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Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 4, 2018

The Fabric Social sells Assamese peace silk to the Australian market with an aim to bring work to post-conflict communities back home

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How is an online ethical fashion brand with a tagline, ‘Fair Couture’, different from others attempting to capture the attention of the conscious consumer through similar claims? Targeting the Australian market, and run by three women living in different parts of the world, Fabric Social is social-impact driven and works with producers who may have been overlooked in mainstream fashion.

Says Fiona McAlpine, the San-Francisco-based co-founder, “We focus on working with women in post-conflict communities who are trying to rebuild.” According to McAlpine, Northeast India is a place that most Australians can’t even point to on a map. “It is a blind spot in our worldview: the hundreds of extrajudicial executions and war-widow stories are not something many people know about,” she adds.

Post Conflict And Peace

And yet, to its consumer, the brand pitches its sustainable credentials rather than the upliftment of conflict-areas. McAlpine explains, “It (Northeast India) is difficult to use as a hook. And it is hard to link these depressing stories to the desirability of a sexy, fashion-forward product. That we use peace silk, non-toxic dyes and Khadi cotton—elements framed within a common understanding of environmental sustainability—is a much easier story to tell. You almost have to sneak in the conflict story.”

The Fabric Social is inspired by McAlpine’s project with Binalakshmi Nepram, who started the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network using weaving as a peacebuilding and income-generating tool for conflict widows. Says McAlpine, “We wanted to partner these traditional fabric-making skills with minimalist western designs and sell these resulting garments to the Australian market, where they would fetch a more fitting price point.”

The Eri-Khadi Route

The Fabric Social collaborates with local organizations like Siami x Siami and Srishti Handlooms (connected to Srishti NGO) from Mizoram and Assam. Srishti Handlooms—an ethical fashion organisation located in Lakwa, Sivasagar—creates Fabric Social’s flagship fabric, which is an Eri-khadi blend. Once the fabric has been made, it is sent to Kolkata—to Sasha, a World Fair Trade accredited not-for-profit organisation—where the producers soften, dye and tailor each garment by hand before shipping the finished piece abroad.

While Srishti Handlooms is nine years old, their partnership with Fabric Social began in 2015. When Fabric Social first came to visit, Srishti’s looms lay dormant. Says Khamseng Bohagi, who handles Srishti NGO’s PR and social media, “We started out with five weavers, four helpers and three ladies. We began with fabric-making, which led to the Eri-and-khadi yarn blend. After three months of trial and error, we produced 200 meters of fabric in 30 days with five looms.” Now, the NGO has 300 weavers across three centres and is capable of self-sustaining and taking independent orders in the local market.

Connecting The Dots

McAlpine, Melbourne-based Sharna de Lacy, and their first volunteer, Seattle-based Megan Schipp, had to be hands-on initially. De Lacy lived in Shillong for the first two years of the project and did quality-checks. Today, they work on the designs collaboratively from their respective cities and visit the production centres only once a year.

While McAlpine notes that arduous and expensive certification processes pose a difficulty, she says, “We just trust the women we work with, we are thorough in our impact reporting and open about the fact that—because Khadi is stockpiled and then redistributed—our cotton supply chain is not transparent.” Meanwhile, their silk can be traced from worm to postbox. “Our Eri silk is made from the discarded cocoons of the Eri moth, so it is just really old-school upcycling. Eri silk might be the greenest fabric money can buy: it’s not chemically-produced like rayon or bamboo, and it is not water-intensive like cotton.”

India, The Land Of Makers

Mira, one of Fabric Social’s weavers, wishes to save up for an at-home loom to teach unemployed women in her village how to weave. Fabric Social is interested in community building that goes beyond income generation: from bicycles for the increased mobility of women to digital literacy.

Besides the fact that the customers are almost entirely based in Australia (with some in New Zealand and the US) why haven’t people in India heard of it? “Our price points are not competitive for a market where handmade silk is readily available. Handwoven Assamese peace silk is still a novelty item in Australia, and quite hard to come by. We would love to sell in the Indian boutique market—Indian women have an extremely sharp eye when it comes to fashion.”

McAlpine first came to India at the age of seven, and later at 19 to teach English in Sikkim, returning annually after that. She says, “I love that you can walk into any neighbourhood and get an outfit made from scratch. For an outsider, it is something really special: the fact that India is undyingly a country of makers, of artists, of innovators. That craftsmanship culture is almost entirely lost in Australia where I’m from, and in the US where I live.”