Fashion brands and designers from all over the world are increasingly building up partnership relationships with artisans groups, investing in their traditional skills and unique products. There are different ways in which such partnerships have been built and succeed on the market. Here is an essential review of the current trends in artisanal excellence.
This article focuses on:
- Business strategies – vertical integration, local sourcing & production, and collaborations with luxury brands
- Design approaches – designer overlook, artisan involvement and cultural melting-pot
- Investing in the future – sustainability, training and building capacity
Image credit: Bolo’no Mali
Business strategies – vertical integration, local sourcing & production, and collaborations with luxury brands
Different business strategies in the fashion industry have proven effective in promoting artisanal excellence. Here we introduce just a few of those that have contributed to the success of some of the most talented artisans groups from across the world:
1. Vertical integration
Vertical integration is a style of management control in which the supply chain is fully owned by a single owner. This model has proven successful especially for the low transaction costs and the high level of synchronization of supply and demand along the production process. Some of the suppliers that have adopted such a model are:
An Argentinian producer of organic cotton and llama, alpaca and merino wool garments, founded by Patagonian economist Adriana Marina. Its control on the supply chain begins with the sustainable breeding of South American camelids and ends with the refinement of their beautifully crafted products.
They provide services in weaving, knitting, spinning and tailoring and work with communities and people who inhabit Latin America’s under-developed region, providing them with sustainable work opportunities.
Founded in 1994 as a non-profit rehabilitation program founded by the Franciscan Sisters in Tirpur. Artisans specialised in the production of organic cotton garments for men, women and children. The efficiency of every operation in the production process is made possible by their vertically integrated infrastructure. From sourcing to garment production every step of the production is taken care of in-house, guaranteeing customers the strictest quality control.
A supplier of hand-woven “slow silk” from Thailand. Every single step of the production process is taken care of by the group of women employed by this organisation: they raise silkworms, extract silk from the cocoons, degum it, spin it, dye it, they set up the warp and finally weave and refine the product.
2. Local sourcing and production
‘Made in UK’ has been a hot topic across the fashion industry over the last year and much of this has been a focus on traditional British craftsmanship, from fibre production to textiles such as wool woollens, tweeds and more. Here are a few examples of suppliers producing in locally in the UK:
A British sustainable manufacturer specialising in weaving natural fibres – wool in particular – hand dyeing, use of natural dyes and various techniques that cannot be reproduced industrially. Alison finds inspiration for her colourful products in her beautiful local environment – the Peak District in Derbyshire.
A niche garment-manufacturing and pattern making unit, specialising in fine materials for womenswear. Owned and managed by Catharina Eden, Eden Studio provides exclusively UK production at a single site in South Wimbledon, and can guarantee that production will never be outsourced. Eden Studios clients include Allegra Hicks, Beautiful Soul, Dunhill London, Hermione de Paula and Ted Baker.
Founded in 2011 as a collaboration between Kate Millbank and Helen Foot to celebrate contemporary British design and craftsmanship. They specialise in the production of innovative tweed fabrics and tailored products. The primary material used in their tweed fabrics is UK produced wool. They are also developing relationships with other UK based textile professionals like yarn manufacturers, a local producer of peace silk fibres and a weaving mill.
3. Collaborating with luxury brands
The use of artisanal skills itself has recently became a trend, especially in the luxury fashion sector. ‘Hand-made’ has gained importance in the very same definition of luxury and increasingly more high fashion brands are sourcing products from skilled artisans all over the world. Illustrative examples of this trend are:
A non-profit organisation that has been providing jobs for craftswomen in Uruguay since 1968. They produce wool garments and yarn not only for their local market, but also for renowned clients like Chanel, Mulberry, Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney.
A cooperative of women specialising in the traditional crafts of weaving and knitting. They only use natural materials such as pashmina wool, tussar silk or nettle yarn and their dyes are made without any chemical additives: pink, red and orange are extracted from different flowers, brown and beige from seeds and buds, kaki and yellow from leaves, blue and brown from various roots, finally, purple, green and black come from nuts and bark.
