Luxury Panel Discussion: Shari Keller for Mehera Shaw at the EFF Source Expo, October 2011
As several people have commented on the value of the Source Expo panel discussions and I myself also found them to be incredibly fabulous resources, I thought I'd post some of my "pre-answers" that I had formulated in preparation for speaking on the panel about the Luxury market in sustainable clothing. I would like to thank Tamsin LeJeune and all those at EFF who made the Source Expo possible and hope that my thoughts can contribute to developing the network of people who believe in ethical fashion.
Prepared thoughts for the Panel on Luxury and Ethical Fashion:
1)Please tell us about Mehera Shaw, and the types of products you produce
We produce wovens in natural fibers and certified organic cottons for the high-end women’s market. We use detailed stitching techniques such as pintucking, pleating,topstitching and several other hemming details. We use artisan made hand block prints and screen prints in most all our collections. We work in the women’s and girl’s markets. We re also a full production service offering pattern making, grading, sampling, sourcing, production. We produce our own high-end label, Mehera Shaw using sustainable methods and fabrics within the highest quality available. We are a fair trade company committed to working with artisan textiles and stitching techniques in India.
How have you integrated sustainable practices- such as sustainable livelihood creation and building on artisanal techniques- with a high quality product?
Several factors go into integrating artisan techniques with a product that is viable and high-end in the western market. For example, the printing is certainly an artisan craft, and as such can be done to the highest degree of skill within the craft. When done well, hand printing, with it’s inherent blurring of the repeat pattern, is also artistic and beautiful. It then behooves the designer to be intimately familiar with the look of this type of printing in order to develop designs that show off the look of the printing rather than appear as though it is ‘flawed’ because it did not reach an industrial standard. Within the broad category of sustainable livelihoods, it is again a matter of discovering the skill base the workers have and then developing it to it’s highest degree and designing within it, making se of the skills inherently available rather than trying to change them in any drastic way. For example, our stitchers are already well-trained in top stitching, pintucking, pleating, and quilting so I focus on their skills in my designs. We have spent years working to use their skills and bend them toward a western look and to develop them to the highest level. We are working within a fair trade standard at all times, so this process of integrating a western look as the final product with the skill base of our workers fits very naturally.
What have the biggest challenges been and how have you overcome them?
Communication, intercultural understanding and learning how to develop long-term relationships. It is not a matter of simply clarifying what the western market demands or standards are, it is a matter of really learning what is possible and how the people you are working with think, how they see things, how they see their finished product. I spend lots of time showing our pattern master fashion photos of runways designers and discuss with him the cut, the shape, the fit, details of the styles so that his eye is trained and he himself can make judgement calls as to what fits the standard and what doesn’t . I bring in books of western tailoring techniques so that everyone’s skill level comes to the standard I am looking for, but without criticism. Everyone wants to feel inspired and to feel that they are appreciated. It is a slow process, yet invaluable in terms of building trust, communication and undestanding.
What do you think is the future?
From my perspective, the only way the luxury market or any market for sustainable clothing can really work is with long-term, trusted relationships. The designer must learn to design around what is possible rather than feeling like ‘anything’ is possible or sourcing fabric from a fabric show independent of who will cut the patterns, who will stitch the designs. If the design takes an active, committed interest in working with the people making the garments and modifies their designs based on the artisan reality, the result can be spectacularly beautiful. The investment is in the people. It is also a step toward what I would term ethical trade. This is a deeper level of integration than what the fair trade standard concerns are: it is about building trusted supply chain networks, all the way from the fabric supplier and producer, to the designer and finally through to the end buyer. It is not an anonymous relationship, just like Shakespeare’s market square where public life happens or Marx’s market place where face-to-face commerce happens based on trusted, known relationships, ethical trade would bring us back to the human invest needed to develop solid, supportive and trusted supply chains. Back to the human factor The artisan is no longer anonymous. The designer is not the sole hero. It is a collaboration at heart.
5) Can the biggest designer names be producing outstanding product quality to high sustainability standards?
Yes, they can. But again, it takes more careful attention to integrating the supply chain. It is a give and take rather than the western world stating it’s needs, demanding a certain standard, then dismissing a supplier if those standards are not met the first time out. It is also not enough for a company to want the ‘feel good’ hang tag designation of fair trade or the CSR brownie points of working with a certified factory. It takes intercultural understanding and long-term planning. It takes a deeper commitment on the western side to understanding what is required on the production side to make it sustainable and to support, financially, morally and culturally, those requirements.
It is akin to slow food. The time and planning and investment of the soul must be an integral part of the design. There are two types of production choices: the industrial, high-volume, model where everything is computer aided design, pantone shades are met exactly, fabric is mill-made. Then there is the artisan model where specialized designs are made on a smaller scale. This requires artistry on the part of the pattern masters, the dyers, the printers. It is less exact and will not turn out precisely the same each time. It s also infused with a human touch and has the potential, like haute couture, for real artistry. The attention, then, must placed first in understanding which details are important, and then in overseeing the details, step by step: this is the human factor.
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