ColumnExploring fair trade firsthand.
Fair trade fashion is fashion with meaning, fashion that was created with respect for people and planet. It undeniably has the “moral and just” ring to it, but what does it actually mean? Being inside this industry – talking the ethical fashion talk – can at times lead to a disconnect from what a fair fashion framework actually translates to in the reality of its production.
When it comes to sourcing fabrics, creating garments, and inserting them into the marketplace as competitive and fashionable commodities, getting in on the sourcing journey is integral to a better understanding of the truths behind this mentality. Based here in Ghana for the month, I’m on an eye-opening adventure with Brooklyn-based fashion label Afia. Along this fabric sourcing and production journey, I’ve shared some of the stories that remind me of why “make fashion fair” is my mantra.
Designs Done Right
The fabrics are where it’s at for designer Meghan Sebold who has always fed her self-proclaimed “utilitarian creativity” by styling and altering clothing. For Sebold, “Fashion as art has a practicality to it because clothing is a basic need (or maybe that’s how I excuse myself from being attached to material things). I can look at a painting hanging on my wall and that’s well and good, but it’s more satisfying to me that I can use this shirt every day as something functional and still have created it in a visually pleasing way.” Her fashion label Afia merges a collection of all of her favorite things: challenging comfort zones and norms, intuitive living, predicting trends, fusing worlds, and making a process personal.
Into The Textiles
Sebold’s sourcing expedition begins in the hot, hectic and cacophonous markets of Accra, Ghana. Maneuvering in and out of tiny shops that contain fabric stacks as high as the ceiling, finding the true Ghanaian-made cotton wax prints is something Sebold explains as not as simple as you would expect. “There are many imitations so we’re well-educated on which brands are authentic. New fabric styles are printed every month and when they’ve sold out in the market you may never see them again – that means every one of our pieces is limited edition and a collector’s item after the season is over.”
A continual cultural experience, Sebold selects design silhouettes that honor the textiles; “the fabric is really the main event, I just enhance it and make it wearable.”
Making one-of-a-kind pieces that you can covet, but also feasibly afford is something Sebold feels strongly about. The focus of every Afia collection is, “To make it as accessible as possible. Sustainable fashion shouldn’t be a luxury or a sacrifice of personal style.” And wearing that motto on her sleeve goes hand-in-hand with the recurring feeling she attaches to her collections: a sense of humor.
“Humor is the most essential quality to survival. If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I would be curled up in a fetal position in a stairwell,” says Sebold.
Women to Women
Once Afia’s designs and patterns are agreed upon, the next step is traveling to Kpando, a smaller town where Sebold does a large portion of her production. After a 4-hour ride into the countryside, packed into a tro tro (Ghana’s most typical form of transport, which is basically a mini bus), the Afia team arrives at Dzidefo, a women’s sewing cooperative, that sits atop an orphanage managed by the lovely Mama Esi. Mobbed and overwhelmed by the energy and enthusiasm of the children that live there, moments were quickly made that warmed our hearts and left footprints on our souls.
An intimate group of seven local women from the community make up the sewing cooperative. From the early rooster call to the rustle of fabric to a baby’s morning cry, these sounds all set the stage for each day’s first stitch from their vintage Singers. The women, with their babies or little ones, bring a homey, relaxed dynamic to the sunlit work environment.
“Collaboration is what it’s all about – but it also takes a lot of navigating and communication to make it a collaboration where people willingly and generously contribute their talents. The process can be uncomfortable at times, but I think that’s how you know you’re onto something. The mindset must be that the teaching and learning goes both ways.” For Sebold, listening and sharing is the way forward in creating beautiful garments together. Working with the women at Dzidefo is both challenging and fulfilling, but connecting across cultural and language barriers provides motivation for both Sebold and the women sewers to learn more from each other and create more gorgeous garments together.
Fashion For The Future
The constant thread woven throughout all of Afia’s work is to showcase how incredibly interconnected we are to people around the world. Sebold explains, “As it relates to fashion, there’s a huge disconnect between the producer and the consumer, mostly because there’s an ugly story behind the $20 shirt being sold to you. I believe in transparency on all levels, and offer Afia to consumers as a stylish and ethically-made option.”
While Afia is just a needle in the hay stack when it comes to fashion brands today, Sebold and her team are stitching a distinct respect, human dignity, and understanding into the composition of their fabrics. This positive, inspiring energy is contagious; its viral potential will always resurface to the forefront of my mind through traveling and exposure to new faces and places.