Panchachuli specialises in fabrics for the middle to luxury markets and has worked with award-winning sustainable designer, Carrie Parry.
Producer of eco-friendly silk and cotton accessories, home décor and fabric. It was launched in 2007 by Alleson Kase and Ellen Agger to empower women in Thailand. They supply clients of the calibre of Stella McCartney.
Design approaches – designers take the lead, artisan involvement in design process and cultural melting-pot
When looking at artisanal production it’s always intriguing to look at how ancient techniques are reinvented to produce contemporary designs and to learn about the relative sources of inspiration. Here we look at how designers are collaborating with artisan groups and the organisations that are helping to bridge the gap between designers and artisans producers globally. These trends should be seen as forming a continuum along which suppliers fit differently rather than rigid, fixed categories.
1. Designers take the lead
In artisanal production it is essential to understand not only the market quality expectations, but also colour, design and style preferences. To comply with such requirements many suppliers collaborate with professional designers to get the products right:
A non-profit organisation committed to training artisans and developing their businesses all over the world. In order to match traditional craftwork and contemporary aesthetics, the organisation promotes collaborations between high end designers and artisans. In this way the creative directions of brands and the changing seasonal demands are satisfied. Their main project is a collaboration with luxury fashion label, Maiyet.
A fashion brand specialising in accessories made by Ugandan women artisans. Artisans work closely alongside an LA based stylist to produce accessories that match current trends so that their products marketability and quality is enhanced.
One Colour is the Australian distributor for Kenana Knitters, Kenya. Kenana Knitters is a women’s co-operative which produces homespun woollen toys, homewares and apparel in 100% organic wool. Working alongside fashion designer, Libby Anderson, One colour works to bring together Australian and African design and craftsmanship into unique, commercial fashion products.
An organisation committed to connecting the fashion industry and a global community of artisans in an effort to redefine the supply chain. They promote partnerships based on either fashion brands buying a social enterprise’s private line directly for their stores, or a co-brand/guest designer collaboration.
2. Artisan involvement in design process
Other suppliers prefer to give artisans more control over the design of their products and like the products to have a more traditional and characteristic look rather than matching seasonal trends these suppliers prefer to promote a specific culture’s aesthetics.
Johari collaborates with designers to create bespoke textiles for their collections using Johari’s Nairobi-based artisans. Designers have included: Aimee Kent, Julia Smith and Choolips.
A charity that was established in 2001. It specialises in the production of bags, baby products and lingerie. All products are crafted to the highest standards and the artisans are encouraged to develop their own creativity – each bag is named after the person who made it.
Creates bespoke Panama and felt hat designs and trims to specification, working with a Women’s Association in Ecuador. Products include: Fair Trade, hand-woven ribbons in several widths and designs for trimming hats or for use on other clothing and accessories. The ribbon colourways can be chosen to tie in with your collection. Alternatively, Pachacuti can trim hats with bespoke silk ribbon, made in the UK, or with Italian ribbons or even with fabric from a designer’s own collection to tie in with their clothing range.
Pachacuti works with a number of major brands to create private-label designs of Panama Hats and Felt Hats, including Club Monaco. Paul Smith, Brora, Cath Kidston, Goodwood, Highgrove, Johnstons of Elgin and many more.
A Venezuelan brand committed to celebrating cultural art forms, defending human rights and reducing their ecological footprint. Not only they use exclusively locally harvested materials like a tropical water lily, palm fibre and the tapara, a squash looking fruit, but their jewellery and accessories design also has a distinctly tropical feel.
Trading for Development combines ethical, fairtrade business practices with fashion to create wearable pieces for everyone. Working with small-scale suppliers all over the world, Tfd has facilitated brand collaborations with Topshop and Oxfam, combining the designs of the artisans with the unique aesthetic of each retailer.
An accessories brand showcasing African design. The brand works with artisans in Ethiopia, South Africa and Uganda. It was founded by Linda Lwanga to preserve the traditional techniques that she was afraid would disappear once her grandmother’s generation had passed away. Artisans are encouraged to contribute not only with their skills but with their creativity as well, actively participating in the design process.
