I get a chance to speak to Kathrin about the Ethical Fashion bag project in Africa in the middle of a busy time for her. As I enter she is in the process of choosing which colour way looks the best for a new range of prints for the next collection of Westwood bags (Kathrin deals with the whole Westwood bag range including the Gold label) along with Joe the whiz kid computer, creative boffin (what to call him?) who has been with the company for about 17 years now. Stripes of differently coloured & sized leopard print now balance together; the final thing is to choose the background colour that the stripes will blend harmoniously together into. It seems to be a choice between an orangey brown & a bluish grey. Joe seems to know what he would choose but Kathrin is undecided so Alex is called in to give his opinion (Alex deals with all print designs for accessories & overseas licensing), the bluish grey is chosen.
Kathrin has been to Africa to build up the Westwood involvement with the Ethical Fashion Programme two times now, she hopes to go a third time this coming May. The first visit was to Kenya in April 2011 when she went with amongst others, Vivienne, Andreas, Jurgen Teller the photographer, Simone Cipriani from the ITC & Marion Hume a journalist who works for the UN.
Vivienne was the first designer to work with the programme so this was the trip that really set up the work model as to what could be done & what was still needed.
An instance of this is that the culture in Kenya, traditionally based around hand crafts such as embroidery, bead making & weaving on non electrical looms (the main reason for this being the lack of an electrical supply in rural areas), had necessitated a workshop called ‘The GoDown’ being set up by the UN in an area on the edge of Nairobi, supplied with electric sewing machines. However this was a new skill & the workers had to be trained to use the machines to a high level (straight lines, not crooked) & tutored in the tailoring construction techniques required for a top end fashion product. Kathrin’s roots as a tailor gave her this task although she did mention that some of the `mistakes` in the stitching did actually give her some new ideas..
When she was young, growing up in Germany, Kathrin’s father had impressed on her the importance of the Bauhaus philosophy of learning the in depth craft/ technical understanding alongside designing in any field. So being interested in clothes she decided to study tailoring. As it went she found that she also had an interest in making bags but hadn’t thought that this could be a job on its own…
Altogether Kathrin spent 2 weeks in Kenya this first time. She had only been given notice that she would be going to Africa 10 days before she had to depart so it had been a bit of a struggle to get everything organised in time including having to have all her vaccination shots in one go which didn’t make her feel so great.
Whilst she was there she visited several locations in the country where different groups of workers were based such as the Masai in the Rift Valley.
One of these trips involved a 6 hour drive each way for a 2 hour meeting. She was a bit apprehensive about this trip as the time to depart on the day they had decided on had moved later & later in the day until it became clear that they would be driving at night. It is not a good idea to drive at night apparently as there are no lights on the roads & it is easy to hit an animal, a hole in the road or worst of all another person. Also there are dangerous people about, the German embassy had advised against travelling at night due to the danger of hostage takings.
Eventually they decided to make the trip the next morning.
The way that ideas are thought of for the bags is that first of all what is available to be used in their construction is presented.
This is still the process & I am presented by Kathrin in the Battersea office with an ‘ideas’ box sent from Nairobi.
In it are a selection of crotchet & embroidery samples, examples of beads made from local glass, recycled paper & the rubber soles of flip flops. Swatches of canvas & synthetic fabrics (the cut offs & remnants from a local tent & shelter solutions industry in the city) are there & then there are some examples of weaving using plastic drinking straws & polypropylene/plastic strapping.
From this Kathrin had the idea of making zip pulls from surplus electrical wiring & from strips of plastic braided. Also an idea for a bag made from weaving strips of plastic carrier bags together.. (See the ‘African bits’ photo).
The metalwork on the bags is made from recycled metal recast & worked in a workshop in the township of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi (Kibera is the largest shantytown in the world)
The ideas for the bags are not solely made by the Westwood team however. It was decided to let the aesthetic sensibilities of the workers in Africa also to play their part in order to give an African touch to the designs. This mainly involves the workers making their own choices as to the colour ways used in the printing & embroidery.
This also means that each bag is different & therefore unique.
The purpose of the Ethical Fashion Initiative in Africa is to give work to marginalised people such as single mothers, widows, HIV/AIDS victims and those living in extreme poverty. The focus is on women, responding to evidence that women are more likely to invest their wage in their families. The wages for the workers on the program are not a survival wage, but a decent wage, which allows them to live in a dignified way. So far the initiative has supported 7000 women, providing training in craft and manufacturing skills as required.
`Not charity, just work` is the initiative’s slogan, working on the principle that charity makes people dependant whereas a decent wage gives people more control over their lives. This means that they can choose not to over exploit their environment. A widespread form of earning money to date has been the cutting down of trees to make charcoal to sell.
A range of Africa bags is available in World’s End & the other Westwood shops.