Fashion Editor Zoe Robinson delves into the world of decorative hand-work and asks how a high street bag can possibly be cheaper than a sarnie.
Azuni fair trade beaded bracelet, £56
The new fair trade jewellery collection from Azuni got me thinking about the beaded skeletons in my closet.
Ten years ago, I bought a beaded evening bag from Primark. I loved the colours, pattern and the price tag (£2) seemed too good to be true.
Fast forward ten years and I am now a far more conscious shopper. Whereas in my teens and early 20s I used to fuel my shopping addiction regularly and blindly, I now stop to consider the provenance of what I spend my money on. Now I vote with my wallet. If something seems too good – or too cheap – to be true, it probably is.
Back then it didn’t occur to me to think “how can a bag, covered in thousands of tiny beads cost less than a sandwich from M&S?” I never wondered whether the beading was done by hand or a machine – even if it was the latter, when you consider the profits of the producers, middlemen and retailer, surely the machinist can’t have been paid enough for the time it must have taken them to produce.
I am reminded of Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World, where she questions the production methods of embellished fashion:
There are machines that can apply and attach sequins and other decorations in seemingly random patterns that look like handwork, but they require a considerable capital investment by a garment factory. Ask yourself this: is it likely that the piece you are buying has been sourced from a production facility that has invested in that scale of equipment? If it’s from a fast-fashion label, particularly from the value end, that is highly unlikely. Industry estimates suggest that 20 to 60 per cent of garment production (particularly children’s and women’s clothing) is produced at home by informal workers. They are most likely to be adding beading, embroidery and general embellishment.
People Tree embroidered hairband, hand-made in India, £22
And clearly working from home “in some of the poorest regions on earth” doesn’t bring an improved quality of life (associated with cutting down on that pesky commute) that many of us hanker after in the developed world. Siegle goes on to explain, “Millions of workers, hunched over, stitching and embroidering the contents of the global wardrobe in their own living spaces in slums where a whole family can live in a single room…they are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to rights and remuneration.”
People Tree Folk dress, hand-woven and hand cross-stitched in Bangladesh, £70
Uncovering the production methods of embellished garments and accessories may feel like a guessing-game, and in many cases avoidance might seem like the safest strategy. However, some brands are transparent and do recognise the necessity to treat workers with respect, offering them a fair wage, training and community development.
Fair Trade pioneers People Tree create work for artisans by designing garments requiring detailed hand-work. The embellishments on one garment might provide a decorative worker with three day’s paid employment.
This feather-inspired collection by Azuni (below) which launches this month, is hand-made by Mayan Indians using traditional, specialist beading techniques from Central America.
Long Tasselled earrings, £30
Beaded bracelet, £56