Why Fashion Brands Are Working With Artisan Entrepreneurs in Developing Countries

When it’s done right, it can change lives-- and benefit the brand.
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When it’s done right, it can change lives-- and benefit the brand.

Erica Domesek, founder of DIY site P.S.- I Made This, partners with fashion and lifestyle brands to create crafting kits on a regular basis. (In the past, she’s collaborated with everyone from Splendid to Swarovski.) But each year, she also sets a goal for herself to create at least one major “give back” product. “Doing well by doing good,” is how she puts it.

For 2014, Domesek connected with Indego Africa, a nonprofit that partners with women-run artisan cooperatives in Rwanda to help them build profitable business. The #PSxIndegoAfrica collection of limited-edition patches — $45 for a set of two — are available to purchase on Shop.indegoafrica.org. (Visit Domesek’s own url, and you’ll find tutorials on how to use the patches -- which were hand-embroidered in Rwanda -- to craft a necklace or embellish a clutch.) The profits generated by the collaboration will help fund job-skill training programs — like business management, technology and English literacy — for Indego’s artisan partners. Domesek, who visited six cooperatives in Rwanda earlier this summer, lectured on entrepreneurship to a class of artisans.

Hand-embroidered #PSxIndegoAfrica patches in progress. Photo: Photo: P.S. I Made This

Hand-embroidered #PSxIndegoAfrica patches in progress. Photo: Photo: P.S. I Made This

“It wasn’t just about the handmade goods,” Domesek says of why she teamed up with Indego. “It’s the fact that they’re getting training in entrepreneurship— the education.” When the Indego Africa first started gathering data on its cooperatives in 2008, most of the artisans were using income to cover the basics: food, electricity and housing security. Now, many of the artisans are making enough to pay for their children's school foods, make home improvements, invest in livestock and even launch new businesses.

P.S.- I Made This isn’t a fashion brand in the traditional sense, but Indego works with plenty. In the past, the non-profit has collaborated with Anthropologie on loop scarves, J.Crew on cloth wrap bracelets and Nicole Miller on printed shorts. And it’s just one of several non-profits that are partnering with apparel and home goods retailers to create products that support entrepreneurs in developing countries. Since 2005, Kate Spade New York has worked with Women for Women International on accessories knitted by groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Rwanda. EDUN, founded by Bono and Ali Hewson in 2005 and backed by LVMH since 2009, has been working with artisans since the beginning and currently produces 85 percent of its collection in sub-Saharan Africa. And West Elm recently announced that it was collaborating with more than 20 artisan groups in 15 countries, which it estimates will impact the lives of 4,500 workers and 18,000 family members. (It's worth mentioning that this stuff doesn't tend to be schlocky: in general, it's beautifully made product that also has an upscale edge. The kinds of things consumers would want to buy regardless of the mission.) 

There are dozens more examples of brands eager to tap the talents of artisans in developing countries. But there are probably even more companies — many not for profit — eager to be the liaison between the artisans and the labels. Along with Indego Africa, which was founded in 2007, there’s Women for Women International —founded in 1993 — as well as the Bootstrap Project, co-founded in 2011 by Maxine Bedat. Zady, the e-commerce site which Bedat cofounded in 2013, often sells products from Bootstrap Project artisans. Many of these groups connect artisans with brands, but they also often sell products on their own sites. One startup, Soko, is sort of like an Etsy for artisans. The company gives makers the tools to easily sell their goods via Shopsoko.com. (The goods are shipped from Soko's offices in Nairobi, Kenya.)

The most robust fashion-artisan partnership, though, has to be between Maiyet and Nest, an independent non-profit that the luxury brand has been working with since its founding in 2010. Nest identifies artisan groups that have strong leadership and the potential to scale, then works with them to do just that.

“It’s really trying to give them the tools to stand on their own two feet, not to support [them] indefinitely,” says Maiyet cofounder Kristy Caylor, who is also its president and creative director.

For instance, Caylor works with weavers in Varanasi, India— to whom she was introduced by Nest four years ago— to create new silks each season, addressing challenges with production as they arise. Early on, Caylor found too many inconsistencies with the fabric. Nest and Maiyet sent in a master weaver to assess the situation, determining that because the women were working from their homes — which are typically not climate controlled — the material was often altered or damaged. Much of the group — made up of both Hindu and Muslim weavers — are about to begin working out of a David Adjaye-designed building that will allow them to efficiently produce silks that Maiyet can use for an entire collection's worth of orders. Along with consistency, it's also important to Caylor that the fabrics are “fresh and exciting season after season,” which means pushing these craftspeople to think in non-traditional ways, either in terms of color or design. Working with the same group year after year is equally as crucial. “We want to have a sustainable social impact, to create sustainable employment opportunities," Caylor says.

Indeed, one of the downsides to many of these projects are that they aren’t longterm. While an artisan group might benefit from a big order from a single retailer one season, they’re often abandoned the next. Bedat, who has worked with artisans in Tajikistan for several years, says that like Nest, the Bootstrap Project aims to help these groups build longterm partnerships -- and more than one partnership at a time. “We team up with local micro-financing or women’s organizations so that these women get the training to develop a market for their product [beyond one order],” she says. “We want to help create sustainable jobs.” Bootstrap's profits go toward education that addresses things like basic budgeting and the pricing of products. (Many of these women underprice their work.) West Elm, which has done one-off projects in the past with groups like South Africa’s Wola Nani Crafts, has pledged that it will make three to five-year commitments with each of the 20 artisan groups with whom it’s currently partnering.

And that’s why education is such an important element of Indego Africa, which does many one-off collaborations. While orders offer short-term income, the group is cognizant that it's not a long-term answer. “It’s definitely one of our biggest challenges— it’s hard to say no to a big order,” says Deirdre King, the non profit’s creative director. “But education allows them to grow in the right way.” Indego works with artisan groups in diversifying their client lists, and it's relaunching its education program this fall to offer even more classes. 

To be sure, these brand-artisan partnerships are good for both sides: new businesses are blossoming in developing countries, and brands benefit from the halo effect that brings. But the real winner might be the consumer. “It’s really about storytelling,” says Domesek. “It brings meaning — whether it’s a necklace or a dress — to an already beautiful object.” 

Erica Domesek jumps for a group shot with the Rwandan women who hand-embroidered patches for her partnership with Indego Africa. Photo: P.S. I Made This

Erica Domesek jumps for a group shot with the Rwandan women who hand-embroidered patches for her partnership with Indego Africa. Photo: P.S. I Made This

Lead photo: P.S. I Made This