Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bridal gowns, Ferragamo loafers and rags to riches

When I boarded my flight to Pakistan 3 weeks ago, a bridal fashion show in Lahore was the last event I could have imagined attending. A wedding? Perhaps. A fashion show? Maybe. But a bridal fashion show? Definitely not. 

Well, as your Sherlock skills might have detected, a bridal fashion show was exactly where I found myself (specifically, the closing ceremony of the “Style 360 Bridal Couture Week,” and yes, the quotations are necessary!). Perhaps what you might not have hypothesized, however, was how much I actually enjoyed it! Although the designers we saw were absolutely breathtaking, the crayon-like crowd was probably my favorite part. From 24 year old journalists to 60 year old mothers to Dubai business investors to the hundreds like me who were just generally interested in global fashion.

Despite the fact that it was nearly midnight on a chilly and moonless Lahore rooftop, I found myself continually day dreaming back:
·          to sunny days in Bryant Park, where I watched my first NY Fashion Week show with two of my best friends from elementary school
·          to the days when we managed our own clothing company, and nearly dropped out of school trying to “win big” at the fashion trade shows in Las Vegas
·          to the shoe launch on 5th Avenue, where Salvatore Ferragamo recently introduced a shoe line (Ferragamo WORLD) from which they will give a portion of the sales to Acumen Fund to help alleviate poverty (video below).

As I relived these memories from our pirated front row media seats in Lahore, I also became fully aware of the irony (and resulting parade of questions) of a high end fashion show where any one of the featured garments could cost more than the per capita income of half the country’s population. Is this a paradox that will always exist? A dichotomy of the haves and have nots? A labyrinth-like dilemma where your Brooks Brothers shoes are nothing more than a guilty pleasure that stay in your closet every time you travel to a developing country?

Or is it possible to develop partnerships with the fashion industry – like Acumen and Ferragamo are doing, or like TOMS Shoes is doing – so that the industry can meaningfully contribute to the economic development of countries such as Pakistan? More specifically, how do we take those ideas and partnerships to an even more profound level, so that low income communities are actually engaged in the process? As designers? As producers? As buyers and store owners and journalists and investors?

While there have surely been hundreds of examples of how we’ve historically failed drastically in this area (think Nike), perhaps there are a few ideas that might provide hope. Ideas such as:
·          BeadforLife, which engages women making less than $1 a day in Uganda to create jewelry out of recycled paper, paying them $200 a month – twice the country’s GDP per capita – and also funding their business start-up when the 18 month training/employment program concludes. Or,
·          Stitch Tomorrow, a social enterprise that helps underprivileged teens in South East Asia start their own fashion lines (made of recycled materials!) by training them in fashion and business, providing microfinance funding, and connecting them to industry stakeholders. Or,
·          The WEEP program that I worked with in Kenya this past year, that trains widows with HIV in the slums to tailor school uniforms, craft jewelry, and launch their own businesses.

My hope is that interventions like these might inspire the fashion industry to do what they do best – think innovatively – in order to help engage communities that have so often been left out of the industry's economic fabric. 


  1. Benje, keep hunting for that unifying fabric between seemingly unrelated "fragments" - that's where innovation happens. Great post.

  2. "unifying fabric between seemingly unrelated fragments," love this! thanks so much!

  3. Benje, Great post, thanks for sharing. This is something that has been something I have been interested in as well. I posted a blog about it sometime last year. Check it out here:

    Lets talk when I get to Lahore, perhaps at the next fashion show.


  4. thanks Blair! I'll have to look into the different initiatives on your post - they all seem really interesting.

    this idea of design for development really has made me think - can't wait to brainstorm about it more!