Posted on January 14 2016
Empowering African Women through needle+thræd By Sofia Celeste
In a small village, where zebras graze freely about the hay-tinted savannah, there are AIDS widows chatting and laughing as they bead necklaces and embroider throw pillows for a fashion-forward New York-based company.
One of the most poignant ethical fashion and design lifestyle brands to hit the industry, needle+thræd has given a handful of women, many of them mothers, a new lease on life.
The brand’s Founder and Creative Director, New York Fashion Editor Celia Roach, works with artisans at the Bebe Ravi women’s cooperative that employs 50 to 100 women, in Nakuru, Kenya, an area stricken by unemployment.
Roach talks to ATPB Guest Writer Sofia Celeste about the future of African artisans and designers, riding the ethical fashion wave and the power of a purchase.
The opportunity presented itself pretty organically. I was connected with a Kenya woman – a former model who moved to the U.S. and later started a women’s cooperative after returning back home to Kenya with a desire to provide for her community. She created an organization pooling together the different talents of the women, from beading to knitting, in addition, she started an orphanage for children. When I met with her, listened to her story and saw the women’s work, I knew I wanted to get involved. I had already been so inspired by the Maasai and Kenyan culture on a whole and meeting her was an opportunity to bring some ideas I had to life.
You said that the artisans/ women are happy with all that they have… How did you meet them?
With the beauty of technology, I was able to start a rapport with the workers at the cooperative in Nakuru, Kenya over email and phone before visiting them in-person. I wanted to get to know the women and connect with them as much as possible. I sent over a few questions to the production manager asking if the women could share a little about themselves – who they were and their hobbies along with images of each of the women to really put a face to the information they shared. I wanted to see each woman that helped bring this vision to life. Finally, I visited the cooperative in Kenya a couple of months after, and I felt like I knew them personally. I knew most of their names [except for a few new women], whether they were married, had children, and what they enjoyed doing. Actually, sitting and working with them daily gave me an opportunity to really connect – talk, laugh, brainstorm. It was very special and really the main purpose for starting needle+thræd – to connect with talented artisans and create an outlet for them to do what they love and get paid for it.
What has been the main caveat in starting this business? Your breakthrough moment?
That there’s power in what you purchase, and every small decision to do good contributes to a better world. My breakthrough moment so far was meeting the women I work with for the very first time and seeing how much pride they took in their work and realizing that even if I only employed one woman, at least that’s one person’s life has been affected.
Sustainable and ethical is something we talk a lot about now and there are competitors. How do you stand out?
Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough companies designing with a thoughtful process and connecting with the people who make their goods, so naturally brands that are taking this approach, stand out. The pieces I work to create with these artisans are inherently beautiful, so I try no to disrupt their craft. Adding minimal touches like simply placing a traditional motif on clean cotton canvas or pairing endless strands of beads to a strip of leather creates a juxtaposition that naturally stands out.
How have sales been since you started?
It’s still very early since I literally just launched on the Spring app, which I am very excited about!
What do you like most about traveling to Africa?
I love talking and working with the women in the workshop. And, the wildlife – just being in the presence of awe-inspiring animals in their natural habitat and experiencing nature so intimately is life-changing when you’re used to the city life.
Tell me something about yourself. I saw your work details – your fashion experience and posts at magazines like Essence… but tell me a little more about your background?
I’ve worked as a fashion editor for the past 6 years for magazines including VIBE (market editor), ESSENCE (fashion editor), VOGUE.it (writer), and now contributing fashion video content to ELLE.com. I initially started in print and made the shift into digital as the industry did. I was also an editor at a trend forecasting agency which was offered interesting insight into how trends transpire on-and-off the runway. I’ve also done a few stints with e-commerce sites like Jcrew.com, blue fly.com.
When did you realize you wanted to work in the ethical fashion business?
After yet another magazine closure, I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect. I had this desire to do work that was a bit more impactful. Spending most of my time at home, I started making throw pillows using imported fabrics from Africa and India available at a local fabric shop and working with a local Senegalese tailor. I thought, if I could produce at a higher volume to sell, I could provide these smaller mom and pop shops with more business. When I needed to start developing more proprietary designs, I decided to tap into indigenous craftsman that could also benefit from the fair trade support as well as the exposure to their crafts.
Do you believe African fashion is set to take over? Why?
I do see an increasing amount of attention being paid to Africa’s traditional crafts within the fashion industry. I am a firm believer that quality will always trump quantity and their craftsmanship is special and unlike what fast fashion retailers are selling.
needle+thræd is available at Spring.
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