African prints and textiles are undeniably at the forefront of fashion's current wave of sourcing from cultures that are rich in craft traditions and artisan-based practice. Fair trade fashion is taking this phenomenon one step further by insuring that local production, fair compensation, and long term opportunities are woven into the complex mission of how designer labels might opt to responsibly do business in communities that add genuine value to their vision.
One of the most visible expressions of an improved collaborative model for textile sourcing and place-based fashion design is the inevitable fact that “form follows action” when time is of the essence in providing much needed jobs and greater visibility for traditions that are fading faster than a season-to-season trend report. Action is also essential for insuring that the fashion industry works to cleans up its act by both creating easily-adaptable, ethical production models as well as highlighting the stories and talents of artisans who are the true keepers of textile diversity and crafting know-how.
The fair trade fashion label Afia has worked from the ground up to integrate these value-added ideas into their ready-to-wear collections, ethically produced in Ghana. President and Designer, Meghan Sebold, and Partnership Director, Elizabeth Cloyd, work closely with artisans and vendors in Accra to identify the most striking cotton wax fabrics that are the pride of West Africa – a region that has a remarkable history of textile production and an extensive vocabulary of vibrant color schemes, patterns, and design motifs as embedded expressions of events in history, local proverbs, moral and/or social codes. Afia has outlined a mutually-respectful exchange with artisans in local sewing cooperatives, and is also directly involved with the Ghana Arts and Cultural Market, a district where creative expression is community-based and extremely dynamic.
The craft shops that make up this market cooperative feature handmade drums, woodcarvings, paintings, jewelry, and other local instruments. Sebold is continually inspired by how intertwined the design process there can be, particularly as everyone is acutely aware of one another's skill sets and the materials available. Afia's fanny packs from last season were actually suggested by a drum carver who led the team to a source for material scraps, which in turn resulted in identifying another individual who helped with the design and creation of textile garment bags. This season's creations were inspired by a good friend named Kofi who suggested a seamstress named Hawa who helped to create Afia's new crop batik tanks. Hawa's brother, Elijah, helped to create the new high-wasted, wide-leg pants, and even the modeling for the latest collection was done locally by Hawa's niece. Despite this wonderful exchange of ideas and skills, Sebold described how the arts and cultural market is set on the edge of the ocean waters adjacent to a vast, overflowing garbage dump. The economic situation is extreme. Local villagers often sleep on basic mats in their shops or on wooden tables just outside.
As Afia's principal designer, Sebold has deeply absorbed these first hand-observations and has in turn adopted a philosophy of "utilitarian creativity" by styling and altering clothing to encourage that Afia followers step out of their comfort zones and norms to make fashion a bit more personal and resourceful. The designer scours high stacks of fabric in Accra's bustling markets to identify the most authentic prints for her label's "urban indigenous" aesthetic. Given that new prints are generated each month, it is not uncommon for some bolts of fabric to sell out quickly – which in turn translates to the fact that the majority of Afia's pieces are limited edition and a collector's item once the season concludes. Consequently, Afia's design mission is very much about highlighting the intrinsic beauty of these textiles and the hands that work to translate them into wearable, cross-cultural expressions.
Afia has currently created a partnership with a team of seven talented women in a sewing cooperative near the village of Dzidefo – perched atop an orphanage managed by a woman named, Mama Esi. Kestrel Jenkins of Make.Fashion.Fair recently collaborated with Afia during a month long trip to Ghana and described how energizing the presence of these orphan children is in a community that is tightly-knit overall. Many of the seamstresses, who are also working mothers, gather in front of their vintage Singer machines sharing the day's stories, joint tasks, and life rituals in a fabric that extends to the fragmented community around them. The Afia team works hard to create a dialogue with all of the artisans and suppliers who they collaborate with, regardless of language limitations and geographical challenges. The fact is that the ultimate shape that these fashion pieces take is so much more than a garment or textile trend, but rather the embodiment of what works, or must work to insure that placed-based enterprises like Afia flourish and grow along side the already deeply-rooted and seemingly insurmountable conditions.
For more information, please visit www.shopafia.com.