Anyone with an interest in fashion, no matter how remote, is familiar with the description label “handmade”. This familiarity increases if you are part of the sustainable fashion community because in this circle, the tag represents more than just a higher price. It additionally stands for care, durability and a commitment to the environment.
Now as the name implies, “handmade items” are products made or created manually. As opposed to mass production which is widely churned out by machines, handmade items are the products of artisanship; the art of slowly and deliberately working with one’s own hands. When it comes to fashion, working in the manner described (slowly, deliberately and personally) is not only good for you, it is great for the environment too. Slow fashion is one of the “pillars” of sustainable fashion as consumers are called on daily to buy more of handmade items rather than fast fashion products.
In the face of mass production and its consequent rock bottom prices, true artisanship in the fashion industry seems to be dying out. Artisanal items and products appear to be more of a collector’s item than actual products (think about how often you use that handmade purse you bought on your last trip to Thailand) and in most cases, true artisans are already well past their prime. Since it is a widely held belief that slow fashion is a vital pillar of sustainability, one might infer then that artisanship in its own right is indispensable to the future of the fashion industry.
And if artisanship is this valuable to sustainable fashion, then efforts to rekindle its dying embers and develop its art should be consistent as well as deliberate. Put differently, we cannot afford to leave the mastery of this craft to chance. It should mean more to us than some product you stumble upon in an obscure village on a trip to some third world country or the other.
How then do we preserve true artisanship in fashion?
My visit to Akwete, on assignment, provided certain insights on tested methods to achieve this. By way of a brief explanation, the Mkpuru Akwete is a fabric, hand-woven on hand-built looms by the Akwete women of Abia State, in South Eastern Nigeria. The Akwete industry has achieved remarkable longevity and mass market penetration because these women employ the following methods to preserve their art for posterity. And since these tips work for them, I daresay they would come in handy in the sustenance of artisanship on a global scale.
The first step to this preservation is to ensure that handmade fashion items are economically viable. Put differently, consumers should actually want these items so that artisans can continue to produce them. If the profits they make from sales exceed their costs, then this would be an indication that their final products was worth more to the consumers than the factors of production that went into their creation. The sales income is the means to sustain the business. Any other profits they make are simply the means to expand their trade.
The economic viability of an artisan’s craft often determines whether it will survive or die off. For instance, one of the women I spoke with relayed that she had been in the Akwete weaving business for 60 incredible years. With the proceeds from her sales, she built a house for her family and trained all five of her kids to tertiary education levels. This more than any other factor guaranteed that she kept producing the most amazing designs holding copyright of six designs. As she deftly summed it up, ‘as long as there are customers, we are here’.
The next step is to equip the new generation of artisans with modern business skills. Many ethical artisanal brands have sprung up in recent times but somehow, they only seem to be seen when an eco-lifestyle company launches in a developed country (the US for example) while selling products handmade in say, Peru. Teaching them modern business skills will enable the artisans and their families to explore these global opportunities for themselves and will enable them to build their crafts into world business brands.
The older women I chatted with in Akwete relayed with amusing degrees of pride, how the mastery of WhatsApp in their old age has made huge difference in their sales. In keeping up with the times, their sons and daughters had gifted them with smartphones and so they very quickly began to post their fabrics on the app. This is one step away from buying Facebook or Instagram ads like many international start-ups and if these women can do this, imagine how far their daughters could take the trade if they were business savvy too.
Appreciation of art and tradition
The final step, I think, is to ensure that the next generation appreciates the art. It is important to pass on to our kids that artisanship isn’t synonymous with poverty and pity. For instance, mine is a community of carpenters and wood workers. The name of my community directly translates as “the children who uproot huge trees” because back in the day, our original settlers manually felled huge trees and carved various utilities out of them. As a boy, I was taught to appreciate all facets of the wood art and I am so grateful for this.
Even though I live far from home now, I own a saw and a hammer and I’ve constructed some of my furniture myself. Even though I have a law degree and despite the fact that I probably wouldn’t build world-class items to sell on the international market, I will always value the strength of the wood, and I will always hold any carpenter I meet in high esteem. This, more than anything guarantees the survival of artisanship. The Akwete weaving has survived because from childhood, women are initiated into the intricacies of the art and use their skills create sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their community. During holidays and after school hours, young girls literally learn at their mothers’ feet because the community recognizes this as the best way to preserve its heritage and empower the next generation of women.
As we stride towards sustainability as the future of fashion, it is important that we remember that modern fashion is just that; modern. There was a time that mankind created clothes without harming the earth. It is important that we step back and find that relationship once again.
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