Style Conscience

As the international fashion world goes increasingly ‘ethical,’ it was only a matter of time before the concept filtered to Pakistan. While there have been numerous ongoing initiatives of this nature, with groups like APWA, Behbood and Shirkat Gah to name a few, employing women from depressed areas to create fabric and clothing for sale at exhibitions and assorted outlets, with the proceeds going back to their communities, the new age fashion ethic has taken this many steps further.

We saw not-for-profit brand Polly and Me employing artisans in Chitral, helping them earn a living by marketing the bags they created both at home and abroad, simulataneously showcasing their talent to the world. Zainab Ulmulk and Nadia Malik create Krizmah bags to lend a hand to the women in Chitral, while at the same time displaying the traditional culture of the region through the life stories the women weave into the bags. And more recently, Bags for Bliss and Inaaya have come to life, purporting a similar motivation.

Last month I met with Ayesha Mustafa, founder of ethical fashion house, Fashion ComPassion (FC) to learn more about ethical fashion. A business-savvy, socially conscious, fashion-lover, Mustafa turned her dream to make fashion more responsible and simultaneously help change lives into reality with the launch of her retail company, Fashion ComPassion in 2010. The luxury brand retail house, selling a variety of labels manufactured by assorted ethical fashion groups, received a positive response at inception, and soon became a favourite among fashionistas with a conscience. Currently the fashion house is a part of Vogue’s green carpet initiative and several of the items available through its online retail store can be seen worn by the British activist and ethically-minded designer, Livia Firth.

Mustafa explains that the most important aspect of this venture was to ensure that while the workers would benefit from the sales proceeds the company would not be a not-for-profit initiative, where quality is often the last consideration and sales are dependent on “pity-buying.” She wanted to help provide a platform for high quality luxury brands, which also happen to be ‘ethically’ produced and worn by stylish women everywhere simply because they love them.

Mustafa is in a lot of ways far more than just a retailer for these brands. She has contributed towards several of the design elements for brands such as Palestyle. “I know the market and I know what trends people are following. Hence, as a retailer I guide the brand and help them in choosing colours and designs that I know will sell,” she says.

Palestyle has become one of the highest-selling brands of FC. The brand infuses Palestinian embroidery and Arabic calligraphy in its creations. All the products by the brand are created by Palestinian refugee women in need of employment, and a percentage of the sales goes directly back to these women. Among the brand’s most coveted items are their patent leather clutches in bold colours with eye-catching gold-plated calligraphy plaques that display various messages such as ‘charming as the moon’ or ‘magic are your eyes.’

Another growing favourite among fashionistas are clothes, bags and accessories sold under the name of Bhalo – an eco-friendly label that creates its pieces using natural dyes and all of the brand’s items are hand-woven. The brand employs women in rural Bangladesh and is dedicated to providing them with better working conditions.

The latest brand to have become a part of the socially responsible fashion house is Sougha, which was established with the help of the UAE-based Khalifa Foundation. The brand helps provide employment for Emirati artisans. Initially, when the brand did not have a designer, Mustafa helped come up with several ideas that later became the key pieces of their collection.

One of the most popular pieces on their online retail site, Mustafa tells me, is the ‘Burqa dress’ by Beshtar. Beshtar is exclusively hand-crafted by artisans in Afghanistan and means ‘more’ in Afghan Persian. Ironically, the burqa, which happens to be the mandatory dress code for the women of Afghanistan, is a source of inspiration for these daring dresses and makes for a curious juxtaposition. An amused Mustafa reveals, “I like the fact that the women creating these dresses actually wear burqas themselves, but to them it is just a way of life. They find it completely hilarious that they are being made into short dresses, and western women are wearing them and loving them.”

Fashion ComPassion is highly stringent in its selection of the ethical brands sold by it. Currently the fashion house stocks seven different ethically created fashion brands, but Mustafa informs me that not every brand interested in stocking with them makes the cut: “I need to be very vigilant in terms of ensuring how these brands are socially conscious; what kind of an effort they have made to help their employees and what kind of an effort have they made to give back. The selection is made on the basis of whether they are paying them justly and in what other ways beyond that are they helping improve the quality of their lives – i.e do they provide them with training as well as health and childcare benefits? Several brands approach me but I can’t have every single one latching on.”

A percentage of the profits made by FC have so far been donated to various charitable causes it supports. These include the British charity Oxfam and the Pakistani NGO The Citizen’s Foundation. Recently, Mustafa has formed a potentially auspicious partnership with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Mustafa, with the help of the WFP, will help empower women in areas such as rural Pakistan by enabling them to start their own businesses.

As of this month, thanks to Mustafa, brands such as Palestyle and Sougha will be available at Ensemble in Karachi. Soon after, she tells me, she plans on expanding further and making them available to consumers in Lahore as well as Islamabad. She explains, “there’s a gap in the Pakistani market for good quality accessories. Also, when people look at the wares knowing that they are created in socially responsible conditions and are beautiful to boot, then I think it might bring about a change in mindsets as well.”

Mustafa believes that as a Pakistani it is imperative that she helps local artisans. “I am Pakistani after all and if I’m working with brands from Palestine, India and, even Lebanon and Cambodia, then why not Pakistan? I think there is definitely an awareness about this over here. There should be a platform for artisans here in Pakistan and I want Fashion Compassion to be that platform,” she says.

Published in Newsline Magazine, October, 2012.

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