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Trendsetting: Stylishly ethical

September 09, 2012

World fashion is high on ethics these days; busy with buzz-words like eco-friendly, sustainable, free trade, etc.

In the simplest of terms, ethical refers to an approach to fashion that will maximise the benefits to people and communities while minimising the harmful impact on the environment. In Pakistan, the environment is not as big an issue as development, so ethical fashion mostly refers to fashion that has been created by employing and thus empowering rural communities, especially communities of underprivileged women.

When it comes to you, there are two ways to adding an ethical twist to your personal style. Firstly, invest in brands that claim to be working with a fair-trade (like the Body Shop) or sustainable development module. The second is to adopt a few style ethics yourself: recycle your clothes and reinvent new looks through innovation, make use of breathable, organic fabrics as opposed to synthetics that may damage the environment and pay your wages fairly. Cheap labour — even when paying your tailors — may amount to exploitation. But even if you don’t turn to tailors, designers have made it easy to be ethical in your approach to style.

A handbag to heaven

Polly & Me.–Photo by Eefa Khalid

Handbags are the simplest of fashion accessories to create in an ethical environment because they don’t require sizing charts.

Perhaps that’s why several bag brands have been created under the ethical umbrella. There is Polly & Me, an initiative taken by the Central Saint Martin trained Cath Braid and her sister Ange, who have been working with Chitrali women for several years now. These bags are available at Labels in Karachi and Lahore and can be sourced online as well.

Then there are Bags for Bliss, initiated by the young philanthropist Saba Gul with a mission to “lift economically marginalised women and girls in rural Pakistan out of poverty through education and skills training.” The Bags for Bliss website explains the initiative in detail, while displaying the products that are being created.

Inspired by Polly & Me is the local brand Krizmah, that also employs Chitrali women to create embroidered tapestries woven into bags. Krizmah bags are available at Ensemble outlets in Lahore and Karachi.

All for accessories

Accessory development has also been popular in the realm of ethical fashion. The field is very diverse internationally, where designers have been busy creating garments from recycled rags and even trash, jewellery from scrap metal and they have been making energy conserving glow in the dark clothing (woven with electronic fibres) and much more. In Pakistan, certain designers like Huma Adnan of FnkAsia have been working with rural women to develop handmade accessories including yarn-knitted bangles and necklaces, motifs for sandals and bags, scarves and much more.

“At the moment we are working with the people of a Baluchi village situated on the outskirts of Karachi,” says designer Huma Adnan. “We are incorporating their craft to makes accessories, bags, slippers and jewellery as well as embellished garment portions. We feel that by working with these villagers and giving them fair wages we can give back the benefits of fashion to where it originates.”

Fashion with compassion

A Classic Jacket from Beshtar’s collection

Fashion designers in Pakistan have been pursuing ethical practices in their own private capacities but hardly anything has been brought on a concrete, credible platform. The only forum that brings designers to rural communities is AHAN (Aik Hunar Aik Nagar) led by Rizwan Beyg, who is also working on an Ethical Fashion Week in collaboration with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. There are other projects such as Behbood, APWA and similar NGOs but nothing on an organised, documented scale.

Beyond Pakistan, Ayesha Mustafa of Fashion Compassion has been working hard to bring ethical brands from all over the world under the umbrella of her popular online portal, Fashion Compassion. She has brands like Bhalo, which is an eco-friendly label from Bangladesh that designs limited edition women’s clothing and accessories, made from ethically hand woven and naturally dyed cottons and silks. Focussed on honourable working conditions and community development, Bhalo works with local women, widows and indigenous communities in rural Bangladesh.

Then there is Beshtar, which according to the Fashion Compassion website, “was created by designer Carole Naim to be an exclusive design atelier of products sourced in Afghanistan. Beshtar’s collection is hand-crafted by artisans, and uses vintage as well as up-cycled pieces to create a unique and exquisite collection. The money raised by selling these pieces is donated to various charities: AWEC, Gardens For Life and Aschiana that help Afghan people become independent and self-sufficient by providing micro-finance, vocational training and employment opportunities.” Ayesha, a Pakistani by origin, will soon be working with designers in Pakistan too.

Till then designers continue to work in small capacities. Sara Shahid of Sublime manufactures a line of tee shirts from organic cotton as well as working with women on the Sublime Women Entrepreneur Project. Designers like Sahar Atif of Saai have worked with Kashmiri artisans on a collection and Koel by Nurjehan Bilgrami is a popular brand that creates organic cottons.

The trend is on a rise and with Ethical Fashion Week marked on the calendar, there is no doubt that fashion will be getting seriously philanthropic very soon. —AHI