Clothing is essential to our being in the world, to our social interactions and identity. Fashion is an economic force that, together with textile manufacturing, has contributed to the economic, cultural, and social transformations. Both in the past and in the present.
In a time like ours of extreme waste and consumerism, widespread populism accompanied by new forms of racism, fascism, and uncontrolled capitalism that threaten democracy, the future looks more and more uncertain. The rich become even richer and the poor risk losing the chance to overcome conditions that prevent them from participating in a free and democratic society.
More than most European countries, Italy is on the front line in today’s migrant emergency. However, beyond the current horrific events and past errors, other emerging desires, projects and initiatives have also come to the fore. These ideas aim at contrasting uneven and unhealthy progress by offering alternatives that retrieve traditions and push for a project and society that embrace beauty, respect for culture and human dignity. This is what the “Ethical fashion initiative” is.
The words “ethical fashion” could sound like an oxymoron since fashion is often stained with tragedies that hit workers, in particular the women who died as a result of inhuman working conditions, often producing clothing for us excessively wealthy westerners. Fashion can be exclusive and democratic, totalitarian and liberating, express individuality and conformity. And today, in the globalized world, more than ever, it does so everywhere and in all kinds of media. It is indeed an additional reason to consider the fashion world as something ephemeral, but also an additional reason to study its complexities and to educate, form and inform new generations. What stories are hidden in a simple T-Shirt or in a pair of jeans? It’s not only a “worn world,” as the critic Peter Stallybrass would say, but also the history of globalization. As you can read here.
How can we tolerate the fact that in the 21st century tragedies like Rana Plaza, which reminds us of disasters that were frequent 100 years ago, still happen? The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, now one of New York University’s buildings, is one of these century-old tragedies. The factory used to produce the clothing that contributed to the birth of the American clothing industry.
A skirt and a shirtwaist was the uniform of women who worked outside the house, the same workers that produced them were the ones who wore them. It allowed them a comfortable style and, at the same time, emphasized their femininity or, as the American historian Nan Enstad would say, their “ladyhood.” The fashion world is both loved and hated for different reasons and, above all, despised for all the inhumane work that still today seems to destroy the industry.
But the fashion world, on account of its power and potential beauty, can and could contribute more to the fight for social justice and to diminish, and maybe one day eliminate, world poverty. Of course, in one of the most complex and problematic periods of history, this seems very much a utopian dream.
At New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, an important initiative entitled “Substainability of Ethical Fashion in Our Brave New World” opened a window onto the ethics of fashion. Casa Italiana’s Director Stefano Albertini greeted the audience with his usual savoir faire followed by a presentation by Jenny McPhee, director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts. McPhee, along with her colleague Robyn Vaccara from the American Language Institute, was responsible for the organization of the event on behalf of he NYUSPS Division of Languages and Humanities. This initiative is the second of its kind in the “Dialogues in Languages and Humanities” field. According to McPhee, the goal of these initiatives is to promote the conversation on different topics, even controversial ones, and therefore, to provoke the audience to act with a new consciousness. I could not agree more with it.
McPhee stressed the importance that ethical fashion had now become part of a soon to be launched Master in “Applied Fashion Merchandising” at the NYU’s School of Professional Studies.
Simone Cipriani is the director and founder of the “Ethical Fashion Initiative,” an institution tied to the International Trade Center that joins the United Nations (the UN even organized a program along with Franca Sozzani on fashion and development) and the World Trade Organization. Born in Tuscany and very experienced in the luxury and leather industry, through this initiative, Simone leads and promotes the creation of micro businesses inside marginalized communities in Africa and Haiti, by putting local artisans in contact with world-class designers like Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Ilaria Venturini Fendi and others. Even before founding the Ethical Fashion Initiative, Cipriani long worked in developing countries using the power of fashion as an opportunity to get out of poverty, working with local artisans and putting them in contact with the fashion industry.
Ever since the start of this initiative back in 2004, he created a creative manufacture center for clothing and accessories, using fair trade labor and ethical fashion as a doctrine. Simone Cipriani’s initiatives are too many to be listed in this short article, but just consider those that are tied to the Italian fashion world, like his collaboration with Alta Roma, Pitti Uomo, Vogue Italian and Corso Como. In fact, at Alta Roma’s fashion shows, Cipriani helped to bring African designers, and contributed to launch the now internationally renowned designer Stella Jean.
Simone Cipriani, and his charisma, introduced the speakers of the panel with enthusiasm. Each speaker told their different stories, not only in geography but also in experience, art and work-style. The guests were Oskar Metsavaht, artist and fashion designer, who founded Osklen; Zolaykha Sherzad, a humanitarian artist who founded and manages “Zarif Designs”, a company based in Kabul, Afghanistan, her native country; Andrew Ondrejcak, creative director, theater director and artist based in Brooklyn; ; Molly Yestadt, fashion designer and founder of “Yestadt Millinery” based in Brooklyn; Valeria Safronova, fashion columnist for the New York Times, Leonardo Amerigo Bonanni, founder and CEO of Sourcemap, a platform for a software that tracks the map of the production chain.
Videos and pictures supported the brief, well-balanced, presentations, giving a concrete idea of the aesthetic and ethical work of the experts. It also gave an idea of the attention given to the building of long lasting bridges of collaboration and cooperation with less fortunate populations. And it also brings attention to the meetings whose creation changed ideas of the people who take part in them, mature together and, in this way, initiate new paths. These meetings tend to change the state of things, and the nature itself of those presentations. The panel’s speakers and Cipriani himself stress how they’ are not engaged in “charity” but in work. And there is a great difference between the two. We often associate charity with a colonizer mentality imposed on the colonized. Here the relationship is completely different. It is a respectful meeting created by listening to a common language in which both sides become richer and create new forms of help that go beyond “colonialism” and “racism.”
According to Zolaykha Sherzad, to retrieve the ancient textile traditions in Afghanistan means many things. Especially for a woman like her, who goes back home to a country devastated by the many wars, especially after the victory of the Taliban who annihilated women’s individuality. Working in her workshop in Kabul, using tradition to create something new, like her coat line that originated from the chapan, was like giving back to her people their memory and identity. By making those items, she literally and symbolically sews together the pieces of her and her country’s history. This is also a healing process, of believing in oneself and regaining dignity and beauty.
And I want to finish with these words and this omen. Kant, the philosopher, said that hands were the window of the mind. The artisan’s hands build a new future and create new pages. They work together, they work for a new philosophy that can change culture and the economy.
Translated by Giulia Casati
See the complete video of the event: