Ethical fashion is all about refashioning structures and making style less about newness and more about fairness.
There is beauty in symmetry. In shapes, forms, silhouettes, objects, style items and accessories that have this quality. But as style is no longer just about surfaces, and as it finds itself caught in a time where it is being asked more questions about its social, political and cultural meanings, there is another form of symmetry that can evoke an even more meaningful sense of beauty: the type in which manufacturing and creative processes honor the people who make the objects that are sold. Fair Trade is all about creating this symmetry. It is all about creating a form of adornment that strives to be ethical as much as stylish or aesthetically appealing, a framework in which workers earn just wages whilst producing exquisite objects, a scheme in which the high-quality encoded in the style objects are also a part of the conditions in which people materialize them.
One of the most revolutionary things the fashion industry can presently strive for is fairness. Shall we look at that in context? With its inception as a modern, European, urban phenomenon in the late nineteenth century, fashion’s most important quest was long centered on newness. Its close ties to capitalism also created long-held associations with inequality and questionable manufacturing methods, issues that began to surface more during the 1990s. It is no coincidence that at the time in which eclecticism in style was settling among the stylish arena, when newness had to be reconsidered and when the spectacular recycling of existing styles began to dominate our visual landscape, the fashion industry began to open up to issues it had always been connected to but had been resistant to engage with more directly. As the new no longer seemed to be at the forefront of stylishness, as more conscious approaches began to problematize fashion, ethics became important and now an inevitable vector.
Also, given its history of Eurocentric colonialism, whiteness, conservatism, and appropriation, the clothes, and accessories industry has also been questioned for the way it honors the influences it uses from other cultures. This has also meant a reconsideration of otherness. The media is constantly swirling with controversies on the issue of cultural appropriation because this speaks about the vestiges of exploitation and asymmetry that can be perceived as the industry’s dark spots. Fair Trade, is about creating a symmetrical relation between an artisanal or indigenous culture and the segments that commercialize and promote its beautifully, high-quality made objects.
It’s also about materializing style objects that respond to thoughtful contemporary questions when it comes to personal style decisions. Where does the object come from? Was the person who made it fairly paid? Was there an ethical treatment of the animals or sources used? Fair-trade made objects entail symmetrical partnerships with local communities that gain agency and financial profit from their unique know-how. It´s also about revising how artisans and these communities are empowered. There is no room for condescendence in this sort of relation. When two segments meet, there is not a “handling of power” from one to the other, but a mutual sense of recognition. This is why fair-trade is a constant process of critical thinking, of striving to make a conscious type of consumerism to be less about mere buzz words and more about substantial connections that create more symmetrical ways of power.
HOPE’S pieces empower a diverse range of communities in the Colombian context. As a platform, working with over 600 artisans from 16 different indigenous communities, HOPE seeks to materialize a conscious, ethical, and fair-trade symmetry in the creative and commercializing process. It does so by honoring tradition, ancestral know-how and by promoting the distinctiveness found, for example in the fair-trade handbags it includes within its commercial repertoire. Artisanal work can always be seen as a subversion within a world that insists on promoting massively produced, aesthetically homogeneous items. These handbags take time. Their beauty is also based on their singularity. They materialize ancestral knowledge. They bear the trace of the uniqueness encoded in things that are handmade. And they are also created within the beauty of symmetrical relations.
For a long time, the singularity and uniqueness of artisanal work have captured the attention of local designers in Colombia. It has been even frequent for household designer names to use artisan crafts from different places in the Colombian landscape to be sold under their brands. Although there may have been an intention to honor this craftmanship, and in spite of the fact that some of these designers have been working with certain communities for years now, the objects end being commercialized under another designer’s name. In this sense, HOPE acts as a sort of catalyst, a platform that allows indigenous communities to be visible in their richness and singularity. HOPE strives to act as a space in which fair-trade is channeled in every way possible: materially and symbolically. Every object is also an invitation to explore the specificity of a wide array of material culture. Consumers can delve into how different, for example, Arhuaco and Wayuu cultures can play out in their aesthetic patterns.
As matters of style can no longer escape ethical issues, and as ethical fashion also becomes a trend and a buzzword, HOPE provides a place that encourages conscious consumption, but also a sense of transparency that allows for any purchase to connect with something else: the human hands that made the bought object in fair conditions, a singular cultural richness and a sense of aesthetic beauty that encompasses the substance of fairness. In this sense, for HOPE, fair-trade is a philosophical way of experiencing the meanings of style today.
Written by Vanessa Rosales.