Vivienne Westwood is known for going against the fashion grain, having made her name back in the 70’s for bold political and social statement fashion, which is why it should come as no surprise that Westwood still possesses the ability to evoke strong opinions, with her last season campaign receiving mixed reviews. Westwood chose to shoot her entire autumn winter 11/12 campaign in Nairobi, Kenya which is where she has been working in partnership with Ethical Fashion Africa programme part of the ITC (International Trade Centre) to produce an ethical bag collection made from recycled material and to support local Kenyan communities by providing training and skilled work boosting the self-esteem and economical circumstances of the local people, the motto being NOT CHARITY, JUST WORK.
Many have disapproved of Westwood’s decision to use slum African as the back drop of the campaign to sell her fashion, with one fashion journalist going as far as describing it as “poverty porn cliché”, though in spite of the odd cringe worthy image(s) the campaign is actually very witty and offers up a satirical look at modern fashion.
While only the bag collection shares a connection to the shoot location, I imagine that for consistency Westwood opted to shoot the entire Anglomainia campaign under one theme in Kenya by renowned fashion photographer Juergen Teller. The campaign sees Dame Vivienne Westwood and Kenyan models Ajuma Nasenyana, Sonnietta Thomas, and Elsie Njeri parading around slum areas of Kenya dressed head to toe in overpriced outfits which I’m sure could pay for the education of all the children of a small village. While at first glance this can seem somewhat obnoxious, as a collective story or image there is a level of satire which runs through the campaign; this is strongest when the imagery is focused on the accessory collection such as the image of Westwood selling her bags on the floor as done in Africa.
This is quite clever imagery as it strips the selling process to its raw form, no fancy shop lighting, layout or branded ribbon and shopping bags, just the maker/seller and the product. Anyone who is familiar with this line of selling will know of the dialog that occurs in such situations, learning of the products story, the haggling, the reassurance of quality or authenticity; this experience to a non native customer evokes the understanding of buying into something of cultural importance. The bags on display have a very interesting story to tell, they have been handmade by a newly skilled and liberated workforce and made from recycled textile, plastics and metals, judging from the sense of pride displayed in Westwood’s pose and presents as the seller in the image, this is a story she wishes to convey to her consumers.
What else is interesting about the campaign is that Westwood subtly coaxes the viewer to question the value of premium fashion by making the product the focal point of the campaign imagery and by taking the product out of context. This is done by placing luxury fashion in the back drop of poverty which somewhat realigns fashion with reality instead of encouraging the consumer to buy into the luxury dream, the usual luxury marketing approach which prompts us to value and pay more for Prada over Primark. The perfect example of this is in the image of Westwood surrounded by rubbish and holding two bags one of which says “I am expensive”, considering that both bags and Westwood’s outfit which I’m sure is also expensive seems to blend in with her surrounding enacts a contradiction in the message, questioning the products worth when it blends in with the waste surrounding.
Another way of reading this image is that this expensive bag is likely to be made from waste material such as the surrounding, playing on the fact that something made cheaply will inability be sold for more than it’s worth.
Westwood may seem like just another designer jumping on the African fashion bandwagon, though the rebellious nature that is the Vivienne Westwood brand has clearly been overlooked when critiquing this campaign. The designer who once declared that people should “buy less, choose well & do it yourself!” is not your typical fashion matriarch. The original anarchy of fashion Westwood established her design house by combining fashion with her political and social agendas.
From the short documentary Made with love in Nairobi, made to accompany Westwood’s Ethical Fashion Africa collection, Westwood expresses her encouragement for making a difference socially through her love of producing fashion.
While it’s easy to see why such a campaign was likely to cause controversy, Vivienne Westwood is by far more reputable than other luxury fashion houses to handle such a campaign, which in true Westwood style was whimsical and handled with dignity, also it should be recognised and applauded that Kenyan models were used in the campaign as it shows Westwood level of commitment to the project in Africa, since she could have used models of a different nationality and ethnicity.
Asides from the controversial nature of the ad campaign, it is great to see a designer of Westwood’s caliber collaborating in ethical fashion practices in Africa.
Cultural Critic and Fashion Theorist