Sit back and enjoy this article. Because the story of Ethical Fashion Initiative, told in the voice of its creator, Simone Cipriani, is undoubtedly the most interesting, inspiring and inclusive one you will read today
The Laikipia Plateau, about 180 kilometres from Nairobi, Kenya, is still the scene of bloody clashes between the different ethnic groups living in the area. Successive droughts over the years have further exacerbated the situation. But in 2016, while the men were waging war against each other, the women realised that they had to unite. So they created Satubo, an acronym for the names of the Samburu, Turkana and Borana communities, valuing their ability to decorate objects with beads. And they started working with EFI – Ethical Fashion Initiative after drought decimated the livestock for control and many clashes between the various ethnic groups had broken out.
Once they understood how they could manage Satubo, EFI sent some trainers for 6-7 months in 2018. Then Vivienne Westwood also arrived, and everything ran smoothly until the pandemic outbreak. “We lost all contact. And we could no longer physically reach the Laikipia area,’ says Simone Cipriani, class of ’64, founder and manager of EFI, and president of the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. Cipriani’s account continues: “When, after two years, we returned to the plateau, to our amazement, we found a perfectly constructed building used as a school. “You taught us how to do it!” the women who had meanwhile organised themselves to make and sell products for tourists told us.
The Ethical Fashion Initiative programme
This is just one of the many stories behind the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. EFI aims to reduce global poverty by connecting micro-producers and artisans working in developing countries to the international fashion supply chain. In this way, it achieves to distribute ‘fair and decent wages’ while also seeking to act as an ‘accelerator for African talent in the fashion industry’.
It all starts in Nairobi
“It all started after the 2000s in Korogocho, the slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, from a meeting with lay missionary Gino Filippini. We wanted to create a sustainable fashion business for those who had been excluded from the world economy. A project of inclusion, of social redemption in which the slogan was ‘Not charity, just work‘. We wrote this slogan on signs we posted everywhere,’ says Cipriani.
In 2009 came the first social enterprise. “There was no shortage of difficulties. Those who had learnt the trade along the way had to produce for luxury brands, learning a working method in an environment structured for this just as we had to be convinced that we were reliable people. And then credit, as the cost of capital is very high’. Vivienne Westwood, who worked at EFI for 12 years, was lending a big hand to EFI’s take-off.
First, by including its products in the collections, then by designing garments and accessories that the artisans could make. Note: to do this, she decided to reduce the share of her earnings to make room for EFI items, which were more expensive than others, at least initially. Also helping EFI were Rosy Biffi and Franca Sozzani, concrete and active endorsements that have led the programme to now involve over 90 cooperatives in 11 countries. There were 12 before the advent of the Taliban in Afghanistan that forced Cipriani to stop all activities. In each country there is a parent company. “Covid penalised us, but now we have very good prospects. We want to expand our work, set up an African coordination centre, and invest in the accelerator of new African brands,’ Cipriani emphasises.
The dream of ethical fashion
Italy has always supported the EFI programme. After the presence at Pitti Uomo came the one at Lineapelle, with an exhibition space, within the edition held last February. Riccardo Braccialini, owner of Pelfim (Pelletteria Fiorentina Montecristo), is a strategic consultant for the programme. Once a month, for a week, the entrepreneur is in Nairobi, now the African headquarters, to operationally implement the projects. “The local women have crazy manual skills and want to escape poverty by working. And this is what we offer them,’ says Braccialini.
‘It’s nice to see how in Burkina Faso, 2,900 women, who had lost their jobs and set aside their weaving looms because of the arrival of cheap Chinese goods, have recovered their disused looms (restored by Italian technicians) and resumed the work they knew how to do. Cipriani involved the Ratti weaving mill in improving the quality of production. And today, they sell top-quality, hand-woven natural cotton. In Kenya, we make bags, accessories, and embroidery. Last year EFI and our partners at Artisan Fashion in Kenya were proud to work with Emporio Armani on their Olimpia Milano collection. ‘The next step is to set up training schools,‘ concludes Braccialini. Training to continue to dream (and produce) ethical fashion.
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