Posts Tagged ‘sustainable design’

by Sass Brown

Maria Teresa Leal, known as Tete to her friends, is a force to be reckoned with.  The founder, driving force, and visionary behind COOPA-ROCA, the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she has powered this group of artisans from home sewers and craft workers to creative partners with some of the foremost fashion, interior and installation artists around the world.  An arts educator by training, mentored by the famous educator and theorist, Paulo Freire, she founded COOPA-ROCA in the early 1980’s.

Visiting the family housekeeper in the favela (read urban slum) on the weekend, Tete was encouraged by the residents, to establish free Saturday craft classes for the children of the favela.  Bored with teaching art to the children of Rio’s elite, she was excited and enthused by the eagerness of the children of Rocinha.  Intercepted by the mothers of the children one day, as she was delivering a bag of textile scraps to her class, she was persuaded that they could put better use to the scraps of fabric than their children. Tete watched as the women fashioned all manner of home wares from these unwanted scraps of fabric, working with techniques like patchwork and fuxico, a type of patchwork that is made from circles of fabric gathered into a centre and attached to each other, and so the sparks of what would become COOPA-ROCA were ignited.

The craftwork produced by the artisans became the idea behind organizing the women into a cooperative. Focusing initially on organizing and evaluating the women’s skill set, a small production force was developed to produce decorative craftwork by reviving traditional Brazilian craft techniques.  Impressed by the range of skills and techniques the women knew, Tete began prompting the women into improving their techniques and standardizing their workmanship.  At first selling the simple hand crafted home wares at local markets, over the years Tete has built the cooperative into an internationally recognized creative powerhouse.  Partnering with designers such as Osklen, Lenny, Cacharel, Paul Smith, Agent Provocateur, Lacoste and C&A.  COOPA-ROCA have also worked withinstallation artists Ernesto Neto and Tord Boontje, and decorated lounges at the Salon di Mobili Milan, Rio and Sao Paulo fashion weeks, and the New York Craft Fair.

The mission of the cooperative is to provide work to the female residents of Rocinha, arguably the largest favela in South America, with somewhere around 180,000 residents, allowing them to work from home, and contribute to the family income without neglecting their domestic duties, hence improving their quality of life.  The cooperative has approximately 150 members along with some important partners in the fashion and interior design, and installation art markets.  Partnerships have been developed through commitment and dedication to networking, along with Tete’s ongoing determination to promote the work done by the cooperative of artisans.  A fierce advocate for COOPA-ROCA, she does not allow anyone to take advantage of the artisans.

There are no reliable figures on the exact number of inhabitants in Rocinha, due to the fact that the favela’s are not a product of urban planning, but an outgrowth of a burgeoning population of residents migrating from the drought ridden North East of the country, otherwise known as Nordineastas.  Much as the usual global pattern of urban poverty, many of the residents of urban ghetto’s migrate from rural areas, in the hope of finding more and better opportunities to provide for their families in the city, when the reality is sadly often the reverse.  Subject to prejudice and racism, the often under-educated residents, also become the under or unemployed, creating the raw material for the rampant drug trafficking gangs in the area.  Denied opportunities for lawful and legal employment, most people will do what they must to support their families, leaving many few choices.

The favela itself is a cubist jungle of cinderblock apartments, one teetering on top another, often several stories high, rising up the hill situated between two of the richest areas of Rio, Gavea and Leblon, home to Rio’s elite gated communities and private schools. Disparities between rich and poor in Brazil are stark, with public health and education incomparable between neighbors.  Rocinha ranks as the 6th worst municipality in Rio.  There is not one single local hospital or doctor for that matter within the confines of the favela.  The residents have an average of 4.1 years of formal education, with less than 1% of the adult population earning a degree above high school diploma level.  Although most houses have basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity, the streets are narrow without gutters, turning them into rivers during the rainy season, with make shift electrical wires criss crossing the narrow streets.

Tete, an Ashoka and Lead International fellow, has been involved with programs related to UNDP, NGO’s, local and federal government organizations, been awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Claudia Award Finalist, amongst many other accolades.

The development of ‘special’ projects has strengthened the cooperatives network as well as served to promote the sustainability of the cooperative in the long term.  Projects have included the design and production of a limited CD box set for Brazils Culture minister, Gilberto Gill, covered in patchwork, a special presentation at Selfridges department store in London in celebration of the year of Brazil, which included a magnificent fuxico shirt for Paul Smith, a fashion show in Paris in collaboration with Cacharel, with the cooperative reworking and reinterpreting the collection, and various installation pieces for artists, Ernesto Neto, and Tord Boontje, which includes a wonderful hand crocheted light fixture knows as the Come Rain, Come Shine Chandelier.

