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Doing things differently: ethical sourcing by Carla Fernandez

Carla Fernandez is a Mexico City-based designer and brand, well known
for supporting and promoting indigenous traditional craft from across
Mexico and famous for saying that the haute couture of Mexico is located in
the indigenous villages.”

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According to Sass, “one of the beauties of Mexico, and one of the things
that Carla feels so strongly about, is the fact that there is such a
diversity of material traditions across Mexico, across crafts, across
communities that are all unique and special.” And she explains that Carla
sees it as an honor to be able to work with, and in partnership with, those
communities and those people. “She has a long history of working with
indigenous communities by going and spending significant time with them,
listening and learning from them about what their traditions are, what the
meanings and the codes embedded in those traditions and processes are, and
what their actual needs are.”

As an extension to her work with indigenous craftspeople, Carla designs
a fashion collection, which she sells in her stores and online. Managing
the supply side as well as customer demand for fashion products can be
difficult, so she has divided her business into two entities: for-profit
and not-for-profit. Sass explains that this is not unusual for a socially
motivated brand to do, especially when they realize the limitations of a
for-profit only business. She adds, “To a degree, the for-profit arm of the
business offsets the costs of the not-for-profit work which focuses on
engaging with artisans to develop their traditions and crafts into
marketable products.”

The outcomes of the not-profit work is meant to benefit the craftspeople
first and foremost, although Carla will often utilize their work in her own
collection.However, determining what will appeal to a wider audience versus
a more localized craft can be difficult, for many reasons, according to
Sass. “That’s the challenge to many brands and designers that work with
artisanship, particularly from the developing world. And there’s differing
opinions on how much local tradition is included, or isn’t included; what
the rights and wrongs are of imposing Western aesthetics, et cetera.”

Carla’s approach is somewhat unique to other designers. She producers
her artisanal collection, which is exceptionally avant-garde, and developed
in collaboration with artisans themselves. Sass describes Carla’s work as
“very refined” and “very art-based. She adds, “I think just her own
presence, her own guidance in that process makes her collection
aesthetically pleasing to a very broad audience, including Western
customers.”

Additionally, Carla develops pieces directly with the indigenous
communities for their own use, including products for the local tourist
markets. Sass emphasizes, “she doesn’t look down on one or the other as
being better, because one is a route to the self sustainment of that
community. And based on the knowledge that many tourists aren’t willing to
pay for incredibly work-intensive, artisanal pieces, they want more
gift-type pieces. So, she works with both.”

When asked what more mainstream brands can learn from Carla Fernandez’s
model, Sass points out that Carla approaches her collection in three
distinct ways, as three subsets of the overall brand.

First, there are full artisanal pieces, from beginning to end. Sass
describes this design process as “from beginning to end–hand-grown fiber
that’s hand-spun, hand-dyed, hand-woven, and then embroidered and made.”
Second, there are pieces that only involve some part of artisanship. “It
may be from a ready-made fabric that has artisanal embroidery on it; or
maybe it’s handwoven, but it’s in a more contemporary design,” states Sass.
And finally, Carla creates more industrialized pieces that have little to
no artisanal content. “They are much more commercial and sold through her
standalone boutiques in Mexico,” she says. “And they are, in part, what
finances the artisanship.”

In summary, Sass highlights, “I think it’s that balancing an
understanding of what customers are willing to pay, what your audience is
and looking at your finance model to see if one needs to support another.
And that’s what Carla Fernandez does really well.”

Each month Sass Brown, an expert in ethical fashion,
sustainability and craftsmanship, shares a fashion brand that approaches
business differently and innovatively or operates outside of the main
fashion systems and capitals. Sass is the former Dean of Art and Design at
the Fashion Institute of Technology and the founding Dean at Dubai
Institute of Design and Innovation.

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