At 16, I remember picking up a copy of the New York Times and reading about a bank in Bangladesh that gave loans to some of the poorest local communities without collateral, in order to help setup businesses for its borrowers. It boasted a repayment rate of 99 per cent. I was so impressed by its premise and progress that I decided I wanted to be a part of it. I wrote to them incessantly, asking them if there was any tiny way I could help and learn in the process. Six months later I had landed at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka with one small suitcase; a thick file full of reading material on the institution, and a document that confirmed my two-month internship at Grameen Bank, the 1st microfinance institution in the world. My excitement was beyond bounds.
It hadn’t been an easy process getting there. At the time I was a high school student in New York, where my father was posted. I had never travelled alone before, did not know a single person in Bangladesh and didn’t speak the language. It took a lot of convincing for my parents to agree, but once they were on board there was no stopping me.
After some rotations I started working with the women who created the Grameen Check, a special fabric the Grameen Bank is associated with, made on handlooms – an industry that was nearly depleted due to mass production. After Grameen’s intervention, the women and their families once again began to spin this fabric, with new patterns and management skills that the Grameen team taught them. It was then made into clothes and sold for export. It became so popular that world-renowned designers incorporated it in to their collections and showcased them in shows in Paris and Milan.
Through this process I regularly visited several towns and villages on the outskirts of Dhaka, usually with an area supervisor and an interpreter so that I could communicate effectively with the residents. From the first time I visited these areas, and witnessed tiny rooms full of large families sharing small portions of rice with rusted handlooms seated in the corner, I left the country two months later knowing that many of these women, who could not once hold a pen were now leading meetings, running teams and businesses and exuding a sense of confidence that they never knew they had.
It was after this experience that I knew I wanted to start a project that would employ women, empower them to create better lives and not live on charity and donations. Grameen’s model taught me one important lesson, for social mobility and for the society to move forward we have to create a sustainable solution, one that begins with self-rehabilitation.
Despite having grown up in many different parts of the world, my Pakistani parents instilled in me a love and admiration for our country, culture and heritage. I was introduced to indigenous fabrics, patterns and handwork at an early age. We had family heirlooms that all had a story and were cherished from generation to generation. I wondered whether these Pakistani artisans who bring to life these wonderful skills could also be given a much bigger platform to showcase their talents.
After graduating from university with an undergraduate degree in Economics and Politics and a Masters degree in Media and Communications, I began working for Pepsi. I made good money, met sophisticated professionals and absorbed as many corporate skills as I could, all the while knowing that this was not for me. In my free time, there was a whole lot of introspection, travelling, and meeting with skilled but struggling artisans to finally consolidate the vision that I once had. Fashion ComPassion was launched in November 2010, to provide a platform to socially responsible fashion brands that work with women artisans in the developing world – a website that sold socially responsible fashion brands.
Starting with just a handful of brands in 2010, today Fashion Compassion merges high-end design with ethical production practices, offering its customers some of the most eclectic accessories available in the world. Working closely with brands that employ marginalised communities and skilled artisans from Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Bangladesh and now Pakistan who work under the direct tutelage of some of the finest designers, Fashion Compassion provides a global platform where these groups can retail their creations. Appealing to the sensibilities of fashion lovers the world over and giving them an opportunity to directly contribute to the rehabilitation of these communities, the company has fast become one of the worlds leading ethically conscious fashion brands.
I am now working with seven socially responsible brands from all over the world, and work closely with their founders to create new and exciting products. These products have received acclaim from leading fashion magazines, such as British Vogue, Vogue.Com, Vogue Italia, Marie Claire Spain, Observer Magazine, Grazia and many more. Numerous celebrities like Livia Firth, Lily Cole, Eva Longoria, Anne Hathaway have also worn pieces from various collections and these pieces are being sold at high end retailers like Bloomingdales, S*uce and the British Museum in London.
My love and passion for Pakistan has brought me to Karachi in order to seek out Pakistani brands that believe in the same ethos and use skills that artisans have to offer, and revive traditions that have been forgotten. I plan to launch Fashion ComPassion here and in other cities and travel to various villages to study the skill set the women have and how it can be further improved and turned into marketable products. I want to combine the traditional skills with modern sensibility making it palatable for the globally savvy fashionista, and in return giving some of our most treasured heritage to a global audience.
The author is the Founder and Director of Fashion ComPassion, a socially responsible fashion initiative that provides a platform to brands created by skilled women artisans from the developing world. Learn more here.
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