The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Photograph by Amanda Coen.

In search of more ethical ways to approach fashion, many socially-minded designers have been collaborating with artisans and local cooperatives the world over. They are fusing traditional techniques with modern designs and introducing new sources of revenue to small communities. In return, new colours, materials and aesthetics are entering the marketplace, opening fashionable eyes and minds to new people and places. 

Two local artisans prepare a loom for
weaving in Patacancha.
Photograph by Amanda Coen.

With each seasonal collection comes a unique story of the origin of the textiles and the inspiration behind the designs. Designers have the freedom to take an eagle's eye survey when sourcing their materials, often trying to strike a balance between cost efficiency and their moral compass. However, as trends pass, collaborations are also often short-lived. The artisans who provided the initial inspiration and vibrant touches continue to practice their craft long after the collaboration ends with hopes that new economic opportunities will arise.

Unlike what often becomes a "loot and leave" approach, Awamaki, a Peru-based organisation, has chosen to entrench itself for the long term. In 2009, founders Kennedy Leavens and Miguel Galdo Espinoza took over operations from CATCCO, an organisation dedicated to showcasing local weaving traditions in and around Ollantaytambo, Peru. Knowing CATCCO was coming to a close, weavers from the Patacancha Valley, a neighbouring mountain community located above Ollantaytambo, approached Leavens and Espinoza with concerns over their future. Hence, the birth of Awamaki. 

Since its start, Awamaki's work has always been greatly influenced by its surroundings. Ollantaytambo is a small town in the Sacred Valley located between Cusco and Machu Picchu. The organisation initially focused on weaving, an integral part of Andean culture. The region's warp-faced weaving traditions were oriented around the agrarian calendar and developed over the course of the past four millennia. When Machu Picchu gained official recognition as a cultural heritage site, Ollantaytambo saw a huge influx in tourism - thousands of tourists currently pass through the town daily (Ollantaytambo is the last stop on the train before Machu Picchu). Consequently, traditions that were once practiced as domestic pastimes suddenly became commercialised by the tourism market, offering artisans a new source of income. 

Realising the potential for growth and the variety of talented local artisans with limited access to new markets, Awamaki gradually expanded. The organisation now works with local women's sewing, weaving, spinning and knitting cooperatives, has created a sustainable tourism program and continues to build on its education program. It specifically targets marginalised populations from vulnerable, peripheral neighborhoods around Ollantaytambo who might not otherwise be able to fully harness new opportunities. 

Seeing design as an innovative way to fuel development, Awamaki Lab was launched in 2010 by Annie Millican. A flood hit the region, decimating the tourism market which had created a monopoly economy that local artisans relied on for income. Knowing diversification was key, Millican started Lab as a way to foster mission-driven collaborations with designers, boost Awamaki's international presence and help provide a dependable stream of income for local artisans. Awamaki Lab now serves as the design research and development arm of the organisation, working to create quality products which are distinguishable from other fair-trade offerings that have increasingly saturated the market.

Mediating between craftswomen's economic needs and market demands creates unique challenges that drive innovation.

While Awamaki has faced many hurdles, it has also learned some valuable lessons. Awamaki Lab has been able to bring three international designers to work with local women, creating two collections that highlight the rich Andean hand-woven textile culture. Not only do the results of such collaborations create new sales channels, but, as Millican points out, "The interactions themselves also introduce concepts of socially-responsible production practices to the next generation of fashion designers." The collections have been sold across the United States in a series of intimate trunk shows, raising a new challenge: how to meet production demands.  

As Awamaki is an NGO, there is always a fine balance between having patience and generating income. While growth is welcome, it takes time and needs to be allowed to happen organically as the women's skills evolve. Rather than firing artisans who are not able to produce everything perfectly and with the most efficiency the first time, Awamaki focuses on offering their cooperative members the technical training that will allow them to be self-sufficient in the long run. 

Even though many artisans are still in the learning stage, the women are given a fair wage and gradually perfect their techniques as they go. However, working with Awamaki raises new challenges such as following patterns and designs, creating consistent products and working to meet strict deadlines. For this reason, designers that choose to contribute to Awamaki Lab must be highly sensitive to the artisans' abilities and work within those constraints. As Millican explains, "Mediating between craftswomen's economic needs and market demands creates unique challenges that drive innovation in both program and product development."

