Shalom Life | April 24, 2014

A Peace Treaty

Two women, one purpose - to make a difference.

By: Helen Hatzis

Published: February 16th, 2010 in Culture » Art » Interviews

A Peace Treaty

Two women are taking their fashion business to a noble direction - to make a difference. Sharing a common appreciation for traditional craftsmanship, they discovered that this was slowly becoming a lost art and decided to do something about it. Shalom Life had the opportunity to speak with Dana Arbib, a Libyan Jew and Farah Malik, a Pakistani Muslim about 'A Peace Treaty' - a company they formed to create employment for skilled artisans working in socio-political strife. Their initiative is not only supporting a family but a community.

Your concept to assist artisans with employment is a noble one. How did you come up with the concept?

We launched with the aim to explore hand-crafting cultures in different regions of the world with political strife where the work of artisans receives no credit and are under-appreciated (in the luxury fashion market). Also, with restrictions and embargoes placed on more and more countries that America is politically dissatisfied with, there is a complete ‘cutting off’ of trade from those places. We are trying to reinvigorate local artisan economies and bring what they have to offer to the luxury marketplace while also bringing them long-term employment opportunities and market share.

We've set up projects for artisans and rejuvenated at-risk businesses in many towns and villages. Our approach is very much a community empowerment one -- elevating traditional handcrafting skills valorizing artisans that, in recent years, in many contexts have been overlooked or have been receiving less and less attention as more industrialization is starting to replace age-old specialized-skill requiring production techniques.

We both come from a line of social justice and humanitarian work so after working for other people we became eager to do "things on our own terms" and we had to make sure that any projects we did would initiate social change. We both felt like we came up against challenges and obstacles working in our fields [Dana in design and Farah in human rights/social change] so we were eager to try a new approach. There are billions of brands just making "more stuff" and we didn't want to do that. We knew that if we were going to make more things for people to consume, that there had to be some sort of social benefit attached to it - above and beyond giving to charity. Once we started, it was important that any of our projects involving the employment of others would be ethically motivated and fair. We pay fair trade rates and employ artisans who have been unemployed for years because they had to shut down their small businesses as they could not keep up with the competition from factory-based manufacturing.

We also bring work to widowed and disabled women. In addition to creating employment for artisans at above fair-trade rates paying up to 4 times the local wages, 10% from our sales goes to Counterpart International's programs in the regions that we produce in. With each collection and each season we shift our giving to a specific project and region. Our charitable giving has gone towards medical supplies for Counterpart's Darfur projects, their Coral Gardens reef conservation project towards aid and medicine for Palestinian children and towards women's rights and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Which countries are you currently working with and do you hope to expand to assist others?

In the two years since we started we have set up or partnered with projects in seven countries: Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bolivia, Peru and next up we're looking into a couple of West African countries.

The following are examples of community development from our projects below:

1. EMBROIDERY PROJECT IN AFGHANISTAN With our Afghan Hands project, 200 widowed women and their children are rehabilitated in centers enabled to rebuild their lives and gain training and literacy skills. Development organizations report that 70% of the women in Afghanistan are widowed. Afghan Hands existed before we decided to work in Afghanistan but while they had the capability to embroider beautiful garments, they don't have real distribution so they're products were not reaching a vast audience. With our initiative 200 women will continue to work and earn above fair-trade wages while their hand-embroidered pieces will be displayed in boutiques and magazines in the West. 100% of the cost of production goes back into these women's hands. They live and work in centers across Kabul and Jalalabad in relative safety and away from the threat of the Taliban. When they feel ready to go back into society, they are welcome to do so.

2. BLOCK-PRINTING PROJECT IN PAKISTAN

We designed block printed scarves that were inspired by the art of kilm and traditional carpet weaving. We wanted to use the technique of hand carved-block printing because it is an old world technique that has been overlooked as other more modern printing methods have become commonly and cheaply available. Farah spent time in the workshops of some of Pakistan's best block-printers and we enlisted the best carving workshops in Pakistan to hand-carve our designs. We found the last man (one of two in the entire country) that could do hand-carved woodblock-printing. His sons did not want to continue his lineage (they were more interested in learning computer skills and getting office jobs -- which there are none of). So we recruited street kids from the slums (all over 16 years of age) and trained them. Now that blockprinter and his workshop have been able to revitalize and gain quite a share of the market (in addition to working on A Peace Treaty's collections, they make their own designs and supply to boutiques in the larger cities of Pakistan).

