The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Tribal Kilim flat woven carpets or rugs produced from the Balkans to Pakistan. Source:

"Tribal textiles are primarily a woman's art form, and are imbued with the heritage of the group," says Susan Stem, a collector, dealer, and owner of Tribal Trappings in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Stem's sentiments go to the essence of tribal textiles and it is precisely the tradition and heritage of tribal textiles that evokes such mixed emotions about their use in designer fashion. 

Photograph courtesy of Tribal Trappings.

When Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten and Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière showcased a mix of handmade silks, tribal designs and neo-nomadic prints on the catwalks of Paris and New York, in their Spring 2010 collections, some may have been surprised. noted the season's trend as a diversion from traditional spring florals, describing the tribal motifs as "Engineered for maximum impact." However, despite recent popularity, the tribal trend in fashion is nothing new; collectors and crafters have been designing with tribal textiles for decades. 

Initially, the marriage of tribal textiles and high fashion seems like a match made in heaven. As Alleson Kase, of Tammachat Natural Textiles, notes, tribal textiles as rich in form, colour and texture, and, most importantly, they are handmade. Like haute couture, each piece is unique and almost a collector's item. When expert tailoring and master craftsmanship is added to the combination, the end result is best described as high fashion meets raw exoticism.

But this union of worlds on the catwalk isn't without some issues. According to Stem, tribal identity and status is often conveyed by textile patterns and inherently reflects this on the wearer. "Tribal textiles can tell the histories and myths of the tribe and thus are often made and used for ritual purposes," explains Stem. This exalted use means that the textiles are made with the utmost care and skill, and are kept as heirlooms - they also impart status to the maker. 

Tribal textiles are completely made by hand and are usually labour and skill-intensive, requiring the use of techniques such as "ikat" (a resist-dyed patterning technique done to the threads before weaving) and discontinuous supplementary weft weaving (often called "embroidery on the loom"). The tedious nature of these techniques make mass production largely unviable. Even among many tribal women, these practices are dying out because of the significant amount of labour involved for such small monetary remuneration.

Nonetheless, can tribal craft and high fashion meet somewhere in the middle? The world of fashion moves at an accelerated pace, with changes in style coming and going faster than traditional textiles can be produced. One way the fashion industry is getting around this is by working with pre-owned textiles. Pre-owned tribal textiles often come from financially-challenged areas such as northern Vietnam (where the Hmong tribes live) or from Burma or Tibet. Whether this is a positive or negative course of action depends on how the issue is handled.

The world of fashion moves at an accelerated pace, with changes in style coming and going faster than traditional textiles can be produced.

Fair traders can find artisans willing to sell pre-owned textiles for a fair price and then use those textiles to make one-of-a-kind, high-end items sold in limited editions. This ensures that the sellers are getting a fair price for their textiles, rather than just giving away part of their cultural heritage for pennies. Small traders (Tribal Trappings, Tammachat Natural Textiles, Studio Naenna and Sop Moei Arts are all based on the countries where the textiles are produced and work closely with the local weavers) are able to handle this efficiently for artisans. These business are focused on establishing relationships with local textile makers and paying fairly for their intricate handiwork. 

For example, a single piece of textile the size of a blanket could take several weeks to finish. If bought at a price considered acceptable locally (about $20 or so), it would mean that the artisan ends up making just pennies per hour for her work. Fair traders usually pay weavers by the hour or the day instead, ensuring a fair wage not only for the artisan's labor but also for the quality of the item produced. 

By acknowledging tribal textiles with the respect they deserve, high fashion may in fact be doing itself a favour and getting something exceptional in return. How this will pan out for all parties involved depends greatly on what the big players’ next step will be. We can only hope it will be a fair one.



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