Meet Ayesha Mustafa, an entrepreneur who, by fusing the worlds of ethical fashion and high fashion, is introducing a global audience to indigenous construction techniques and equipping marginalised artisans to become entrepreneurs.
Fashion ComPassion is not your typical retailer. The online shopping site features a cosmopolitan selection of accessories and apparel sourced from sustainable luxury brands from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. To work with Fashion ComPassion, brands must fulfil certain social responsibility criteria, including providing artisans with a percentage of profits and supporting them through skills training, entrepreneurship, flexible working hours, investment into communities and offering health care, education and child care. In doing so, Fashion ComPassion has begun refashioning quality workmanship, traditional motifs and indigenous materials into luxe, contemporary styles for savvy global consumers.
Livia Firth in a refashioned Afghan burqa
Launched in November 2010, the company shot to early fame when Livia Firth, the Italian eco-crusading wife of British actor Colin Firth, wore a dress conceived from an Afghan burqa as part of Vogue's Green Carpet Challenge.
Items currently retailing on the Fashion ComPassion website include statement scarves with Arabic calligraphy embroidery, such as the white pashmina by Palestyle (£50) made by Palestinian refugee women from Jordanian and Lebanese camps, and the Mir Poetry Scarf by Lost City Products (£100) embroidered with Urdu poetry from Lucknow, India. Also for sale is an understated grey Silk Turban Skirt by Beshtar, cleverly made in Afghanistan (£65) from Turan fabric, a traditional fabric used by tribesmen to swathe into turbans.
According to Mustafa, Fashion ComPassion's energetic founder and director, "socially responsible fashion means fashion that is fair and gives back to the people that create it and supports social causes." Brands must have a strong social mandate in order to qualify for this ethical fashion company that is, in essence, a socially responsible business that does not want to be mistaken for a charity.
Mustafa adds, "Although we offer niche products with a strong social message, I would like to target mainstream shoppers. I believe that for ethical fashion to gain momentum, it has to be embraced by the majority and made accessible to them."
Going by celebrity support, this may just be the case; Anne Hathaway, Jenny McCarthy, Eva Longoria and Lily Cole have all been spotted with trendy Fashion ComPassion brand bags including Gunas and Palestyle. From Stella McCartney to Vivienne Westwood, sustainable designer fashion has been spending an increasing amount of time on the runway and red carpet. And entrepreneurs like Mustafa want to keep it that way.
The alumnus of Mount Holyoke College has a global background that has taken her from Karachi and Lahore to Cairo, New York and Dubai, finally resting in London. Fashion ComPassion has participated in 17 events to date, ranging from talks and sales events to popup shops, mostly at hip London boutiques and galleries such as the Lahd Gallery in Hampstead, as well as in Paris and Dubai.
The Genteel caught up with Mustafa during a business trip to Pakistan, where she plans to venture into the retail market and will be participating with the label Élan at the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Fashion Week in Lahore.
Laaleen Sukhera Khan: What inspired Fashion ComPassion?
Ayesha Mustafa: It took me a long time to come up with this idea. I was interested in the element of fashion and in giving back to the environment and to people. It's been a long journey! Our brands invest back into communities, schooling and healthcare. They empower marginalised women through job creation, skills-training, fair wages and flexible hours. Our mission is to give a voice and platform to such brands and put them on the world map. We also donate funds to various international organisations.
LSK: Has your work experience in social and commercial organisations influenced this endeavour?
AM: While interning at Grameen Bank [a microfinance organisation] in Bangladesh, I witnessed first-hand how creating jobs and providing a sustainable solution for the poorest in the world had a monumental impact on families and communities. I wanted to take this forward in the best way that I could and help create a sustainable solution against poverty for women. Having worked in both PR and marketing, I had the experience and knowledge of brand building...so I didn't need to hire additional resources. I created my own marketing plan when I first started out and learnt a great deal from writing it.
Cotton pleat Scarecrow Trousers
LSK: How did Livia Firth end up in a Beshtar Burqa dress so soon after your launch?
AM: If you're passionate, things just happen! When I got started, Livia's stylist got in touch with me and fell in love with the (Classic Burgundy with halter neck) Burqa Dress that I'd worn to my event in Mayfair [London]. I had asked Beshtar to make dresses in different colours to appeal to an international audience. Livia loved her Classic Green with capped sleeves (she also has a black halter neck) Burqa Dress and it was included in the Observer's shoot for the Vogue Green Carpet Challenge in 2010. The dress also became part of the Oxfam Curiosity Shop in partnership with Selfridges. We'll also be participating at a private event held by Livia's stylist this October, covered by Vogue.
LSK: Sougha and Palestyle are both Middle Eastern brands. Do they have similar business models?
AM: Sougha is a social enterprise funded by the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. Women in the deprived outskirts of the UAE who are often second or third wives, are trained to create products. The British Embassy funded our initial project to train Sougha women for production. Sougha bags are handmade with biodegradable leather that the women themselves purchase from tanneries and embroider with Telli, a traditional Emirati technique used on wedding dresses and wealthy Bedouin tent décor. We basically buy the bags from the women.
Palestyle is a different model and serves to revive Pale embroidery and calligraphy. Bags are made in a very small workshop owned by a Palestinian refugee family who were sidelined when brands turned to bigger Lebanese factories. Even the gold calligraphy is hand-tooled. We produce small quantities and pay the family before we sell it.
LSK: Are you confident that all of your brands pay fair trade salaries?
AM: The brands that Fashion ComPassion work with have been set up on the premise of social entrepreneurship and adherence to fair trade practices. Some partner with a local organisation, NGO or craft council, training artisans, refugees or war widows. Some offer healthcare, others the option of part-time work. Some brands tell you how much they pay, others don't, and a lot of it is based on trust and local reputation. It's physically impossible to monitor every brand we work with. Whenever I bring in a new brand, I have a checklist of requirements from photo and video evidence of working conditions to personal recommendations. Workers should be equipped to become entrepreneurs once they leave an organisation.
LSK: Do you have any personal favourites among ethical fashion brands?
AM: I love clothes from Edun, From Somewhere and Henrietta Ludgate. I recently bought a beautiful vegan leather bag from one of the brands I work with, Gunas. It's a burnt orange tote with black trimmings and nickel-free studs and entirely created with eco-friendly materials!
Moon Clutch by Sougha (UAE).
LSK: What are your reasons for bringing the brand to Pakistan, your country of origin?
AM: Being Pakistani, I feel that if I can provide a market, awareness and revenue to socially responsible brands from other countries, then why not my own? I want to give artisans from Pakistan access to an international platform. There are already various organisations and brands that work to empower communities but the quality is not that of high-end fashion. They mainly cater to the local market and there is an element of pity buying. I want to demonstrate how fashion can simultaneously be socially responsible, luxurious, design-led and profitable.
LVMH is currently investing heavily into India and the reason this hasn't happened in Pakistan yet is because we haven't marketed it. Fashion ComPassion will also be partnering with the UN World Food Programme, whose funds get depleted at the end of a crisis. I'm going to be working with their rural microfinance loans specifically for Pakistan. A percentage of Fashion ComPassion bag sales will go towards this.
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