Ethical fashion can transform lives in the world’s mountains

by Stella Jean, Fashion designer

10 December 2021, Rome - Ethical fashion has enormous potential to change lives for the better.

For many years now, I have been collaborating on collections with women from developing countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

These women are true artisans. I have had the humbling privilege of learning about traditional skills that have been passed down through generations, and many of which are now on the verge of disappearing.

Every woman I have met in my encounters with different cultures has been so skillfully trained that each one of them could hold a PhD in circular economy. Safeguarding and sharing their ancestral knowledge is what drives true economic empowerment.  

The focus of my work is to promote fashion’s potential to provide significant opportunities for decent work for both men and women around the world, while ensuring important cultural knowledge does not disappear forever.

Rural mountain communities in developing countries are among the world’s most marginalized people. They are cut off from infrastructure and markets, and although they live in some of the world’s most majestic locations, the mountain ecosystems they call home are fragile and under threat from climate change and degradation.

Mountain people are also often the guardians of extraordinary ancestral knowledge. Yet high rates of poverty in rural mountain areas force men to migrate to cities in search of work, leaving the women behind to manage farms and households.

When I was introduced by the Mountain Partnership and the Women’s Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to the work of a women’s collective in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I knew I wanted to work with them. Called Topchu, the artisan group created carpets, clothes, silk scarves and wall hangings using traditional Kyrgyz feltwork.

With support from the Mountain Partnership Products Initiative, a project funded by Italy and implemented by FAO, I started a collaboration with the women to produce and market their products. Topchu and I found a way to transform a traditional Shyrdak motif typically used for carpets into a pattern for contemporary clothing. Together, we created a collection that was displayed at Milan Fashion Week in February 2021, to critical acclaim.

Now the women are further building their economic autonomy, preserving their traditions and at the same time gaining a place in the global market. They have been able to boost their incomes, support their children’s education and expand their vegetable gardens.

For me, sustainable fashion can be a driver for sustainable development, and working with artisans in the mountains is key. I collaborate with them to bring their cultural heritage and know-how to international markets.  It all begins high up there, where women move mountains.

Today we mark International Mountain Day, and because of my collaboration with Topchu, I am receiving the great honour of being appointed a Goodwill Ambassador to the Mountain Partnership, the only United Nations alliance dedicated to the protection of mountains and mountain peoples.

I will take on the responsibility of inspiring goodwill towards improving the quality of life and sustaining healthy environments in the world’s mountain regions. In this task, I will join six existing Goodwill Ambassadors, all of whom have their own connection with mountains: Ludovico Einaudi, Reinhold Messner, Jake Norton, His Holiness Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang, Arjun Gupta, and Mira Rai.

I also hope that the successful style of collaboration with Topchu may be replicated in other countries to support women textile producers of the Mountain Partnership Products initiative and jointly design a more sustainable world.

In this way, and despite the thousands of miles of distance that may lie between them, countless hands of mountain women artisans in different countries may work together with the common goal of caring for and preserving global cultural heritage, while improving their own lives and those of their families.

last updated:  Friday, December 10, 2021