About two months ago we did a little shoot and I had all sort of plans creating a statement installation / performance at Night of a 1000 Drawings highlighting the process that goes in to creating a dress. I was to collaborate with an amazing visual artist and exhibit alongside some my favourite and most inspiring local designers and creatives. We all had conceptualised ideas around sustainability whether it be in our use of material, the actual production of a garment or finding ways to sustain our creative process in a time where such things are not valued.
I truly hope we get to realize this show when all returns to some form of normality, but it will be different, more personal and with a deeper layer added to it. I think or hope this crisis will give birth to something bigger, we need to learn from this. We need to be better, to do better and to stop pretending that everything is ok ... because it clearly is not
Today marks the 7th anniversary of the Rana plaza collapse and the start of the Fashion Revolution movement. Seven years and exactly how much has changed? The outbreak of COVID-19 has only highlighted how bad things have become in places like India: retrenched factory workers fleeing from overcrowded cities with nothing but the clothes on their backs, hoping for sanctuary in their home towns, being assaulted and mistreated on the way and dying next to the road.
All this because the business model - this fast fashion consumer culture that we have been brainwashed to believe is normal - is in awfully broken. It is not sustainable. It forces humans to work like slaves, it destroys the environment during the process of its production and leaves lasting traces long after the need for it to exist has passed.
During this past month that we have been forced to slow down and stop what we were so destructively busy doing, the earth has started to recover - skylines and rivers have become clear, and wildlife has popped up in unexpected places. The earth wants to and has the capacity to bounce back if we can just give it a moment, but the impact that the slowing down the global economy has had on the poorest of the poor is not such a hopeful image.
On a more local level things have developed differently. South Africa is a nation of entrepreneurs, local designers have been trained by circumstance to think outside the box and to MAKE IT WORK. So we have started making masks and medical kit. We have shared resources and ideas and supported one another – individually together, as it were.
It has been such a weird journey selling masks with a myriad of reactions from extremely supportive to utterly negative. It has woken a continuous struggle with the need to defend myself and justify my actions… and this is where it ties into the Fashion Revolution (in case you’ve been wondering)
Backstory: A while ago I did a pop-up sale in Brooklyn which is an upmarket shopping area in Pretoria. While browsing though my collection a lady asked quite sincerely “If it is made is South Africa why is it so expensive?” This was quite a light bulb moment for me because the average consumer does not know what goes into producing a garment or creating a brand that creates multiple sustainable jobs.
So yes; we are more expensive than shit imported from Bangladesh this is because we pay our staff fair wages. In many cases this is above what the government prescribes as minimum wage because the staff we employ are worth more than a minimum wage! They help develop the brand identity and even though they are not always publicly celebrated by the bands, they have in many cases become like family.
A couple of days ahead of the national lockdown our studio was split into bite sized pieces and moved into our homes. Lackson, who has been with SIES!isabelle since 2011, now has 3 sewing machines and other necessary equipment in his flat on the edge of Hillbrow where he is working alongside is wife and brother to make masks. Andrew who usually sews for HerRitual got an overlocker to go with his straight stitch machine and is also making masks form his flat in Johannesburg.
And so we adapt and survive…
It is weird, because without any discussion most local designers' masks are kinda in the same price range. Which might mean that more than one of us did the math and figured out that this is the minimum that we can change and still be sustainable. By this I don’t mean that this is what we are paying our machinists right now, but this is what we need to charge to keep paying out machinists and support staff indefinitely.
SIES!isabelle has always been a socially minded brand encouraging mentorship and working together with other creatives to build the industry as a whole. Same as most local designers, we have participated in and donated to our fair share of charity events. Making money off a pandemic has never been part of the master plan. True to our brand philosophy we have shared our patterns online as well as sewing instructions, we have donated masks to organisations and the public, and we will continue to do so. We will also support other designers creating because to paraphrase one of them – there is a place in the sun for all of us!
With our thoughts toward the post-pandemic future, how ever far away it may be, I want to urge everyone who has supported us during this time to continue shopping mindfully and to always be aware of the hands that made your clothes.
Isabelle Lotter; clothing designer with a passion for sharing ideas