FAO Women's Committee celebrates ethical mountain fashion


A presentation of the recent collaboration between fashion designer Stella Jean and Kyrgyz artisan group Topchu turned into an emotional celebration at the Women's Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) VirtualiTea on 15 March.

Topchu joined the Mountain Partnership Products (MPP) Initiative – a global branding scheme promoting products from small-scale producers in mountain areas – in 2017 when they were granted the MPP label for their felt-adorned silk scarves. Through the FAO Women's Committee, the artisans were then introduced to the Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean, with whom the craftswomen from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan produced a unique collection featuring traditional Kyrgyz materials and motifs that was presented at Milan Fashion Week.

Thanks to the collaboration with Stella Jean, the women are building their own economic autonomy, revitalizing their traditions and reaching new markets. Moving forward, Topchu will retain ownership of the designs developed with Stella Jean and will be able to reproduce the fashion items and sell them directly, benefiting from the increased international exposure thanks to the collaboration.

Cristina Alderighi, Vice Chair of the FAO Women’s Committee, welcomed the 140+ attendees to the VirtualiTea – an informal space offered by the Women's Committee to come together, connect, and share views and experiences – to learn about the project boosting women socially, economically and culturally. "This collaboration is more than a collection, it is a cultural bridge that contributes to women’s empowerment," said Alderighi.

In her opening remarks, Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director General and Chairperson of the FAO Women’s Committee, highlighted the importance of ethical fashion as a tool for cooperative international development: "Fashion holds great potential to empower women socially and economically. By valuing and respecting culture, we build social capital."

Next, Sílvia Calvó, Minister of Environment, Agriculture and Sustainability of the Principality of Andorra, discussed Andorra's commitment to supporting the Mountain Partnership (MP) in her remarks: "Andorra is an entirely mountainous country. We decided to join and support the MP with the secondment of a national officer because we believe supporting the MP is a long-term vision and investment for the Andorran government."

Expressing Italy's commitment to the MP and the MPP Initiative, Giorgio Maria Cavalieri, Alternate Permanent Representative of the Italian Republic to the UN Agencies in Rome, said: "The MPP Initiative is a labeling scheme to strengthen mountain peoples and their ecosystems. The Mountain Partnership Secretariat has developed a programme that targets and supports mountain small-holder farmers." The Government of Italy is a donor and founding member of the MP, and the MPP Initiative is funded by the Italian Development Cooperation.

Switching gears, the VirtualiTea then featured a question and answer session with the designer and artisan group. Discussing how her work and her own multiculturalism influenced the creative aspects of her designs and how she produces them, Stella Jean said: "I was ashamed that my country, Haiti, was known for the wrong reasons. After emergencies, help should come in long-term form, not charity action. You need someone who believes in you and your ability to work."

This sentiment is what inspired Stella Jean to create the Laboratory of Nations. "It is about an exchange of skills and strengthening determination to keep communities and their skills alive," she said. "In Kyrgyzstan, my contribution was 10 percent. The artistry was provided by the women, whose traditional patterns were each more beautiful than the last."

Ada Rasulova, a member of Topchu and MPP’s focal point in Kyrgyzstan, discussed the benefits of being part of the MPP Initiative and the collaboration with the fashion designer: "The MPP label helps us tell customers about our area to help preserve and revive our ancient culture and traditions. Since 2017, we have sold 500 scarves through the MPP Initiative, earning us EUR 12 500. Each woman in Topchu receives EUR 50 per month, thanks to the project."

A video about the collaboration with Stella Jean was released on International Women's Day, along with an editorial signed by Maria Helena Semedo and Marina Sereni, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy. "We are now media stars in Kyrgyzstan," said Rasulova. "We ask ourselves, how is it possible that Giorgio Armani's protégée wanted to work with us? The Shyrdak motifs are rich and colourful, but no designer ever appreciated them before. We are very thankful to Stella."

Project Coordinator of the MPP Initiative, Giorgio Grussu, underlined the actions of the MPP Initiative to promoting and protecting the wide range of high quality products found in mountains: "Mountain communities produce an incredible range of food, textiles and handicrafts. However, many are not sustainable from an economic perspective due to their long value chains with many middlemen, which do not favour fair compensation." He continued, "We need to valorize the uniqueness of the different cultures that originated those products along with the rich biodiversity behind these products." The partners of the MP, added Grussu, have been the Initiative's biggest asset, contributing to providing tailored support and new market opportunities to the various mountain producer groups.

A passionate Ms Semedo reflected in her closing remarks on the journey of this collaboration, from when she noticed Topchu’s felt-adorned silk scarves being worn by MP colleagues at FAO headquarters, to buying them herself for colleagues and friends, to supporting the sale of the scarves in the FAO Brand Shop and finally when Topchu designs made it to Milan Fashion Week.

The event concluded with a surprise performance by Sergio Sylvestre. The Haitian-Mexican singer was born in the United States of America and is now based in Italy.

Watch the event recording

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