Indigenous Designs: Fashionable Fair Trade

By Amanda Sperber

The real deal. That’s all I can say about Indigenous Designs, one of the most compelling exhibitors on my ENK tour. Indigenous takes a holistic approach to fashion, combining eco-friendly products including alpaca and organic cotton with Fair Trade practices, promoting respect for the environment, the artists who make the clothes and the craft involved in the process.  I’m not normally a website video watcher but even this clip about their company is comprehensive and generally rocks:

In the words of Matt Reynold’s one of the company’s founders:

Indigenous was built on a very big idea – to create fashion that truly honored both people and planet. That idea became a promise – a promise to use only eco-friendly materials, to pay fair wages and create opportunity for artisans in the developing world, and to help change the way the world looks at fashion.

It was inspiring to meet Matt, whose personal Indigenous journey started as a child. His father, a professor in development economics at Stanford, sought to create opportunity for those with less, and through him his family lived and travelled in South America. As he said, “Without even knowing it at the time, the remarkable culture and way of life became a part of my heart and DNA.” Matt embarked on a successful career in retail but found himself wanting something more out of his work. He teamed up with Scott Leonard, Indigenous’ co-founder, started small and watched the company grow. I found Matt to be as transparent and inclusive as his company, offering all kinds of information and support.

Founded on the rich culture of the knitting tradition in South America, Indigenous has built a scalable way to celebrate this time-honored art while using Fair Trade mechanisms to sell clothing made with organic fibers and environmentally-friendly dyes.  In conjunction with Root Capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company created a socio-economic cottage industry-credit lending model, one of the key factors that has allowed them to scale.

Over the last decade the company has formed a network of over 300 artisan production groups throughout South America, employing over 1,000 artisans. Matt said:

 Our artisans work both in small knitting cooperatives and larger knitting collective enterprises. For some, knitting and weaving is a tradition spanning generations. For others, it is an opportunity to master a new skill and means of employment. For all, it is economic and social opportunity, a chance for a better life for themselves and their children. For some, it has truly been their path out of poverty, a chance to eat, a chance to give their children an education.

This model can be brought to other continents, and the program is currently operating in Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

Matt also spoke about Indigenous’ work with the ground-breaking Trace Tool which uses mobile technology to let shoppers find out everything there is to know about the products they may buy. The tool was developed in part to respond to increasing consumer demand for information about how their clothes are made, and in part to create more demand for that information. It is an on-line application launched from a QR code that opens to a web site. Anyone viewing can see the artisan that made the clothes, hear from her first-hand what she feels about the fashion she is making, and discover a bit about her working conditions and the cultural origins of the fabric. This video goes into more detail:

For me, Indigenous clothing is more than some sweet ponchos or a wildly impressive commitment to ethical fashion. It’s creating a space to take a second to think about what goes into the making of the clothes you wear on your back. It’s important that the whole process, not just the finished result, demonstrate care and beauty. It was really special to find a company making room for this necessary mindfulness.

Amanda Sperber joined the team in NYC last month, and her series of brand profiles will be appearing on the blog over the next few weeks.  She tweets @hysperbole

Ariel Azoff

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