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Adventures in Fair Trade Fashion

View from the top! Broadway and Herald Square, June 2012

A view from the top! From my last job, building located on Broadway and overlooking Herald Square, June 2012

After 12 years of apparel industry experience in NY and Philadelphia working for a number of brands from Levis & Dockers to Donna Karan,  fashion has been quite the eye opening experience for me.  Gone is naive idealism of a fashion student erased by the real-life, cut-throat world of the industry.  One of the things that began to bother me about the industry was the rampant inequity of the system.  Although the fair trade movement has been going on since the 1960’s, as far as ethical fashion it has been developing slowly through the past 20 years. I really became more interested in fair trade fashion around 2007 when I was working for Levis Dockers.  I had read about how some of their overseas manufacturers were scrutinized for their labor practices. That’s when I started obsessively researching fair trade fashion brands and what they do, and how they were different.

Lucky Breaks

There were 2 very fortunate incidents that occurred around this time, that helped to solidify this new path in conscious fashion, working at Donna Karan’s private line for the Urban Zen foundation and also volunteering with Sewing Hope, a project of the non-profit Fount of Mercy.

Photo courtesy of Sewing Hope

Photo courtesy of Sewing Hope

The Sewing Hope project was the Sewing and Tailoring training programs of Fount of Mercy that worked with local East African organizations, building their capacity to provide educational and vocational opportunities for their communities’ vulnerable.  One of the the keys to helping countries industrialize begins with the women and the grass roots cottage industry of the garment trade. Teaching women how to sew, so they are able to start their own businesses and earn money to support their children and create clothing for every member of their family.

Left to right: Designer Celestino, Model Jaslene G, Designer Rachel Gregory, Model Kim Tank, Designer Andrey Oshlykov.  Photos by Theodore Samuel

Left to right; Designer: Celestino, Model Jaslene Gonzalez, Designer: Rachel Gregory, Model Kim Tank, Designer: Emmet McCarthy, Model: Irina Roma. Photos by Theodore Samuel

I volunteered to be there event coordinator for their annual fashion show fundraisers, with all the proceeds of the event going directly back to the Sewing and Tailoring program in Uganda.  Everyone involved with the event were all volunteers; designers, models, hair and make-up, DJ’s , sound, lighting and photographers.  In the three years of helping to produce their annual shows, we were able to raise over $22,000.

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Donna’s mission at Urban Zen was to create a “Soulful Economy, which means conscious consumerism, social responsibility and giving back. The Urban Zen Foundation creates, connects and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children in mind, body and spirit. ”  I was at a place where all the hard work and long hours meant something more then just a paycheck,  and I worked alongside a fantastically driven team and an icon.

Be the Change

Two years ago I moved to Madison, WI with my husband and was thrilled to pick up a part-time position at a fantastic fair trade fashion boutique on Willy St. When I started working with Nikki at Change Boutique, I was super excited to finally have found a perfect alignment for my fashion background and my philanthropic desires.  In the past year we have been working on developing our own pieces and I have had my first taste of researching and developing products in a fair trade capacity.

I have learned a lot about ethical sourcing and manufacturing through this process and am continuing to learn more about it.  Since I’ve started working directly with fair trade, friends of mine in the NYC industry were quick to ask specifics about what fair trade really means.  It turns out that although there is very clear idealism behind the concept, clearly defining it is not as simple.  In posts in the following months,  I will share what I have learned and my ongoing exploits in producing fair trade & sustainable fashion locally and worldwide.