On January 20th, a sub-freezing evening in New York City’s the Bowery, hipsters and art aficionados, young and old alike filed into a candle-lit second floor studio space as music flowed down the stairs and out onto the dark Lower East Side block. They were there to celebrate the inaugural collection of the Awamaki Lab Project. The energy of the gathering’s guests was high, but the vibrant collection on display had an energy all its own. The designs of Nieli Vallin, Awamaki Lab’s first designer in residence stood out prominently amidst the crowd of fashionably dressed scenesters.
This spirited gathering came to celebrate a capsule collection of a for-now-unknown designer, and it was also a fête for the Peruvian women weavers a faraway village of who created the intricate wrap-faced, hand woven textiles featured in Vallin’s designs. Awamaki Lab is a non-profit fashion design residency that works with the women of a village in the Patacancha Valley of Peru. The fund encourages their traditional weaving craft by providing them with a reliable source of income and a place in the market for sustainable textiles.
Each season, Awamaki brings in a budding designer to live and work in Ollantaytambo, Peru—the goal of the program is to create a small collection under the mentorship of a sustainable design expert (this season’s mentor is Tara St. James, 2011 Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award winner). Vallin describes her style of design as “more or less like sculpture.” And that “sketching is less important than feeling the weight of the fabric and shaping it with my own hands,” she said of working with the textiles. Vallin took in the influences of her new surroundings—while working in the village and getting to know the people from whom she would source her textiles, she was welcomed into their homes. “This was the best part about working in Peru, any moment I could spend listening to passionate history around the dinner table of a family was a cherished highlight.
Awamaki Lab purchases textiles woven by the women of Patacancha to be used by its resident designer. Selected pieces of the collections are then reproduced by the sewing cooperative, comprised of single mothers from Ollantaytambo, to be sold through the Awamaki online store. The profits of these pieces are reinvested in the Awamaki Sewing Collective. The collective teaches local women how to sew, use patterns, and designs in order to diversify the labor market and empower a new generation of Peruvian artisans.
In honor of Awamaki Lab’s first pop-up shop, supporters danced and made donations amidst mannequins draped in Nieli Vallin’s modern interpretations of the traditional Quechuan garb and against a back drop of the colorful photographs of Kate Reeder, who shot family portraits of the Patacancha villagers and Awamaki’s look-book. Reveling in the accomplishments of the weavers, designers and project collaborators, a new audience of fashionistas was introduced to the important concept of sustainable, ethically sourced design, and the Awamaki Lab philosophy. Pieces of this inaugural collection will be available on Awamaki Lab’s website, and designer Nieli Vallin will be taking orders for made-to-measure garments.
Erika Allen is a freelance fashion and popular culture journalist living and working in New York City.
Designers who are interested in more information about the residency program or to apply, please contact Annie Millican at email@example.com.
For more information, please visit www.awamaki.org/awamakilab. If you would like to learn more about the project, get involved, or support the initiative please visit Awamaki Lab's global giving page, www.globalgiving.org/projects/awamakilab.