At Las Vegas’ fashion conference week, everyone comes with an agenda: To buy, to sell, to promote and to get noticed. But some designers and companies came with a greater mission -- one they hope betters the world and sends a message.
At a collective of women in West Africa, Kate Dwyer found her inspiration. The women, who were being taught how to dye and sell traditional batik cloths, would later move Dwyer to begin her company, FairTribe.
“It was really touching to me to see that women were being taught how to do a traditional craft to keep their culture alive and also that it was the women who were being taught how to do it and go out and sell and make money,” Dwyer said.
After returning to the United States and working in the corporate world for a while, Dwyer said that while reminiscing over products she had brought back from the collective in West Africa, she felt Americans’ eyes needed to be opened to handmade products like these. Dwyer recruited friends Adrienne LeTourneau and Patricia McKay to achieve her vision.
Today, FairTribe is fair trade clothing company based in Felton Calif. run by its three founders and had its products on display in Las Vegas earlier this week. The practice of fair trade is intended to provide workers with fair wages and ethical working conditions while empowering developing communities around the world. For consumers, it offers them handmade, organic goods.
A year ago, while traveling to New Dehli, India, to find fair trade producers, Dwyer worked with an organization that was cracking down on child labor. She witnessed the working conditions so many people around the world face.
“The group had just busted a child labor den. They had these photos that were so horrific and so disturbing and it really drilled home to me the importance of this idea and the importance of educating American consumers,” she said. “I think American consumers are good people and they don’t want to support things like that but they just don’t know”
In their search for fashionable fair trade clothing, the women found most of the designs fell short of their expectations. But last January, McKay traveled to France and found Ideo, a young and fashion-forward fair trade line, and FairTribe became the first company to bring the brand the United States. FairTribe now represents three other brands, including Renee Geneva, a high-fashion couture designer, and a company that manufactures recycled glass jewelry handmade by girls in the same slum of New Dehli that Dwyer visited.
“We really want people to think about what they’re buying and how is it made,” Dwyer said. “I think in our culture we’ve been taught to consume without any real thought and we’re really trying to change that as much as we can in our small way.”
Atlanta-based designer Matt Senna, 24, has been able to turn his life-long dream into a vehicle for change.
In 2004, the young artist, who has been producing T-shirts since he was 13 years old, transitioned and rebranded his line, Jamie Marx, to inform consumers about social and political issues.
“I was angry at the way our country was going and people not taking advantage of their freedoms to take a stand and speak out. I wanted to use these T-shirts as basically billboards, as a means to say something and give people something to wear with meaning,” Senna said.
Senna’s designs are in-your-face but leave room for interpretation and thought. His fourth line, which he presented at PROJECT this week in Las Vegas, is titled "Beauty over Brutality." The line focuses on human rights issues like the death penalty, torture, gun violence and women’s rights in the Middle East.
“My influences really just come from everyday life. Looking at how people treat each other, whether it’s something I experience or see on the news. The message of the line is really just about being human and treating each other right,” Senna said.
But Senna is doing more than getting people to think. He’s turning their purchases into action. In January, Senna produced a shirt with the message “Don’t Bomb the Babies,” charged a third of the normal price and donated 100 percent of his proceeds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to help young victims affected in Gaza.
“My goal is to get the [line] out to enough people that it starts making a difference and starts making people think about the issues that we are attacking with the shirts,” Senna said. “Spreading a message that people have the power to make changes in this world is what it’s really about.”
Two first-time designers from Southern California came to PROJECT with a more subtle message -- one that consumers literally need to look within the garment to find it.
Patricia Zeto and Linda Werner started their hemp clothing line, Substance, in August 2008 to inform consumers of the environmental benefits on the U.S.-banned plant. Their line is made from nearly 100 percent hemp and uses water-based, toxin-free dye for its logos. Inside each garment comes a message about the benefits and uses of hemp.
“You can find out the truth about hemp if you look for it but people aren’t speaking the truth because they have a preconceived notion of what hemp is. Our goal is to break down the stereotypes,” Werner said.
Hemp was banned in the United States in 1937 but Substance imports hemp yarn from China and Romania and makes its final product in Los Angeles. Zeto and Werner said they hope their product opens consumers' eyes to the benefits of hemp and helps people take a look at the harmful elements of other resources many clothing companies use.
“What people don’t realize is that cotton is the third largest industrial polluter. All the pesticides that they use to produce cotton ends up in our water system and our soil, where as hemp only requires rainwater. It’s completely Earth-friendly,” Werner said.
“We are a business and we are entrepreneurs and lots of people were doing organic cotton and we wanted to do something different that was sustainable” Zeto said.
Like many other designers working to make a difference at the Las Vegas conference, Zeto and Werner hope their line can make a difference.
“When we came up with the idea of this line, it just felt right. It was perfect timing. People are so worried about the dwindling resources,” Werner said. “Yea, we can sit and worry or we can come up with a solution and that’s what we feel we’re doing.”