Empowerment through African Prints and Fair Trade Fashion

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What things do you pay attention to when you finally find that perfect piece of garment? How to care for it? How it was produced? For Stephanie Atieno, fashion is so much more than a piece of clothing – every aspect of it, from what appears to how it was made, is a potential for empowerment.

Stephanie shares with Hai Afrika the reason why she created her label, and also how she works towards empowering people around her through her eponymous fair trade fashion label.

 

Stephanie Atieno, empowering people through African prints and fair trade fashion

Stephanie Atieno, empowering people through African prints and fair trade fashion

 

Fair trade fashion all the way

When I started the business, I didn’t know that a lot of fabric in circulation in Africa was not actually from African manufacturers. Most of them comes for India and China. I have always wanted to build a fair trade fashion label. Using those fabrics were never an option, since I would have no idea how they treat the workers.

When I finally found a few that actually comes from Africa, I was very happy. The price was significantly higher, but that is normal for a fair trade fashion material. It’s always better to go local, and to know that the manufacturers of the fabric are employed in good working conditions.

I want my fair trade fashion label to contribute to the overall manufacturing in Africa as a whole. That is very important to me when I source for fabric. I focus on two points: First, where the fabric comes from, and second, who is the company that mass-manufactures my clothes.

The company has to be transparent and honest with the condition of the workplace. I partner with established organisation where i can actually visit and see the conditions of their employees. That’s how much I care about the origins of my fabric.

Currently I use Tanzanian fabric that goes into production in Kenya. I am planning to head down next year for a potential next collection. All in all, I always look forward to work with communities that helps to empower women. That is what fair trade fashion is all about.

 

African Prints as a Part of One’s Identity

Identity is a very important aspect of my life. A lot of my identity revolves around the fact that both my parents are Kenyan immigrants in America. I was raised with certain cultural values that are shared amongst Kenyan community.

I wanted to wear something that reflects this identity, something that I would wear to traditional Kenyan weddings, for instance. And yet, it is so difficult to find African prints around. You need to ask someone to sew it for you in Kenya, sometimes even without measurements. Hence, these tailored clothes are often not suitable for work, as they are a little too formal.

I wanted to create something that is African, but also relatable on an everyday basis. Take my own case, for instance. I work at a pharmaceutical company, dealing with clinical research. I work with people from eight to nine everyday, and the dress code tends towards business casual. How can I incorporate African prints into business casual wear? That is what my fair trade fashion brand is trying to address.

 

Choosing the Correct Prints

I try to find prints that are beautiful, but also muted at the same time. The apparel shouldn’t look too bright, bold or too eccentric to it. The piece may be an African fair trade fashion piece, but it should still look chic and contemporary, along the lines of “business casual”.

When I pick a print, I always visualise how it will look like when worn against something non-printed. If I make a skirt out of it, would I be able to wear it with something that is non-printed, so that there is a nice contrast? Will it still have an African flair to it?

Usually, I work with kitenge, which is 100% cotton with a thin layer or wax on top. It is easy to iron and you don’t have to worry about wax coming off. The material of kitenge usually has a superb quality that will last for quite some time. After all, people expect fair trade fashion to be of higher quality.

 

Care for Your Clothes, Care for Yourself

Aside from quality, I also want the collection to be a positive inspiration piece for women. I want my fair trade fashion pieces to be unique, in a way that when a woman puts on the garment, she will feel confident. She will feel empowered.

The idea came when I saw the care label behind clothing – dry clean only, hand wash, et cetera. At one point, my own life felt a bit stagnant, and I wanted to do some self-reflection. That was when I thought of the soft care tag – a second label beside the clothing care label. I thought it was a perfect fit for a fair trade fashion line to have this second label.

The care label contains information on how to care for your piece of clothing. This second label relays some simple motivational phrases for the women who puts on the clothing. Something like the following quote:

 

'While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.'  Benjamin Franklin

‘While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.’
Benjamin Franklin

 

I like this quote, as it reminds us that sometimes you can just take a moment to yourself before you start working on the many things that await you. It’s easy, not too loud, but it manages to incorporate that little spark of inspiration into people’s daily lives.

Fair trade fashion needs to do this. Because if you care that much about your clothes, you should also care about yourself and the bigger picture of your life, right?

 

Empowerment From All Angles

As you can see, I care about so many aspects of fashion. For me, fashion is about empowerment, and every aspect of it needs to reflect that. Fair trade fashion is an empowerment of people who makes the clothes; Choosing African prints is an empowerment of the African identity; and the special second tag is an empowerment of the wearer in the bigger picture of life.

Although some people may see these things as different, unrelated contexts, for me, they are all connected in a very special way. They empower women in various ways. And this is what I strive to do – making women feel empowered with my fair trade fashion label.

 

Stephanie Atieno is a fusion of East and West. It is a modern and contemporary approach to the African print. A conscious label that takes full responsibility of where and how it is made, it is made for people who really care about what they are wearing – for themselves, and for the world.

Find Stephanie Atieno at Zuvaa, in various pop up shops in New York, and on the International Commission of African Fashion.

Style the skirts with solids and still be perfect for office environments

Style the skirts with solids and still be perfect for office environments

Another example on how you can style the skirts with solids and still look appropriate for office environments

Another example on how you can style the skirts with solids and still look appropriate for office environments

 

Photo credits – Stephanie Atieno