Fashion might seem like nothing but glamour—all runway shows, stiletto heels, and fabulous gowns. But as designers Prabal Gurung and Aurora James told Vogue’s Virginia Smith at today’s Forces of Fashion conference, making clothes can also be a force for good. Both designers—Gurung at his eponymous label and James at Brother Vellies—partner with artisans around the world, allowing them to build strong relationships with the people who make their garments and accessories. For James, her business grew out of the time she spent with South African artisans who make traditional footwear. Gurung, meanwhile, has worked with cashmere producers in his native Nepal to ensure his products are made in sustainable ways and in factories that employ fair working practices.
It is a testament to both designers’ skill that working responsibly and ethically has done nothing but bolster their creative output. Here, some highlights from their insightful discussion that covered everything from how fashion can support workers’ rights to why consumers should pay a premium for consciously made goods.
Aurora James on How She Finds Artisans Around the World
James started her business working with artisans in South Africa and has since expanded her production to nearly a dozen countries. “A lot of it, in the beginning, was on the ground, and I still do that now and then. We have a lot of partner organizations that will refer people to us; the United Nations, for example, are the ones that brought us into Ethiopia. With our workshop in Mexico, it was actually one of our assistants who was born and raised in Mexico who found both of our workshops for making the cowboy boots and the huaraches. So it can really be all sorts of different ways, but it’s about vetting them and making sure they are working in ways that make sense for us.”
Prabal Gurung on How Fashion Allowed Him to Create Change
After admitting that he came to the United States to meet Oprah—with a joking laugh—Gurung talked about how, after seeing his collection on the cover of a magazine in 2011, he made the choice to do more than just make clothes. With his siblings, he established the Shikshya Foundation in Nepal that provides education to underprivileged children and will soon start educating incarcerated women. “In eight years we’ve been able to impact over 50,000 lives,” Gurung told the audience. “The reason I wanted to do it was that fashion is great, and that’s my first love, and I love doing all of that. But it can’t just be about that; it has to be more than that. The Instagram followers and the platforms that we all have, it can’t just be for my selfies, you know? It would have to be for something else. I want to give back.”
Aurora James on How to Make Sure Global Production is Up to Humane Standards
After toying with the idea of opening her own factories in the early stages of her business, James had a realization: “The best person to run a workshop in this community is someone that’s from this community and knows this community from top to bottom. It was really about finding those groups of people and finding people who care deeply, deeply about what they’re doing and then just saying, ‘What workload can you handle?’” Today she produces Brother Vellies in nine countries—South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Bali, Italy, and Mexico.
She checks in on the factories daily on What’s App and Line. What’s more, she is finely aware of the human cost of making her products, and she works to ensure that her suppliers are not stretched beyond their limits. “If you can only make 35 bags—guess what?—we’re only making 35 bags, because if we push it beyond that, that’s when things start getting compromised. Setting those boundaries as a designer also has a lot to do with luxury.”
James and Gurung on the Cost of Speaking Out
After sharing statistics about black female entrepreneurs, including that only .5% of companies have a female African American CEO and that only 37 black women have raised more than $1,00,000 from venture capitalists, James noted that those opportunities only grow smaller when you are as vocal about causes as she is. “When you speak out about things, people don’t like that either,” she began. “There’s a lot of money that has come off the table for me by advocating for Planned Parenthood. It’s really amazing to get an award at the Congressional Black Caucus from Planned Parenthood, but at the same time, you know you might have just lost your retailers in Texas.”
“That is so true,” Gurung added.
“And it’s not always direct and obvious. A lot of times, it hits you in weird ways down the road,” James continued.
“I think the biggest way to change is a seat at the decision-making table,” Gurung said of how the backlash could be prevented in the future. “It has to be 50% or more minorities. There’s no doubt about it.”
Aurora James on How to Shop Sustainably on a Budget
“Vintage is always my default,” James told an audience member who asked about the high price of sustainably made fashion. “I would also say we need to reframe and think differently about how we assemble our wardrobes and talk about personal style. Because I only have a limited amount of closet space, I want to make sure if I bring something into my life, it’s going to stay in my life for an incredibly long time, and it’s going to be woven into the intuitive style DNA that I already have. When I think about things, I think about it literally as a cost for wear.”
Go Behind the Scenes at the 2019 Forces of Fashion Conference:
Go Behind the Scenes at the 2019 Forces of Fashion Conference
Originally Appeared on Vogue