3. HAND-LOOMING PROJECTS IN PAKISTAN With the hand-looming projects we initiated, many family businesses (that run out of their backyards) and much cottage industry was rejuvenated. We work with artisanal hand-weavers and have helped buy wooden-looms and engaged specialized loomers to train other unemployed men and youth. Hand-loomed textiles are becoming harder and harder to find as the country is becoming more and more industrialized (meaning handlooms are being shut down and replaced with electrical power loom factories). We found numerous family looming businesses that facing the competition of Chinese manufacturing and pressure to industrialize their production basically closed their hand-looming workshops and put their life savings into going "electrical" with their textile manufacturing. The irony is that with the political situation and frequent power outages (totaling 16 hours a day in some regions), these families, with centuries of a handlooming tradition that was passed down from generation to generation, were suddenly sitting there with factories filled with machines and workers waiting for the electricity to come back on every day! Basically, the electricity situation has completely disabled commerce and industry in Pakistan and taken it back into the stone ages. So, our projects and social organizing were around raising awareness and re-educating craftsmen to valorize their traditional techniques and have confidence in their original methods of work and production. Many of our projects are a sort of re-education of how doing things the old way could be so much more lucrative. So far, within Pakistan, we have traveled to eight cities, villages and towns in completely distinct regions, to bring work to small batch textile-weaving family businesses.

These family looms are all over villages in the Punjab and are usually set up with wood handlooms run out of people's courtyards/verandahs in their houses. While older highly-skilled men usually weave the cloth, women are also a big part of the fabric finishing process. We have brought together collectives of women in villages to work on hand-finishing each scarf with various types of tassels. Some of these women are widowed and many are also disabled and unable to gain employment much of the time.

The concept alone is stellar yet the partnership between a Jew and a Muslim is paramount. Have you both experienced any difficulties due to your (working) relationship? If so, how have you both overcome them?

Dana has a background in Graphic Design and Farah in Human Rights, so both of us decided to put our two passions together to demonstrate an "armistice." What also informs our brand politics is the fact that we are a Muslim and a Jew working together (an arrangement that is rare traditionally) to build bridges to nations that are otherwise overlooked or constantly portrayed in a negative light. Our belief is that consumers need to be exposed to the rich culture and history of places that are being misrepresented by the mainstream media.

The only real problem we face from time to time is not being able to exchange in each other's culture fully. For instance, Dana having been born in Israel might not be able to travel to certain Muslim countries where we wish to produce, etc. However, we've been written about in papers in both Muslim countries as well as in Israel - and the "personal peace treaty" part is heavily emphasized in those articles.

Your current line consisting of scarves and jewellery is quite lovely. Tell us how the ideas come to light (who designs the fabric/colours and so forth) and how long does it take to make the product (both scarves and jewellery)?

With each collection we have designed and produced we started with a local traditional hand-crafting skill or object that is at-risk of becoming obsolete or has suffered in the face of competition with factory-based manufacturing. All over the villages and towns that we worked in we found that traditional handmade textiles and other handcrafting techniques like wood-block printing (Lahore slum/street-kids), hand-looming (village families), hand dip-dyeing, handmade jewelry (refugee Kurdish goldsmiths) hand-embroidery (Afghan widows) and hand-knitting (women from Indigenous tribes in Boliva) were dwindling or almost wiped out.

Our process works like this - first we think of a hand-crafting technique that we want to explore and build on. Then we research countries that have a longstanding history and skilled artisans that work with this technique and that are not getting trade opportunities or a fair market share. We research by traveling and visiting bazaars and villages. Sometimes a whole collection is inspired by a large thing such as an art movement or an entire nomadic tribe from Central Asia or antique carpets from Turkey, or sometimes simply just a piece of an antique textile or a bead found in a bazaar.

Usually with each region that we work within we try to find an aesthetic inspiration that connects to the country's own ornamental heritage. We often become obsessive with researching it. For instance with the jewelry we focused on Kuchi nomadic tribes and their amulets and ceremonial jewelry as well as the visual iconography that they surround themselves by. Then we modernize the traditional aesthetic through colors, materials, scale and layout. We don't only take inspiration from traditional artifacts but also from the people, the landscape and the colors as well as their way of living.

