There are lots of ways to interpret the word fashion. It is not wordplay, or a cliché that can mean everything and yet nothing. And here to teach us, we who live in and even off this world, so bright and self-styled as well as complex and multi-faceted, is Simone Cipriani, founder and director of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. It is the flagship project of the International Trade Centre, the agency under the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, which links the greatest talents of international fashion with small artisans – particularly women – from East and West Africa, from Haiti and the territories of the West Bank. Operating since 2009, the programme enables the artisans who live in rural and urban poverty to make contact with the international fashion supply chain. Ethical Fashion Initiative also allows up-and-coming talent in African fashion to increase creative and sustainable alliances with local artisans, in keeping with their scope of production.
With its slogan, “NOT CHARITY, JUST WORK” Ethical Fashion Initiative fights for fairer fashion industry.
“Sustainable fashion is FASHION, which is a beautiful thing, inside and out”, states Cipriani. Something we often forget. Because fashion is made of culture and before that of people, with their stories, passions and ambitions. With their traditions and hard work.
Simone, Vivienne Westwood said “it’s quite incredible to think that we might save the world through fashion.” Do you really think it’s possible to “save the world” through fashion?
Providing regular and dignified working condition helps reducing inequalities, poverty and conflict. Truly fair and just societies should be able to provide fair working conditions and therefore when the fashion value chain is provides work, it also contributes to creating a better world. The fashion industry doesn't always do this: too often it ignores the realities of unethical work and exploitation in its value chain. Engagements like that of Vivienne Westwood are quite uncommon and therefore highly commendable.
What does ethical fashion mean to you?
To me, it’s people first. Ethical Fashion is fashion whereby the value chain offers dignified work conditions for the people involved. Fashion that cares and measures its impact on people and on the planet. Fashion that brings the human dimension back into its equation, by working with artisans who are happy and proud of their work. Fashion that offers products with a measurable and positive story behind it.
How did the idea of the Ethical Fashion Initiative come about?
After leaving the industry to join the UN in Africa, I met a missionary who was working in a slum of Nairobi, helping people to create their own work through cooperatives. He made me discover the power of African artisans and taught me to work with them in very marginalized conditions. I knew the sector of fashion, from which I came and I was aware of the desire of consumers to access more authentic fashion. I drew a business and development plan based on these factors and I launched a pilot, with the endorsement of the UN.
What is one goal that you would like to reach soon through the work of the EFI? And what goals did you set yourself when you came up with this initiative?
I would like to launch a full-fledged ethical fashion brand. This has been the goal from the very beginning.
Tell us about your work, your travels and the people you meet in the field... Based on your experience, which are the most interesting aspects of your work?
People and their cultures. While I am answering these questions, I am in Ethiopia sharing a meal with artisans specialized in cutting and stitching leather. We speak about our work, I hear their stories, some of them invite me to their homes. I used to sleep in houses of some African artisans, in humble houses or shacks, where I have always found an incredible humanity. I see the world of today in a different way, more positive, notwithstanding all conflicts and absurdities that surround us. I see the potential of the human factor, I see also how it is too often ignored by big players (governments, agencies, big companies). I read the world of today from another perspective.
When we speak of sustainable fashion, we always think about an ideal concept, not practical and very often not particularly business-oriented. What do you think about that?
Sustainable fashion is fashion that is beautiful inside and outside: products that are skillfully made, that last and that have a positive impact on people and on communities where they are produced. It is about good business and about involving consumers in a new way in it. In the age of social media this means everything.
What do you expect from the participation of 4 designers with “Constellation Africa” at PittiUomo? Why did you choose these 4 emerging talents?
I expect sales of their products and thus, work to come back to Africa. We aim at strengthening the African fashion sector also in African markets. We chose them with an expert talent scout because they demonstrated a strong potential of growth and their designs are innovative and beautiful.