Unemployment and under employment is the bane of existence for migrants who have settled in the favelas. Tetê realizes that, despite good intentions, small enterprise programs generally fail because they do not consistently produce high quality goods, they don’t understand and develop markets, they fail to make best use of their workers’ skills, and they fail to see themselves as viable, competitive manufacturers competing in a global economy. Tetê’s pioneering work with the artisans of Rocinha has revealed two realities about business and poverty, one, that workshops owned by poor women can compete in the world of high fashion; and two, that making quality goods is an effective means for poor women to compete in global markets, as well as act as a means to earn a descent living. Rather than organize poor women to produce poor goods, Tetê has raised both the standard of the product and the living standard of those producing the good. This philosophy guides the cooperative, defining a standard of best practices in community development and fair labor standards.

There have been many challenges in the development of the co-operative, however COOPA-ROCA continues to expand their commercial partnerships while increasing the scale of production and the number of its members. COOPA-ROCA are now moving onto a new stage in their development, and are in the process of developing the COOPA-ROCA brand by producing a small collection of mixed fashion, accessories and interior items for sale through their own e-commerce site.



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by Sass Brown       

The premium denim market has been trending towards artisanal denim for quite some time now. However, what masquerades in advertising campaigns as hand distressed denim, too often translates to abysmal working conditions and production scale sand blasting, not individual hand deconstruction.  The sight of lines of workers wearing protective clothing and welding helmets, or simple bandanas tied around their face, in factories already steamy from hot washing and dying processes, armed with high velocity sand blasting machines, the grit creating a constant rain, breaking down to silica particles, and responsible for lung disease, hardly constitutes fair trade.  Nor does it gel with the TV imagery of the boyfriend lovingly toiling away with his hand tools to replicate the years of wear in his favorite pair of jeans, as a gift to his girlfriend.

The Clean Clothes Campaign recently targeted denim manufacturers in a high profile campaign designed to raise awareness about the process of sandblasting in jeans production, and spotlight those that refuse to stop using this destructive practice.  Turkey recently enacted a countrywide ban on sandblasting after 46 former operators contracted silicosis.   Several manufacturers have also recently denounced its use and banned it in the production of their own jeans, including Levi’s and H&M.  However, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana steadfastly hold onto the practice, with what the Clean Clothes Campaign describes as “total indifference” to their campaign.  Dolce and Gabbana raised particular ire when they returned a call from the Clean Clothes Campaign notifying them of their intent to target the company, with D&G reportedly saying “thanks for the information (but) it did not interest them”.

There are some artisan jeans however, that are just that, hand made, each one unique.  Denim at this level of the market is truly luxury,

courtesy of Denham Jeans

produced mostly in Japan and Italy, and sold exclusively through high-end retailers such as Colette, Paris.  Dutch brand Denham is one such label, with an extensive line of hand constructed denim jeans individually hand sewn by artisans, in their production facilities in Hiroshima, Japan.  As it says on their website “Made in Japan with 100% artistry, love, passion and NO shoes.”  This is a place where denim finishing is considered an art, where the knowledge base to perfectly deconstruct a pair of jeans is highly prized, not downgraded in a conveyor belt mentality of quantity versus quality.  This is a company that ‘worships tradition’ while embodying the rebel attitude of James Dean or a young Marlon Brando.  Their women’s Boyfriend jean for example, is made in strictly limited numbers, and ‘leaked’ to a highly select group of global retailers. Their production facility is the antithesis of a sweatshop, clean, Zen, and bright, where jeans are hand finished and constructed not in the factory piece work system, where individual sewers do only one small repetitive task, so as to achieve maximum speed.  Denham jeans are constructed holey by individual sewers.

The latest addition to the custom denim market is 3X1, so called after the standard right-hand twill weave construction specific to typical denim.  Based in New York, they are taking luxury jeans to the next level, with total customization, for the denim connoisseur.  Scott Morrison, a veteran from Paper Denim & Cloth, Earnest Sewn and Evisu, founded this unique retail store, showroom space and production facility in Soho, New York, as a reaction to economies of scale, and simply as a place to do one thing “really, really well”. The studio style environment beautifully merges with the old loft style building in New York’s Soho, and incorporates a custom tailor shop, and a textile merchant (all be it specializing in denim), all in one.  A customer can order jeans on the premises from a multitude of styles, fits, denim, finish, studs and stitch color, with over a hundred different denims to choose from, and endless permutations of cut, fit, finish and material.   Capacity production is twenty-five pairs of hand made, made to order jeans a day.  This is truly denim as a luxury item, not to mention an antithetical statement to global branding, with no name and only a discreet selvedge tab folded inside the back right pocket.

photo by ian Allen

The use of vegetable dyes, natural indigo and water cleaning systems go a long way to improving a product that is responsible for major pollution, as well as labor violations.  In a world where water is beginning to be valued as a non renewable natural resource, that is being depleted at an alarming rate by agri-farming and bottled water companies, the embedded water content in a pair of jeans is alarmingly high. Traditionally made of cotton, a water hungry crop, the calculated embedded water content, the amount of water used to make a product from production of the raw materials, in an average pair of jeans, is 10,850 liters, that is approximately equal to 72 1/3 bathtubs full of water!  With 450 million pairs of jeans sold annually in the US alone, that adds up to approximately 4.8 trillion liters of water, or roughly the equivalent of half of California’s entire yearly urban water demand!