3. Cultural melting-pot
Finally there is a mid-way design style that is that of trying to blend contemporary, urban tones to traditional and culturally distinctive ones, obtaining, as a result, unique original pieces whose look represents a cultural encounter.
Creates bespoke, sustainable textiles for interiors and couture. Products are created in cooperation both with British and foreign artisans. Their designs reveal their strong commitment to tradition but also a distinctive contemporary English touch. A brilliant example of the aesthetic cultural encounter between AO and its international partners can be found in the Shukuta project, done in cooperation with a group of artisan women from near Kolkata.
Bolo’no Mali is a charity based in Mali that puts together community and social projects and supporting local businesses. Promotes the ancestral art of Malian mud cloth Bogolan, Bolo’no Mali specialises in printed cotton fabrics, hand-dyed and using traditional techniques and designs for the beautiful, unique patterns.
Works with artisans from riverside communities in Brazil. Its founder Zel Albuquerque’s background combines experience of Brazil, Italy, Spain and the UK, and results in a particular passion for cultural mix. The company’s commitment to ethical production assures that the final design of the products reflects the work of both their highly qualified designers and their highly skilled craftsmen.
Founded in 1999 by Mark and Shari Keller with the purpose of developing a collaborative relationship with the Jaipur community of artisans. They specialise in womenswear and indigenous and couturier design techniques like pin-tucking, pleating, crinkling and hand quilting and beading. The use of these various techniques results in a style that reflects the encounter between cultures, ideas and histories.
Investing in the future – sustainability, training and building capacity
Working with highly skilled artisans, suppliers need to find the best opportunities for investments that at the same time allow them to maintain their business ethical. Generally, the baseline for suppliers that want to be labelled ‘ethical’ is to guarantee fair pay and working conditions. But is there more that can be done to improve a business impact on society while still keeping it profitable? Here are few trends that seem to have positively benefitted suppliers, their employees and partners, and the environment in which they work at the same time.
1. Training and capacity building
‘Skilling-up’ has proven to be a great opportunity for investment. Unsurprisingly, skill-training programs are widely spread as a complementary practice to the business development as they improve both the quality of the production and the ability of the craftsmen to provide for themselves and their families.
Produces fair-trade clothing for men, women, children and babies. It was founded in 1999 by Frances Carrington who started this enterprise with only 3 tailors. Slowly the tailoring unit grew as ex-political prisoners were trained. Since 2005 the Himalaya Tailoring Centre was opened to upscale production. Here trainee tailors are ensured a fair minimum wage and free training schemes in English, computers and specialised tailoring techniques are offered to the employees.
A brand owned by Oasis, produces accessories, jewellery, and children and womenswear. Their ethics is based on community empowerment through training: Jacobs Well employs women from the Bangalore slum community, who have been trained by the Oasis tailoring training program or by other local skilled tailors and artisans. Moreover, the women are provided with further in-house training.
A voluntary association collaborating with a cooperative of artisans from the Kumaon region in India. They produce beautiful hand-made wool and silk textiles and garments. Their mission is to develop sustainable livelihoods for those living in the remote central Himalayan region to give them an alternative to migration into urban areas. To develop such livelihood programs they provide health and education services and training and capacity building for dissemination.
2. Sustainability Research & Development
From recycled materials, to organic fabrics and dyes the range of eco-friendly products that can be used in the fashion industry is growing constantly. Here are a few examples of suppliers employing these practices:
India-based Moral Fibre specialises in handspun, handwoven, lower carbon fabrics, using almost no electricity and no harmful chemicals. Using the cradle-to-cradle approach, Moral Fibres offers cotton, silk, wool, blends and organic cotton in a wide range of textures and weights, from whites and neutrals to soft colours using natural dyes and printed patterns. Moral Fibre is also using natural dyes and traditional production techniques, is employing cooperatives mainly women-run and is investing in R&D in order to improve its sustainability agenda.