ITC & African Fashion to the Max: As International Designers Race to Find New Inspiration and Unique Product Sources for Next Season's Line of Ethical Fashion Items, They Increasingly Look towards Africa, Its Designers and Its Communities

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In 2008, ITC approached leaders in the fashion community and distributors in Italy and in the United Kingdom to test the potential market for bags and accessories produced in Africa. The aim was to build a direct connection with a major fashion house.

Creative Director of Max&Co. (Max Mara Group), Luisa Laudi, decided to use some of the samples of materials presented to develop a small collection of bags and scarves. After a few weeks the first samples for the collection were received: bags, belts and bracelets worked in crochet using cotton yarn from Nairobi.

Further samples were required from Uganda and Kenya, involving field missions to select the communities to produce them. Product development through an ethical fashion team was instigated in order to select the final groups of micro manufacturers. A group of 250 single women (most of them are HIV positive) living on the outskirts of Dagoretti (Kenya) was chosen, together with a group of informal producers (the Bidii Shoemakers, who also work in beading) from Korogocho, near Nairobi. The project also included The Crochet Sisters (a sisterhood of about 100 people providing work for orphans and refugee women from Zimbabwe), a group of 150 bone beadmakers in Kibera (the largest slum in Kenya and in Africa) and a group of tie-dye manufacturers in Kwawangari.

The groups were required to sign on to terms of reference to guarantee the delivery standards required by distributors. Product samples and costings provided a level of confidence to Max&Co. who then participated in a final meeting to assess the quality of materials, leading to the production schedule and the overall programme launch.

A business hub was established in Nairobi to provide the technical assistance needed on a day-to-day basis by the communities. This hub was set up in collaboration with a local company that works with many communities, but which is also experienced with established business networks. Unlike predecessor projects, this involved no United Nations agency, no new organizational structure, no investment in fixed as sets. The mission of the hub was totally aligned to that of the project.

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The structure is being formalized into a trust with the support of the Government of Kenya who are looking to involve even more communities. …