Conventional cotton farming has long been responsible for upwards of twenty-five percent of all insecticide use worldwide, yet the denim market has been slow to embrace the use of organic cotton.  The rules for organic cotton production, spinning and weaving are strict.  It takes a farmer three full years to turn around a conventional cotton crop to an organic one, to ensure that all pesticides have been eradicated from the groundwater, and the soil where the plant is grown.  In which time the farmer looses the scale of cotton production only achievable through the use of pesticides and insecticides, while not yet able to gain organic prices for his crop; an expensive endeavor for a farmer who needs outside support to see them through this ‘transitional’ stage.  All spinning, dying and finishing then needs to be wholly separated from conventional cotton, for fear of contamination.

courtesy of Nudie Jeans Co

Nudie Jeans from Sweden are one of a few companies however that produce a full range of one hundred percent organic cotton jeans, along with blended organic and conventional denim, and recycled denim fiber. They also utilize potato starch and pre-reduced indigo in place of chemical alternatives. Working exclusively with natural indigo instead of the hydrosulfite synthetic version, which allows them to biodegrade the exhausted dye-baths through simple waste disposal systems, instead of polluting the environment.  Proponents of the superior qualities of genuine indigo dye, as true denim elitists, they recognize the ancient and epic history of this ancient practice dating back to Pharaonic times.

Denham recently launched a range of Virgin jeans made from paper selvedge.  Consisting of fifty percent recycled Japanese paper pulp and fifty percent indigo cotton, the jeans are designed to be worn in more quickly, and have an ultra lightweight feel.  They come packaged in a zip up denim laundry bag and are accompanied by a bar of Cathartic soap made of natural enzymes, and formulated to preserve the paper selvedge.

Italian label, Naked Ape Eco Clothing, so named to represent our natural, naked, non-polluting past, work only with natural and wholly organic fibers, certified by a laundry list of accredited certification bodies, including Ecocert, USDA and the Soil Association.  This is not a brand that does things by halves, their entire collection of denim and cotton twill; unisex pants are made from organic cotton.  The full collection includes super skinny chino’s and carrot tops; how the Italians refer to low crotch styles, in a wide range of neutrals, pastels and brights, and include a full range of fits, cuts, washes and finishes, in a down to earth, democratic package.

UK brand Monkee Genes was born in 2006 by Road Team.  With a twenty-five year heritage in the denim industry, the founders were

photo courtesy of Monkey Jeans

bored with the conventional denim market, and decided to produce their own change by founding the company, and invigorating it with a fresh, vibrant and youthful direction.  Monkee Genes produce one hundred percent certified organic denim and cotton Jeans with a retro twist, innovative fits and styles, all in classic denim and vibrant cotton sateen.   With an Indie Jean rebellious heart, their motto is No blood.   No sweat.  No tears.  The brand focus on the Fair Trade aspect of production, and were the first and only jeans manufacturer to be awarded the soil Associations Global Organic Textile Standard, requiring that all factory working standards are considered as important environmental factors.

Haikure is a brand new Italian denim label on the market from this fall, winter season.  The label name is based on the tradition of restrictive Japanese poetry – Haiku, combined with the endings of the words; nature, future and pure. This lifestyle brand proposes exclusive, elegant and refined denim garments, entirely created by means of eco-sustainable materials and processing.  Each pair of jeans carries a QR label, which allows you to track all the production information of each individual pair of jeans through the use of any camera equipped mobile device, and an internet connection.  With detailed information from the certification of the organic cotton, to the production of each trim and treatment, the brand aim at complete transparency, in a market that has traditionally been anything but.

Denim jeans have become the great social leveler, with their history stemming from work wear, they are democratic by their nature, despite the price tag that comes with premium denim. Comparing the denim market to the mainstream fashion industry is a bit like comparing dog years to human years – the denim market has 7 new trends for every regular fashion season.    At least now the latest trend seems to be sustainable denim!  So now there is no reason to sacrifice style or fit to dress with conscience in the latest denim trend.

You can sign the Clean Clothes Campaign’s petition to tell D&G, Armani and Cavalli to stop using sandblasting at www.change.org/petitions/dolce-gabbana-stop-the-killer-jeans.

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