Another part of our design process includes embracing the changes that naturally occur during our production because of how language and visuals end up translating. Sometimes a simple color like gray is the most difficult color to translate. Sometimes we also have to allow for changes in design because certain places' infrastructural breakdown doesn't allow for our "dream" to be actualized. For instance, just getting the fabrics and embroidery thread to Afghanistan presented major obstacles (with road blockages and political instability as well as a basic lack of industry).

Each collection takes 8-10 months from start to finish. Each of our pieces also takes the artisans days to complete. For looming it takes 1-2 days to weave one scarf. For embroidery it takes the afghan widows up to 40 days to complete one scarf. Block-printed scarves take one whole day to print each one and a day to wash with special wax soaps and sealing treatments. And each piece of handmade jewelry takes one or two days to complete as well. In every project we undertake we have to respect the natural rhythms of artisans' way of life and encourage them to include work into their "lives." The "slowness" can sometimes be challenging since we have the fashion industry's standards and deadlines to abide by! However, we always try to remind ourselves why we don't ever want to go off and do production in a factory.

Do you have plans to expand to collection (outside of scarves and jewellery)?

Currently, we are working on a line of embroidered clutches and leather satchel/backpacks that re-appropriate wartime carry-alls.

When one purchases your product, how do you inform them of their roots and your mandate?

When we started about 2 years ago, there was an understanding of eco-fashion but still not very much emphasis placed on the human rights implications ("ethical fashion) in fashion production. Dana has a design background and Farah worked with a human rights education non-profit executing behavioral change communications campaigns around US human rights issues. But we were both frustrated about not being able to make a huge enough impact through those settings. It was quite clear to us that larger scale popular change had to occur. And so each of our collections or projects comes situated in an awareness raising communications campaign aiming to educate about the region or country we work within. What APT is a social business setting up sustainable projects to revitalize cottage industries and family businesses at risk of closing down but its also imparts knowledge and attitude change and a long-term re-adjustment within consumer culture and behavior. We realize that the NGO world understands very well what change needs to happen in society but the mainstream is still quite oblivious to these ideas. We are trying to bit by bit trickle some of these concepts into the rigidly structured and often, inhumane fashion and media industries as well as the consumer market.

We don't encourage buying we just discourage a disposable culture. So, what we're saying is the idea: "buy less but buy with awareness and buy to support handmade, artisanal goods produced with time-honoring techniques, because your actions will in turn, support dying traditions and arts as well as disabled artisans or widowed women who are sole bread-winners." We try to bring the human face and story behind each piece that a customer wears. We want more and more people to know about the background story behind each of the items they purchase. Who made it, how it got here and how is our country and its policies or it's politics implicated in this exchange. We also still see a discrepancy in the luxury fashion market- often the origins of ethnically produced goods are not mentioned. Our research showed that 90% of the goods in the high fashion market are being produced in China so we really intentionally wanted to bring production back to a humane level by uplifting time-crafted and traditional techniques.

Quite a few celebrities are pictured wearing your product. How did this come about?

We get approached by a lot of stylists and artists' managers to loan or gift scarves for celebrities that are "conscious" consumers. We are always happy to oblige! Some celebrities also just happen to ship in the stores that we sell in (mostly in LA or NYC). With anything socially motivated, celebrities do tend to be good role models and as such they have the power to shift consumer attitudes in a positive manner.

What is your long term goal for A Peace Treaty?

Change has to happen subtly and organically. It’s already a big step that ethnic artifacts are coming out of the ghetto of college-town cheap incense shops and are now finally being valorized in the boutique-settings next to corporate designer apparel and accessories.

When we first started we were challenged by the fact that people saw goods produced in developing countries or in ethnic settings as "cheesy," or "un-elegant." There is still more power given to a Marc Jacobs or Alexander Wang t-shirt than a hand-loomed textile that took someone two days to make somewhere and is a heirloom piece. But just the way people are seeing local/home-grown, slowly-produced food as more of a luxury item we are hoping that their attitudes will also change about fashion. Longevity and heritage should be the driving force behind what we purchase not trends/fads or cheapness and disposability. And this idea is kind of our long term driving force.

Collaborations are also something that we thrive in best - the one with Rugby Ralph Lauren for instance. We would like to keep doing more and more collaborations while growing at a sustainable rate.

To view their collection, please visit www.APeaceTreaty.com

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