How Fashion Can Empower Impoverished Communities
Behind every piece of clothing is a story. This story reflects not only people’s functional needs but also the craftsmanship and cultural influences that brought an idea from the design sketch to the final product. Fashion can empower indigenous and impoverished communities both through what it can do and how manufacturers produce it.

Empowerment Through Fashion

This empowerment comes in primarily two forms. Fashion can provide communities with the freedom and resources to engage with and express themselves and their own culture. It can also fulfill functional purposes and help displaced or disadvantaged communities become self-sufficient and monetarily independent.

In a conversation with The Borgen Project, Christopher Aaron, a recent graduate from the AAS program in Fashion Design at Parson’s School of Design, underscored the need for brands to respect the ecosystem and cultural identity of the people they are trying to empower.

Another problem, which Aaron highlights, is that since many artisans channel their own and their community’s unique history into their craft, incorporating their artisanal style or cultural symbols into a mass-produced good may commercialize rather than empower their work. Wanting to help indigenous and impoverished communities through fashion is no doubt commendable, but fashion brands should help in a way that does not appropriate, exploit or dilute local cultures.

Two brands that exemplify how fashion can empower indigenous and impoverished communities are ADIFF and Artisan Global. Rather than exploiting cultures to further their own ambitions, they enable these communities to take ownership of their own heritage in both an artistic and a material sense.

ADIFF – Empowerment through Functional and Sustainable Fashion

ADIFF is a sustainable fashion brand with the mission to “empower marginalized communities and fight climate change through fashion.” It aims to do so by designing clothes with a functional benefit to refugees and by employing refugees themselves in the production process. It also tries to rely on upcycling, the practice of using traditional waste materials to create clothing and accessories.

Angela Luna and Loulwa Al Saad founded the label in 2016, building on Luna’s senior collection at Parson’s School of Design in New York. According to Luna, the hardships of the European migrant crisis moved her. Thus, she sought a way to use design to fulfill a functional need. Her answer was transformative clothing. She designed jackets that could turn into tents or sleeping bags and tops that facilitated carrying a child. Luna also designed two-sided garments that could make the wearer more or less visible.

Since then, ADIFF has moved beyond assistance through design-based problem-solving. It now employs many resettled refugee tailors from Afghanistan in its manufacturing facility in Athens, Greece. With its buy-one-give-one model, it has donated 1,000 jackets to the homeless and refugees globally since 2017.

In January 2021, ADIFF also published a collection of DIY instructions for recycling old garments or household goods into new clothing. The “Open Source Fashion Cookbook” hopes to reduce the amount of fabric waste by teaching people how to, for example, make a jacket from two woven blankets or a shirt dress from two old button-down shirts. ADIFF is working toward sustainability, redefining the relationship between fashion and the public.

Artisan Global – Facilitating Artistic Authenticity and Commercial Independence

Artisan Global is a nonprofit organization in South Carolina, aiming to promote “sustainable job strategies and workplaces for those living in extreme poverty in war-torn countries.” In 2020, it opened the Artisan Center in Uganda, providing the infrastructure to facilitate fashion-related design innovation. The Ugandan artists and artisans themselves bring the ideas and vision for a piece or product. Artisan Global helps with the creation, sales and sustainability of its production.

Intermittent conflict in and around Uganda has displaced some communities and posed a developmental challenge to others. Most recently, the South Sudanese civil war (2013 to 2015) and the Kasese clashes (2016) have destabilized the region. Artisan Global currently works with people who Joseph Kony’s rebel army kidnapped as children.

That said, Uganda has also experienced much progress in reducing its poverty rate. From 1993 to 2017, the poverty rate declined from 53% to 21%. While the multidimensional poverty rate remains much higher at approximately 56% in children, these figures represent an impressive improvement.

The Many Faces of Fashion

Fashion can empower indigenous and impoverished communities. For Aaron, a designer at the budding stage of his fashion career, brands and organizations like ADIFF and Artisan Global demonstrate that function and social justice are not mutually exclusive. Designers and consumers do not just care about what the products are, but also how manufacturers make them and what they represent. Of course, there is often still a financial sacrifice, both for those who make and for those who buy clothing, that comes with choosing to empower disadvantaged communities over catering to the mass market. But, as ADIFF and Artisan Global show, this trade-off is not as pronounced as it may seem.

Fashion poses opportunities and risks for the empowerment of local communities. The key to functional and sustainable fashion as a tool for empowerment lies not with any one thing. Instead, it lies in combining the goal-oriented resourcefulness of an engineer with the boldness and cultural empathy of an artist.

– Alexander Vanezis
Photo: Unsplash

hand hygiene
Revolutionizing hand hygiene, the “crayon-soap” hybrid known as SoaPen is the brainchild of Amanat Anand, Yogita Agrawal and Shubham Issar — a trio of industrial designers from the Parsons School of Design. Primary-colored and lipstick-sized, each pen is packed with an analogue solution that accommodates up to 60 hand washes, providing children a thrilling way to fight bacteria and develop a habit of hand-washing at a young age.

Fun and flair aside, Shubham Issar said, the SoaPen is primarily a teaching tool aimed at promoting “better hygiene practices among children” and illuminating the benefits of washing hands, a habit that can stonewall the spread of lethal viruses.

According to a study published by The Lancet, preventable infectious diseases accounted for two-thirds of the nine million child deaths in 2008. Pneumonia and diarrhea, two deadly diseases that can be suppressed by vaccines, jointedly contributed to 25% of 2015 deaths in children under five years old.

“There is not enough awareness around the benefits of hand washing, not only among children, but among parents, teachers and caretakers,” Issar said. “With SoaPen’s playful design, ability to mark all over a child’s hand, and portability we have created a teaching tool that opens dialogue around hand washing.”

SoaPen’s Goal

SoaPen seeks to create a lasting psychological shift in the way children perceive hand washing by ingeniously transforming it from a chore to a pastime. Incorporating art and health, drawing and scrubbing, the product shows parents and children alike that hand washing can be made into a daily routine almost as exhilarating as tag.

In recent years, in-depth research has yielded alarming findings on the toxically high alcohol content in hand sanitizers — ranging from 45 to 95% — and how it severely cripples a child’s immune system. From 2010 to 2015, poison control center hotlines across the U.S. reported a 400% increase in emergency calls pertaining to inebriated children who had ingested excess sanitizer alcohol.

Parents are becoming increasingly anxious to find a safer replacement like the SoaPen, which Issar compared to a “portable soap.” Striking a delicate balance between caution and fun, Issar said, SoaPen “has a place in not just every classroom around the world,” but also every daycare center, pre-school and arts-and-crafts class.

Making a Difference

One of the team’s priorities is to teach children in low-income schools the importance of hand hygiene and provide teachers creative methods of using the SoaPen. After conducting multiple campaigns in schools, team members report to seeing more lasting hand hygiene retention. The company hopes to develop a “buy one, give one” business model to convert product sales in the U.S. to donations toward developing countries, Issar said.

With a Kickstarter fundraising campaign already underway, the team plans to soon contact nonprofits in the hygiene sector to disseminate SoaPens through their extensive connections in poorer corners of the world.

Claire Wang

Photo: SoaPen