No matter where you looked, who you talked to, or how instantly devoted you felt to that high-waisted Rujuta Sheth white culotte jumpsuit, Saturday night’s 2nd Annual Fair Trade Fashion Show in downtown Los Angeles was all about feeling good, learning more, and changing for the better the stories told by what we wear.
Hosted by Sica Schmitz of ethical boutique Bead & Reel and Katie Bond of nonprofit org The Peace Exchange, the evening celebrated fair trade fashion as a tool for connecting and empowering women, with all proceeds going toward The Peace Exchange’s nonprofit sewing centers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“There are a lot of misconceptions around fair trade fashion,” Schmitz told Vilda. “It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find, it’s not stylish, it’s only about coffee. Since fashion shows are usually viewed as glamorous and exciting, I really wanted to combine those positive feelings with fair trade and the side that we don’t often see, which is the modern, sophisticated, accessible and wearable version that we offer at Bead & Reel.”
As the hot LA day turned into a cool evening, guests filled the beautiful new Cross Campus facility on Wilshire, checking out artisan-made wares on display around the room and mingling over fair trade organic wine from Stellar Winery, local craft beer from Angel City Brewery, organic plant-based small bites from Golden Mean Café, and Sol Natural Goods Macaccino. Need we say yum? (Yum.)
International model and founder of Passion for Motherland Lisette Mibo took to the stage in a stunning dress by London’s The Klassics to warmly welcome everyone to the event. Throughout the evening, Mibo emphasized the importance of positivity and community to the fair trade fashion movement, inviting everyone to work together to explore new ways to use fashion to empower ourselves and others. Sign us up, please!
“It is such an honor to be involved with this show,” Mibo told Vilda before the evening got underway. “The world is full of good people. Events like this let them know that they are not alone, that many of us feel the same and that—together—we can make a real difference in the lives of millions.”
Schmitz echoed this hopeful sentiment: “At the Fair Trade Fashion Show and at Bead & Reel every day, my goal is to create a community of inclusion, information, and action. We are bringing together such a diverse group—those focused on fashion, those focused on Congo, those focused on fair trade, or veganism, or human rights. I want to show that we really can care about all of it—and that there are solutions to all of it—if we do it together.”
A welcoming, change-making spirit also infused director Andrew Morgan’s speech as he, introduced by UnReal actress Breeda Wool, accepted via Skype an award for his documentary film The True Cost, which invites viewers to consider the human and environmental costs of our clothing.
“I believe the best story wins,” Morgan told Vilda. “Every time. For so long now people have been sold a worn out narrative teaching them to see themselves as consumers. That story has left so much of the world and so many of us unwell and left itself vulnerable to a new bigger, brighter, bolder story where we see ourselves for what we actually are, human beings.”
If that doesn’t get you excited about fair trade fashion, here—have a steaming hot Macaccino and a slice of vegan pizza, and let us tell you about the panel discussion and fashion show.
As guests settled into their seats, a diverse group of panelists—including human and animal rights advocate Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, Sam Bills (Executive Manager, Ten Thousand Villages), Elizabeth Cline (author of Overdressed), Congolese activists Elisabeth Kadesi (CEO, We Are The Voice) and Nina Francisco (Global Ambassador for Empowering a Billion Women by 2020), and Paul Freedman (director of Merci Congo)—gathered on stage to take questions from Mibo. Each told stories both personal and professional that spoke to the vulnerability of women and girls in the Congo and illuminated how fair trade has helped empower marginalized individuals and communities all over the world.
“The most valuable resource in Congo is completely marginalized,” said Freedman, eliciting applause from the audience as he described how women and girls suffer under an “utterly patriarchal system” that forces them into positions of subservience and economic dependence.
Fair trade fashion returns freedom and choice to women, strengthening their communities as a result. It also, as Cline told Vilda, benefits humanity as a whole: “Fashion is moving toward mostly crude, low quality, basic apparel that has no roots in culture or history. The preservation of craft and tradition is such a hugely important project for the human species, as well as for protecting the livelihoods of artisans.”
Panelists encouraged guests to become involved in the fair trade fashion movement in ways that resonate and intersect with other causes that are important to them: veganism and animal rights, for example. As Dr. Ferdowsian emphasized, “There is important common ground occupied by those working on behalf of people and animals—both because of the shared potential for suffering and because many solutions to successfully combat domination, violence, and abuse are universal. We have to lift vulnerabilities rather than deepening them.”
Francisco articulated a view that seemed to be shared by everyone on stage and in the audience: “Nothing excites me more than knowing that there are individuals who are finding potential solutions to economic, political, and social problems that affect women worldwide.”
We’ll admit we got a little teary-eyed when Schmitz, introducing the real highlight of the evening—the fashion show itself—talked about how some of the models were concerned about the suitability of various aspects of their appearance. One woman said she didn’t usually shave but would do so if Schmitz wanted her to. One woman asked if Schmitz wanted her to straighten her hair because she usually wears it naturally in an Afro. Schmitz told them she didn’t want them to change a thing. “I never want fashion to ask you to compromise your values.”
That is precisely the philosophy that made the fashion show so exciting and empowering to watch. You could gaze longingly at, say, a summery Sevya hand-embroidered Karishma cotton tunic and Catrinka Project cotton beach bag and know that in wearing them to Hermosa Beach you’d be directly supporting women in India and Uganda, respectively.
You could buy this beautifully cut, brightly colored Mafrika black Aztec mod jacket with matching peg leg trousers and know you were supporting artisans in Malawi:
We learned from talking to model Bella Manning after the show that the models themselves were thrilled to be participating in such a “big-hearted”—to use the key term from Bead & Reel’s call for volunteers—event.
Here’s Bella rocking a cozy-looking Summer Waves kaftan poncho handmade by artisans in Peru, layered over a lightweight cotton Mata Traders Fan Fair dress—with hand-embroidered pockets—made by a women’s fair trade cooperative in Delhi:
Below are a few more of our favorites; you can visit the Bead & Reel website for more detailed info on each item and to see the complete (all vegan) collection as well as all sorts of lovely things made by Congolese women via The Peace Exchange.
Last but not least, here’s the wonderfully breezy culotte jumpsuit to which we’ve pledged our loyalty, along with a gorgeous Peace Exchange tote (we’ll take that too):
Fashion shows—especially when they showcase global artisans’ stories as this one does—play an important role in the fair trade fashion movement. Not only do they provide knowledge of what’s happening—both good and bad—they also show what’s possible.
“Americans are reawakening as citizens and regaining our political will—that’s really exciting to me,” said Cline. “People are increasingly aware not only of the damage that huge fashion corporations are causing, but they are acknowledging that these problems are systemic, and are ultimately a failure of government both in the U.S. and in countries where fashion is manufactured. I think people are starting to shift their thinking from fashion being a consumer’s problem to thinking of it as something that must be tackled at the roots, meaning we have to strengthen and enforce regulations and laws so that fashion brands, factory owners, and governments are required to protect workers and the environment and are held legally and financially responsible when they don’t.”
Schmitz definitely sees change on the horizon. “I am an inherently optimistic person by nature, so I have always had an absolute, unshakable belief that this change is possible. But I really do see this change happening every day. I see it in myself, in those around me, in the emails from strangers who are starting to think differently about how they shop and the articles that are popping up in mainstream publications. I think everybody desires connection and love—and ethical fashion is really a story about both. It’s about building connections to those who make our clothes, building connections to the resources used in our closet, and building connections to ourselves by truly honoring our bodies and our deepest beliefs about the treatment of others.”
Photos by Isabel Szkiba and Bryan Flores