Fashioning SustainabilityWith Style
Photo: Sougha Designer Training Emirati Artisan Saima Al Mansoori
Ayesha Mustafa, Founder and Director, Fashion ComPassion
Fashion ComPassion was created as a retail platform for socially responsible fashion labels. Through a combination of online sales and distribution, pop-up shops and boutique exhibitions, a global marketplace is given access to the brands we work with and, in the process, contributes to the empowerment of the women artisans.
Fashion ComPassion is living proof that a fair business model which combines social entrepreneurship with profit generation can showcase fabulous fashion brands with strong social mandates, often with spectacular results. Beshtar’s burqa dress, memorably worn by Livia Firth, became part of Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge, helping the brand gain worldwide recognition. Palestyle, too received an incredible boost when it was showcased at the British Museum.
Thanks to the support of conscientious, fashion-savvy clientele worldwide, we are now celebrating our second anniversary.
As an Ethical Fashion Forum Fellow, I’ve seen how socially responsible fashion has become a world phenomena, synonymous with cutting edge fashion demonstrating their support for improving lives and promoting sustainability. Each day brings with it new opportunities and renewed inspiration.
I founded the company based on the beliefs that people ought to have the right to earn an independent livelihood instead of relying on charity, and to be given the right opportunities to develop their skills and excel in their fields. I’ve been lucky—I’ve managed to fuse my passions for fashion and business with my social calling, ingrained since my days interning at Grameen Bank at the age of 16.
Last month, I launched Fashion ComPassion in Pakistan, my country of origin. My challenge in spotlighting socially responsible high-end fashion met with a very encouraging response. We’ve introduced Nawa, Palestyle and Sougha to upscale retailers Ensemble, LÁtelier and Labels’ e-store, creating a new market that translates into further sales for the betterment of the artisans. Nawa works with women in underprivileged areas like Haret El Naameh and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; all net profits are equally divided to benefit the community and the UN Food Programme. Palestyle fuses traditional Arabic embroidery skills with contemporary trends, empowering Palestinian women in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan to generate an income and a sense of achievement; a percentage of sales go towards social projects for refugees. Sougha is a social enterprise by the Khalifa Fund in Abu Dhabi that empowers Emirati women artisans by offering skill training and employment; the handcrafted collection includes biodegradable local leather embellished with ancient Talli, Badla, Sheera and Sadou weaves.
I’m also working with the United Nations WFP in Pakistan by contributing a percentage of all sales towards the Livelihood for Work Programme, funding the training for women entrepreneurs along with meals to sustain their households.
In all sincerity, a country like Pakistan provides inspiration on so many levels to the international marketplace, to entrepreneurs, to artisans and to designers. With just the right mix of entrepreneurship, an intelligent utilization of resources, the development of skills and increased awareness, there is significant potential—all under the aegis of socially responsible fashion.
Pakistani couturiers rely heavily on intricate hand embroidered techniques and there is a wealth of indigenous artisanry despite minimal interest from international quarters. I would like to help create links between the fashion world and highly skilled women artisans, with emphasis on fair wages, healthcare and education, and to provide a platform for its high quality workmanship.
The ITC’s admirable endeavours in East Africa with topnotch designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood would also work well in Pakistan. As a developing nation, Pakistan faces crippling social problems, with women figuring on the low end of the spectrum. Finding ways to empower them within their social norms and utilizing their skills is truly the way forward. We’ve all seen that every step taken is a way towards alleviating the confines of poverty and a lack of opportunities. It’s time to make this a reality.
The fashion industry within Pakistan would also benefit from guidance to ensure fair practices that benefit communities, as do well-meaning social benefactors—the element of pity buying doesn’t help local handicrafts thrive in a competitive marketplace. But when design aesthetics are innovative and rank high with consumers, socially responsible businesses can compete as commercial enterprises while uplifting their communities.
We work with brands and help them achieve phenomenal goals. Lost City employs artisans from Lucknow, India, reviving their crafts inherited from the Mughal era in embroidering scarves and home textiles for international consumers. In addition to fair pay and annual benefits, artisans receive access to healthcare and education. At Beshtar, traditional Afghan embroidery and fabrics are used to create contemporary styles, with the bulk of profits reinvested into social organizations that provide education and vocational training for Afghan women and children.
The process of selecting the right partner is long and detailed and involves surveying the market and meeting with various NGO and collectives that work with women. The skill set is there as is the willingness. The major challenge that presents itself is the lack of guidance in terms of design, fashion trends, quality control and consistency. Design assistance is required, whether it’s from trained designers or recent fashion school graduates.
My aim is to create an initiative that will advance socially responsible fashion by matching designers to groups of women artisans to help create collections that can be sold in local and international markets.
As a company and a resource, Fashion ComPassion can facilitate this, whether it’s in Pakistan or around the world.
There’s no logical reason why fashion can’t be luxurious, profitable and socially responsible at the same time; I personally believe that to succeed, one has to take everyone along for the ride. As an entrepreneur, you need to make sure that success can be achieved for everyone that works with you for it to be truly sustainable.
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