A new era in fashion: Marion Hume on why the handworker economy matters

Commonwealth Fashion Council

Learn about the Nest charity and how it is working to support artisans and their communities

The importance of the handworker economy by Marion Hume
On a cold winter’s night in February 2018, the gilded rooms of Buckingham Palace came alive when luminaries of the fashion world gathered together with vibrant creatives of the Commonwealth. The Duchess of Cambridge and the Countess of Wessex welcomed stellar names such as Stella McCartney, Dame Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell, as well as an international guest list of designers and artisans, to view an eclectic exhibition of 31 fashion designs, all created as part of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange.    
The program, and the glorious exhibition, is a celebration of designers from all corners of the globe and the often-unsung talents of fashion design: the artisan handworkers who embroider, bead and stitch to create fashion finery. It is rare that these craftswomen (and the majority of them are women) are even acknowledged. It is even rarer that they get the opportunity to mingle in the grandest of rooms, hung with Old Master paintings, alongside those with far more famous names.
Few people know that as much as 60% of fashion is outsourced and subcontracted. And many of those whose handwork shapes the global fashion industry work largely alone, and often at home. While this can be positive, some workers can be open to exploitation. It is often difficult for designers to track exactly whom has worked on the clothes that carry their labels. It is especially challenging to track the input of those who labour in far flung communities. This is what makes the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange such a pioneering and positive initiative – and so much more than just a splendid party held in the world’s most famous working woman’s home.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange was conceived by ardent ethical campaigner Livia Firth. The idea was to pair designers with artisans from across the 53 nations of the Commonwealth and ask them to create one fashion look.

On the launch night, one only had to witness the mutual delight of New Zealand designer Karen Walker and The Cook Islands’ artisan Tukua Turia to see the brilliance of the concept.

“I brought my culture with me here!” exclaimed Turia, a renowned expert in a unique part-patchwork/part-stitch work technique called Tivaivai. “I’ve wanted to use Tivaivai before, but it never felt right to ‘appropriate’ it,” added Walker. “This way, the two of us can share our Pacific culture, yet create something that goes way beyond what we could have done by ourselves.”

Tukua Turia works within a lively community called The Kūki Airani Creative Māmās. Yet it is more often the case that handworkers find themselves isolated. How to link them to other communities and the wider market while protecting their lifestyles and respecting their cultural or family duties? Enter Nest, a non-profit founded in 2006 by Rebecca van Bergen that is dedicated to building a fair and global handworker economy.

Thanks to Swarovski, which is supporting the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, all the participating artisans are able to join the Nest Guild for no fee. The arrangement came to fruition following the Swarovski Foundation’s partnership with Nest, which has been active since 2014. 

The Nest Guild is a community of more than 400 artisan businesses across more than 70 countries. While employing artisans practicing diverse crafts from shibori dyeing to hand reed weaving, Guild businesses are unified in their common goals for business growth and social improvement in their local communities. The Guild includes access to an online learning hub as well as pro-bono mentoring to help craft-based businesses grow at a scale.

“We are delighted that our support has enabled Nest to invite all the participating artisans to join the Nest Guild. Craft is the second largest employer of women in developing countries. That is why supporting local artisans in scaling up their work is a powerful step towards female empowerment. In business, money is not the only currency. The impact we can create with our services and deeds, or with meaningful, positive products is very powerful”.

Nadja Swarovski

Aside from the Guild, Nest connects artisans across the globe and supports them in both building business capacity as well as improving worker wellbeing. Understanding access to the market as a critical universal need for artisans around the world, Nest’s sourcing program matches artisans and designers directly, ensuring transparency, sustainability and stunning collaborations.     

Following Nest’s December 2017 launch of its new compliance program designed to ensure artisan and homeworker wellbeing, designers and brands have a new opportunity to improve transparency to handworkers. Artisan business accreditation by Nest has potential to open-up future business opportunities by making responsible sourcing from craftspeople safe and viable. The goal is for designers everywhere to be able to tap into artisan skill bases all across the world and know that those creating handwork do so under conditions that have been assessed to be fair.

“The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange signals a new era in fashion - one in which global craftsmanship - “the art of the handmade” - is reclaiming a place of value,”

“By providing artisans with the opportunity to showcase their skills in the company of esteemed designers like Stella McCartney, the program has achieved what we so often struggle to communicate at Nest: the enduring power of responsible craft to bring beauty, authenticity, and true luxury to contemporary fashion. This shift in perception is an essential change that must take place for heritage techniques across the world to thrive.”

Rebecca van Bergen, Nest Founder and Executive Director

They say “it takes a village”, yet the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange proves that those working in communities so tiny they barely even count as a village can also play a vital role in the fashion world, be they from the central Pacific nation of Kiribati, which comprises 32 atolls and sits on the International Date Line, or, such bustling style centres as Lagos, Delhi and London.   Threading together artisans and designers from all around the globe ignites a new and truly international energy in fashion that has the empowerment of women at its core. We hear a lot about fashion’s footprint and, indeed, its negative impact on the planet. Now is the time to celebrate its handprint, and the positive role it can play.

Marion Hume is an international fashion journalist with a strong focus on sustainability. She has been drawing attention to the need for fashion to be ethical since she became Fashion Editor of The (UK) Independent in 1992. Since then, she has been contributing editor to titles including Vogue USA and TIME, has been editor of Vogue Australia and is the London-based, International Fashion Editor for AFR magazine, Australia. She served for five years as Senior Consultant to the UN ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. She is an ardent advocate to make fashion more fair.

Credits: Story

This content has been specifically curated for the Google Arts & Culture platform on behalf of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange exhibition that launched on the 19th of February at Buckingham Palace in partnership with Swarovski, The Woolmark Company and MATCHESFASHION.COM.

The project, created and managed by Eco-Age, with the support of The Commonwealth Fashion Council and The British Fashion Council.

More information about the images is available by clicking on them.
Read more about the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at http://eco-age.com/commonwealth-fashion-exchange/

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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