Few things are as satisfying as rocking a great look. That jacket that sits just right, those jeans that fit perfectly. We feel great when we look great. But with all of the fashionable options at our fingertips, it's easy to forget that everything in our closets, from that designer bag to the bargain t-shirt, are often manufactured by people who work under inhumane conditions.
Last night, Up-Fuse co-founders Rania Rafie and Yara Yassin were there to remind us by making a product launch with a difference.
As part of global Fashion Revolution Week of 18-24 April, Rafie and Yassin staged an event at ABn'G World in Zamalek, Cairo, responding to Fashion Revolution's global call to "... raise awareness of the true cost of fashion, show the world that change is possible, and celebrate all those involved in creating a more sustainable future." Last night, the Cairo-based social enterprise that promotes a sustainable and eco-conscious lifestyle invited a panel of fashion world luminaries who stand firmly with one foot at home in Egypt and with the other foot in the international fashion world.
Fashion Revolution is a UK-based non-profit organization that was conceived in the wake of a tragedy that occurred in 2013, when 1,134 people were killed and over 2,500 were injured in Bangladesh manufacturing clothes for global brands in unsafe conditions. Launching the hashtag #whomademyclothes, Fashion Revolution Week has flooded social media with pics of clothing labels, aiming to, "…bring people from all over the world together to use the power of fashion to change the story for the people who make the world’s clothes and accessories."
At ABn'G World, Up-Fuse's Spring/Summer 2016 collection of totes, backpacks, and cases shared the spotlight with invited speakers Deana Shabaan, Amina K., Ines Gohar, and Sherif Abdel Kader, who told the enthusiastic audience about their extensive experience in the world of fashion and its production, as seen through their eyes.
Fashion designer Deana Shaaban inaugurated her eponymous label in 2010. It leans toward the glamour and artistry of bespoke evening and wedding gowns and launches bi-annual prêt-à-porter collections. Why care about what happens behind the scenes when the spotlight looks so good? Because for Shaaban, it comes down to the, "… utter importance of respecting the intelligence of our clientele and the responsibility that brands have towards being honest with their customers."
Shaaban says that her brand is based around the belief that every woman is unique in her own right, and that the clothing that she wears should be true to that belief. And ethical clothing is part of the importance the brand places on transparency and honesty when communicating their products and services to their clients.
Talking about conditions of manufacture in Egypt, Yassin of Up-Fuse highlighted the many difficulties her young brand has faced in attempting an ethical model of production, especially when it comes to local crafting and dealing with local staff. Because Up-Fuse is firmly against importing, her objection to the current standards comes from a position of wanting to see things improve for everyone. "Manufacturing any goods in Egypt is a nightmare!" she said.
"Up-Fuse usually searches for materials that do not exist," continued Yassin, talking about the difficulties of sourcing fabrics in the chaotic fabric market at Attaba. This might seem like a small inconvenience overall, but it has real drawbacks when working with certain materials. "If you want something special, be sure it's all made in China, and it might take [a long time] for it to be delivered. Prices are not fixed at all and having bills for tax purposes is not easy as it sounds."
Yassin also described her experience in finding qualified staff to help her and Rafie with production. "In Up-Fuse's case, it's very hard to find or substitute workers. We are dealing with a new material that not everyone wants to work with, even if the money is better. Many people that we have met fear change. Laborers have a very high commitment issues and you never know when exactly your products will be finished. [...] Our workers live in slums [...]. Unfortunately labours usually face the added difficulty of not only hard work conditions, but also tough living conditions."
Knowing and experiencing all of this has led Yassin to a conclusion. "I believe that workers don't have time to love their jobs. No one has the appetite to be creative." She went on to explain that while most of their designs are conceived by Rafie and herself, the duo also encourages the artisans to bring in their sense of art and fashion, "… because we believe that if I tell you to do everything, then you are a slave. But instead, we really appreciate that people have a sense of creativity. Actually the ones that Rania [Rafie] and I make are totally different than the ones they come up with!"
Ines Gohar made a splash with her frank and honest presentation. This worldly fashion buyer for the high-end department store Beyman told the audience of the real reactions she gets when broaching the subject of conscious fashion in Egypt.
"My customers don't respond to it particularly well," she said. "It makes no difference to [the customers] how it was made, whether this [child laborer] goes to school [...] It's not that the product didn't match my customers, it's just that it makes no difference," she told the audience.
Highlighting how customer demand must lead the charge in fairer fashion, she noted how locally-made goods is still not a selling point to many of her customers. "Most of my Egyptian customers are more willing to pay for the same amount of work if it's American, or Italian, as opposed it to being Egyptian … but 'Made In Egypt' is actually not a good sales argument, strangely and sadly enough."
It's clear we have a long way to go. Rounding off the engaging evening with talks reaching from the intellectual to the heartfelt, across issues of design to implementation, what united them all was how much importance every speaker placed on acting responsibly with the precious resources they had access to, even in the most abstract sense: not just power, money and sway over the market, but also the trust of their clients and customers, the responsibility toward their laborers and staff, and, not least, their influence over the environment and the future of the planet.
Gohar concluded with a pensive comment that succinctly summed up the spirit of the event. "Let's advertise it, let's show that we are conscious of what’s happening and it will make a difference because at least we’re talking about it."
Image: Alexandra Stock