In February, Robin Givhan wrote a very interesting piece for The Cut about so-called “ethical fashion,” with Maiyet as a case study. The twist in that company’s luxury womenswear offerings is that they are produced not only by real, life artisans, but that said artisans hail from struggling countries or live in areas with few economic opportunities. Part of the profits support the establishment of the metalsmiths, the embroiderers, and the seamstresses as independent, profitable artisans in India, Kenya, Peru, and other places where hand craft skills are still practiced.
In her piece, Givhan dives into the qualifications of the founding partners, lists the big-name backers (Disney, Branson, etc), and has written a meaningful, timely piece on the effectiveness of the “ethical” brands we all love to support.
She outlines my pet protest:
The world of philanthropy has long known how to use Seventh Avenue to spur donations and raise our collective consciousness. Charities have inspired what might be called “pity purchases,” a transaction driven by liberal guilt, lefty do-goodism, or a host of other politically correct motivations rather than that most potent and enduring driver of obscenely priced fashion: pure, unadulterated desire. But ethical fashion still carries the stigma of being inelegant, precious, and a bit twee—unlike in the food industry, say, where customers eagerly pay a premium for farm-to-table bragging rights.
Examines the wonderfully real difficulties of working with craftspeople in global environments:
And then, says [Paul] Van Zyl, there are the silk weavers in India who work out of their homes and can’t work when the temperature soars because, without air conditioning, it’s too hot, and if the doors are left open, the goats come inside and get themselves tangled in the looms, and, well, it’s the kind of mess that the folks over at Hermès don’t have to worry about.
Not everyone can shop at luxury price points, but it’s there that mythology is born and reputations are built. If the luxury market can fetishize Lesage embroidery, can it not come to do the same with Varanasi silk?
What I rather liked about this article was that the photographs accompanying the piece were of Kenyan craftspeople and the pieces they made for Maiyet. No CEO business headshot or “site visit” with a gaggle of smiling children. Givhan’s words were strengthened by portraits of Kenyan “partners” of the label, including the couple Maiyet first invested in through the Nest nonprofit. Givhan’s piece was about the business and product sides of Maiyet, but considering their apparently genuine interest in making small businesspeople visible and viable, it was nice to see the artisans lead the visual aspect of the article (accompanied by the obligatory magazine product-layout).
Watch videos about Maiyet artisans on their website here; how do beautifully-made media enhance the customer experience?
Although I admire the Hereros series, and it may be unfair to compare the two photographic intentions, it is heartening to see people photographed for what they do, not what they wear. In their everyday dress (or work clothes?), accompanied by their tools and materials, these are just people! Very talented people, of course. I wonder if the photographs were taken outside of the Maiyet studio, or if the background was intentionally “neutral”?
How do you see “ethical fashion” companies portraying and representing their artisans and producers? Is it important that they are photographed, named, interviewed? Or is that another form of fetishization? Do you ask the same of your favorite small European brands or American producers (or would you have seven years ago)?
Leave your comments below!
Lead Photograph: Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.