To expedite the learning curve, Awamaki offers regular capacity building workshops. Women learn to spin, weave to measure, improve their teaching skills (which they then impart on tourists) and how to standardise the natural dye process for more consistent colour results. They also have the chance to improve their entrepreneurial skills with the hopes that they will eventually be able to self-organise and have direct access to local markets. Resident designers with Awamaki Lab also work arduously with seamstresses, encouraging them to engage in the design process and take pride in and ownership of their work. 

Estela Mamani Cayllahua and Gargi Agrawal

Awamaki seamstress Estela Mamani
Cayllahua (left) and designer
Gargi Agrawal (right).
Photograph by Amanda Coen.

With much anticipation for what's to come, valuable insight has been gained from previous trunk shows in America. While the clothing featured touches of beautiful, hand-woven textiles, the designers found that those within the demographic that could afford the items were interested in seeing more of the actual textiles. Lesson in hand, Awamaki is now concentrating not so much on clothing, as on product development. Short-term design residents have created tote bags, iPad cases and bucket bags that have sold well in the local store and will soon be tested on an international platform. 

To introduce the products internationally, a Tupperware-style trunk show model is being developed. Awamaki will identify ambassadors who will then host the shows in their homes or local venues, create their own guest list and curate a list of products they want to offer. While attendees will have the opportunity to purchase a few of the already existing clothing designs, the focus will be on textile-laden products. 

The process will undoubtedly take years to perfect but improvements are seen on a regular basis within each cooperative. The seamstresses have begun to foresee potential design problems and troubleshoot on their own. They are creating patterns and beginning to organise themselves outside of Awamaki. For instance, Justa Mercado Torres, one of the industrious seamstresses, organised a women's cooperative in her hometown of Rumira and has saved enough money to buy an industrial sewing machine for the group. Mercedes Durand, Coordinator of the Weaving Project, makes regular trips to the rural communities where Awamaki works to place orders, do quality control and conduct workshops to help the women learn how to weave to order. Dye master Daniel Sonqo Gayoso runs four teñidos, or dye workshops, per year with the local communities, bringing his knowledge of how to make the most of native dye plants and encourage the sharing of traditional knowledge. The spinners are improving their techniques as well, creating consistent hand-spun skeins of yarn that are then transformed by the knitting cooperative into knitwear sold in the Awamaki Store. 

Awamaki Lab pieces from Andria Crescioni
(right), Gargi Agrawal (top left) and
seamstresses Justa Mercado Torres, Estela
Mamani Cayllahua and Florentina Mercado
Santacruz (bottom left).
Photograph by Amanda Coen.

Beyond its own doors, Awamaki has also received international attention. The United Nations recognised Awamaki's capacity building efforts and awarded the organisation a grant to expand their work with the knitting cooperative. The money will go towards knitting classes to improve the quality of Awamaki's products, the women's understanding of knitting theory and to construct individual workshops in each of their homes to ease the work process. Some of the funds will also allow the women to participate in small fairs and markets, building their entrepreneurial and networking skills that will be necessary for them to eventually operate independently. 

Awamaki is not the only on-the-ground based organisation working with local artisans. Organisations and brands such as Indego Africa, Source4Style and Andean Collection have found ways to harness local talent and help facilitate access to far-away markets through international collaboration. Chrissie Lam, founder of Supply Change and the recently launched Fashion Designers Without Borders (FDWB), is one such individual who sees the potential in designer-artisan collaborations. Lam notes, "Collaborations with large fashion brands are helping small-to-midsize, artisan social enterprises around the world double, if not triple, their growth each year. Coming from a trend forecasting background of 12 years, I can tell you that this concept is not a trend, but is here to stay. Fashion brand-social enterprise partnerships are the future of the fashion industry." 

FDWB will offer sourcing safaris whereby designers hoping to work with social and environmental causes will have the opportunity to travel and experience firsthand the places and faces behind their sources.

With plenty of opportunities in hand, Awamaki will soon have to decide how much it can take on. The temptation to dive into the limelight always exists, but as an organisation with a long-term vision and commitment to developing vital skills, it will have to be careful to remain sensitive to the artisans' capabilities, ways of life and actual desires. Rather than conforming to trend-driven seasonal fashion collections, Awamaki Lab hopes to offer an iterative, thoughtfully designed range of core products. Hence, a slow-fashion ethos becomes inherent across the board as human needs are put before a high-stakes fashion calendar which often only brings short-term gains for the lucky few.



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