My family have been textile traders since the past four generations – international textile agents. My great grandfather was one of the first people in Australia to import textiles from England in the 1800’s and this business was handed down to my grandfather and then my father. Both my parents worked in the business and travelled widely to many of the textile hubs of the world, India of course being one of them. Textiles seems to have become a part of my DNA.
With a life long yearning to visit India, in my late 30’s I finally made the trip, which was a turning point of my life when I fell in love with the people, the culture and the place. From thereon I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time in this vast sub-continent which would no doubt take a life time to discover all there is. I have since then shared this passion with my two daughters, who like me, love the people and the diversity of Indian culture. The three of us have dedicated much of our time to an NGO in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Since the past 18 years I was a partner and creative director in a design and brand agency, taking me into the world of fashion photography for many campaigns. This opened my eyes to the incredible skill of the couturiers and the craftsmanship used to adorn the haute couture garments on the international runways. It became apparent that much of the intricate beading and embroidery that Australian designer incorporated into their garments was being outsourced to artisans in India without giving them their due. Because of the middle men these artisans are most likely underpaid or working in very poor conditions.
The thing that struck me was the great dichotomy between a fast paced, dazzling world of fashion and the relentless poverty of the rural textile artisan – despite the skilled hand work they contribute to this glamorous world. This proved as a catalyst in founding Artisans of Fashion – a social enterprise that promotes and supports the traditional craftspeople with a compelling campaign to raise consumer awareness and create direct link for the rural artisans who have suffered the relentless cycle of poverty, despite having such extraordinary skills.
Discovering the vast number of techniques and different skills across every state of India has been a slow task in itself. In the meantime I have explored techniques and artisan communities that are accessible and whose skills and some level of management structure can meet upto the expectations of the international market. Naturally that comes with an understanding and compromise on both sides, which is part of this engagement that is mutually enriching.
There are number of people in India and also fellow ‘Indophiles’ in Australia who have been great supporters and provided me with contacts and information to assist me in my mission. Sharing information and supporting each others’ causes is something I’m always keen to promote.
Artisans of Fashion is now focussed on becoming more sustainable and has recently become a go-to-source in Australia for young designers and brands who are interested in working with artisans on an ethical basis. We are also in the process of developing textile tours – structured workshops for graduating students in both Interior and Fashion design whereby they spend part of their course studying the specific weaving or printing techniques before spending a number of weeks working with the artisans on their designs. We see this as opening up long term partnerships and opportunities for designers to share their skills and also source directly from artisans, which of course is mutually beneficial with an agency service which represents NGO’s and ethically run organisations in India in the Australian market. This is with the hope that we can make the somewhat complex and daunting thought of production in India far more accessible – also providing a viable alternative for production to China.
It is these products that AOF will sell through an online boutique, trunk shows and wholesale customers who not only love the products but will also share the stories, the provenance and value the craftsmanship that each piece entails.
I have met so many extraordinary people working towards a common aim, preserving the traditional crafts and heritage of this magnificent country; as well as creating life changing opportunities for women living in marginalised communities through the introduction of traditional and regional craft skills.
There is one project which requires immediate attention is the Panchachuli Women Weavers on a rehabilitation project in Kedarnath Valley in Uttarakhand. The project provides skill training in spinning high quality, natural yarn which is used in luxurious hand woven products by the survivors of the landslides and flooding last July. It involves around 300 women and some of the elderly who were left behind. 30,000 people lost their lives in that disaster and very little is being done to help, despite the media hype. The next monsoon season is looming and we need to engage as many people as possible to support this worthy cause.
Australian cricket legend Brett Lee is an ambassador for the project. We have the Six Stitcher scarf hand woven by the Panchachuli Women Weavers which not only provides these women with regular work but 20% of the profit is allocated for their upliftment. These scarves are available online (www.sixstitcher.com) and we are currently looking for a retail partner in India to increase their sales. The NGO is called Mandakani Women Weavers, it was established by Mukti Datta who also founded Panchachuli Women Weavers in Almora, which is a great success story women.
Being a part of this has been awe inspiring. I feel humbled and very motivated, and am hoping that through AOF we can create awareness-direct link between artisan groups and generate opportunities that will change many lives.
–Written by Caroline Poiner, Founder, Artisans of Fashion
“Promoting Cultural Sustainability,Authenticity and Social Change”