Interview with Simone Cipriani, head and founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (ITC/UN)

By Lígia Carvalho Abreu (2015)

Simone Cipriani

Simone Cipriani is an officer of the United Nations who is a passionate advocate for fair trade, equal employment and the promotion of creative micro-enterprises as a vehicle out of poverty. He is the head and the founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship program of the International Trade Centre (ITC) which is a joint agency of the United Nations and the WTO. Under the slogan Not Charity just Work, the Ethical Fashion Initiative aims to promote young talented designers and the incubation of creative micro-enterprises from developing countries, as well as to connect fashion designers (for example Stella McCartney, Sass & Bide, Vivienne Westwood or Stella Jean) with artisans and marginalised people in order to empower them with the necessary skills to adapt their work to the needs of the international fashion business. Simone Cipriani is included in Business of Fashion’s list of 500 People Shaping the Global Fashion Industry.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): What were the reasons and experiences that have led you to create a project devoted to ethical fashion within the context of the United Nations?

Simone Cipriani: It was when I lived in Ethiopia, working for another agency of the UN, that I realised the need for change. I was there working on a project to develop the local leather industry and many international fashion brands were keen to develop something there. This is when I started researching on consumers and came to the conclusion they were searching for something different, something more meaningful.

But the person who was really influential in creating the Ethical Fashion Initiative was Gino Filippini, a lay missionary who taught me how to work with the poorest of the poor in a slum in Nairobi. I would go spend my weekends with him, flying out from Addis. He has always been a true inspiration to me and even though he’s passed away, I remain grateful for what he taught me.

Otherwise the women of the communities in Africa have also been a source of inspiration. Each and every one of them has a different story and the determination to change. This is how I decided to set up the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Women spinning Cotton to Yarn in Burkina Faso. Photo: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): Was your idea easily accepted in the beginning by the UN and also by the fashion designers? 

Simone Cipriani:  Most people thought I was crazy and that this project couldn’t work. They saw fashion to be a fragile and transient industry, disregarding the fact it’s an economically powerful sector that enables high profit margins that are suited for the kind of work we do. Luckily the Executive Director of the ITC at the time, Patricia Francis, believed in it and gave me the green light for a small pilot. This is how it started.

Designers also thought I was crazy to produce in Africa. In the early days, I would walk around the streets of London with a box nicknamed “the coffin”, containing samples of the skills and materials they could use to develop products with us. But a few of the more innovative brands trusted us and came on board. Carmina Campus and Vivienne Westwood for example.

 

Vivienne Westwood in Kenya. Photo: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative and Ilaria Venturini Fendi, founder of the brand Carmina Campus, beading in Maasai Woman. Photo: Chloé Mukai/ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): How long did it take you to implement this project?

Simone Cipriani: Actually it took us a very short time as one of our first partners, not a fashion brand but a large distributor I knew (Coop Italia) ordered 100,000 tote bags and agreed to our pre-production payment terms. This enabled us to kick-start the project, invest in communities and get something like 5000 women working at one point.

 

Tote bags by Vivienne Westwood  and Carmina Campus.  Photo: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): The main motto of the Ethical Fashion Initiative is “Not Charity Just Work” could you give some examples of how this has been achieved?  

Simone Cipriani: I believe work is what people need to grow out of poverty. Salaries equal a tool to live better, being able to afford medial services, decent homes and education. Work – fairly paid and in good conditions – gives people empowerment and self-confidence. Charity is needed in some cases, like in humanitarian emergencies, but to change a society from the root fair and decent work is what is needed.

Carmina Campus Production Kenya with the slogan of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. Photo by Louis Nderi/ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): How did the Ethical Fashion Initiative achieve in connecting the artisans with the fashion designers?

Simone Cipriani: We start with product development (developing samples) by proposing to designers the skills and materials they can source locally to develop a collection. After the sampling period and once the samples are cleared, our local hub takes over the production. Our model includes a Hub – a social enterprise / commercial entity – that interfaces with the brands. On the other hand, the Hub manages the work in communities (e.g. of beadwork, embroidery, horn…) in order to include as many artisans from the informal sector.

 

Artisan Portrait and United Arrows team in Burkina Faso Photos: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative   

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): Could you give some examples of the designers that collaborate with the Ethical Fashion Initiative and how they contribute to effectively integrate those marginalised people and artisans into international fashion business? 

Simone Cipriani: The designers who collaborate with us (the list can be found here: http://ethicalfashioninitiative.org/our-partners) contribute by placing orders and giving them an opportunity to work. They also contribute through the new design ideas they bring, which enable the micro-producers to develop new skills and capacities to produce higher quality work.

Stella Jean Fabric Production Burkina Faso and Stella Jean SS15 - skirt made with fabric from Burkina Faso. Photos: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative    

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): I’ve been following the work of, for example, Stella Jean and I saw that she has been discovering fabrics, patterns and also ancient techniques while collaborating with African or Haitian artisans in the context of her partnership with EFI. Do you also think that fashion designers, even famous ones, have a lot to learn and to gain with those artisans and communities?

Simone Cipriani: Yes I do. Earlier you asked what inspired me to start this project and one of the things that motivated me was to see the beauty of some of the skills these micro-artisans have. Fashion is an industry that is always seeking for innovation and aesthetics. By working with these traditional skills designers have a chance to use with techniques while adapting them for the modern consumers. Stella is a good example of a designer who has been able to integrate techniques such as bogolan, basilan or papier-mâché in her collections. At the same time, the artisans too learn from the designers: on quality, on new ways to develop products and so on. It’s an exchange.

Boubacar Doumbia showing natural dyeing in Mali. Photo: Courtesy of Ethical Fashion Initiative. Stella Jean. SS14 Photo: Courtesy of Alta Roma

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): Most of the projects of the Ethical Fashion Initiative are in Africa. However, all around the world, even in Europe, there are fantastic artisans who lived in poverty or are integrated in a non-ethical and unsustainable industrial system and exploited by it.  Does EFI plan to extend its action to other continents?

Simone Cipriani: Our aim is to work with as many artisans as possible, from all over the world. For this, we need the fashion industry to come on board in a serious and sustainable way. I’m sure there are fantastic artisans in Europe, but for the moment we are limited to consolidate the work we already started in the countries where we work.

 

Beatrice Compaure - Weaver from Burkina Faso. Photo: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative   

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): Some people in the fashion industry think that being completely ethical in business does not combine with profit. What message will you like to leave to those who still do not believe that a profitable fashion business can be compatible with the respect of human rights?

Simone Cipriani: This belief comes from the fact that for years, the fashion industry has exploited those at the very beginning of the supply chain: the manufacturers. Their profits were squeezed, while the margins at the other end of the chain (brands, distributors, marketing) were huge. We are in favour of having a more balanced, more equally distributed business model. For the brands that work with us, this is not a charity and has to make business sense, otherwise they couldn’t continue.

LOVE MORE Tote bag by Sass & Bide Spring/Summer 2015 Photo: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR):  Thank you Simone for this interview.

Simone Cipriani: Thank you