Where does sustainable fashion start?18.05.2022
Sarah Diouf, a clothing designer based in Senegal’s bustling metropolis of Dakar is not short on inspiration. She produces her collections for Tongoro’s ready-to-wear label, which includes Naomi Campbell, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce. The city’s spirit and stories seemingly materialize in Diouf’s use of billowing silhouettes, mesmerizing prints and local textiles, and Tongoro’s Instagram feed is peppered with imagery celebrating this aesthetic as part of its five-year-anniversary campaign. The photos were taken on a beach nearby that looks almost as dreamy as the designs. In the Senegalese Wolof dialect, the captions repeat the same phrase. It is spelled ‘Sama Gentu Maam’. This means ‘My ancestor’s dream’.
Diouf, who was born in France but raised on the Ivory Coast by parents from Senegalese, Congolese, and Central African descent, says that she is inspired every day by her culture. But because of our rich history as African people, it’s also an excellent place to be to learn about traditional techniques, prints, and general knowledge.
Tongoro’s philosophy as a sustainable fashion brand and Diouf’s definitions of sustainability, it is crucial to work with artisans who are able to preserve their knowledge. She says, “It’s the ability to create value through a product without compromising, or even improving, the wellbeing of the people involved in the process.” Diouf admits there is no single model that can achieve this in fashion, but she believes industry-wide discussions about how to do it must continue. Is it beneficial for all actors in the supply chain? What is the impact on the environment?
Although the “green fashion movement” has gained momentum over the last few decades, brands and designers have tended to focus on recycling, reducing pollution, and curbing carbon emissions. Diouf says that in Senegal, putting more conscious business models into action starts with ensuring that everyone can afford to eat and live in decent housing.
Since Tongoro was founded in 2016, Diouf has been promoting the economic and social advancements of West Africa’s artisanal community. This is done by procuring materials from the continent and working with Senegalese tailors to train them to meet international production standards. Made in Africa is a documentary that she produced of 30 minutes duration. It promotes African craftsmanship and community involvement in manufacturing her collections.
Diouf’s vision is bold and looks beyond Tongoro to a future where society benefits from the growth of her brand. “If more artisans can make a decent living, it will be an economic contributor. They regain their dignity. The perception of craft has been renewed and the creative sector has more value which can attract investment and the development more businesses,” she says with the same optimism that is woven into every Tongoro garment.
Claire Bates is a consultant in circular and sustainable fashion. She believes that the human cost of consumerism should be treated with the same urgency than the price the planet pays. A sustainable fashion system is in harmony with the natural cycles and ecosystems of the world. “It supports and lifts those who are involved with it, is regenerative and acts in service of the systems and beings which support it,” she said.
The fashion industry employs approximately one in six people worldwide, the majority of them women of color. This means that sustainability cannot be ignored when considering the racial/gender implications of the industry’s sometimes-punishing production schedules and delivery times. Bates states that consumers are becoming more aware of this fact. They are demanding that this change happens. Bates states that sustainability is a priority for many fashion consumers. “Consumers, including myself, seek out authentic, transparent mentions about sustainability before purchasing.” A growing number of customers are also highly engaged and will spend more time looking for brands that align with their values.
“The human element is equally important.” Helen de Kluiver (founder of Caes Amsterdam, which was founded in 2019), says that working with people who share your vision, bring knowledge and experience to this table, is as important as any part of the supply chain. She also stated that the label’s production is done in Portugal by family-owned businesses with similar values as hers. “Our suppliers go through rigorous auditing to make sure that they are treated fairly and are compensated for their skills and time.”
The brand’s name sounds very similar to her father Kees, a scientist and the word “case”. This is her sartorial philosophy. Clothing should be worn close to the skin every day and serve as an outer protective layer. Or as a case. These seasonless designs, which include sleek flared pants made from black scuba fabric and cream alpaca-blend sweaters, are strong and thoughtfully constructed with materials like Vegea – a leather substitute that uses wine-industry scraps. She clarifies that grape skin, leaves, and pulp are all part of her designs.
Caes is selective in its focus each season. This ensures that every design is meticulously crafted and leaves a smaller carbon footprint.
De Kluiver’s designs are “proof that sustainable fashion can still be beautiful” and she is always looking for ways to improve her production processes. To avoid wasting materials, her pattern maker works in 3D. Her packaging is also fully compostable. To avoid overstock, she focuses only on a few styles per season and provides everything shoppers need to make the transition to a smaller capsule wardrobe. De Kluiver’s vision of sustainability, just like Diouf, isn’t limited to the garments.
Bates sees designers like Diouf or de Kluiver as reimagining the industry and using their products to educate others about conscious consumption. She says that designers are essential in creating products that will be more resource-efficient. Brands that are actively working toward a better future and brighter future will find their efforts bring new life and purpose to the organization. This is evident in the final product they create.
Bates says that sustainable fashion is an expression of positive change at its best.