Did you know there are brilliantly talented artisans, block workers and bead makers all over the world who are being forced into slum life by mass produced factories? Well I didn’t know either, until I spoke with the founder of Aware…The Design Project.
Aware… began as a simple concept in a hospital room. It seems an unexpected place to birth a dream, but for Yvonne Johnston this is exactly what happened. It wasn’t Yvonne herself who was hospitalized, but good friend Kylie Bear.
“It began as an idea to give my best friend something to think about other than her losing battle with cancer,” Yvonne recalls quietly. “The initial concept was simple; create fashion to empower people out of poverty stricken lives. Give them a chance again to use their own skills to earn a living. Counteract the damage cheap, mass produced factories are doing to the lives of traditional Artisans. Did I say simple?” she adds with a touch of humour.
Kylie, a psychologist by profession, embraced the idea and knew what it would take to make the dream a reality. “Awareness is the key, Yvie. People will buy merchandise when they understand the truth behind the concept.”
Kylie was right, the truth is disturbing and should come to light. In India the craft of traditional fabric production has existed since the 12th century. Delicate, intricate skills involving hand crafted fabrics embellished with stunning designs of embroidery pass from generation to generation with passion and pride. But over the last 30 years, the shift has moved away from traditional methods in favour of fast, factory-produced merchandise (mass production). The consumer push for ‘fast and cheap’ clothing has had a nasty backlash. Block printers and weavers throughout India are now out of work. With no other skills or education to fall back on, many have been forced into poverty. The fortunate find menial jobs to support their families, but the once sought after skills of the Artisan are being tragically lost.
“What needs to be understood is that these people have had their entire lives ripped out from underneath them” explains Yvonne, who is now a member of Fairtrade Australia and a vocal advocate for the Artisans of India. “Their skill is unique and utterly beautiful, tossed aside for machines that can’t begin to weave into garments the love and humanity these people pour into their work.”
Thus, Aware…The Social Design Project came into existence. Created to challenge the consumer to consider buying merchandise that, rather than line the pocket of multi-million dollar business, would instead help a fellow human being to survive another day, to have hope, to believe in their worth again and regain their pride in their unique skills. Aware… is a business that values its integrity, ensuring merchandise is created following the 10 principles of fair trade; fair wages, environmentally fair, and a fair opportunity to provide a chance for a quality of life for those most in need. All products (from fabric to beads) are sourced with this in mind.
Aware… kicked off with a simple dress designed in a hospital room and made by the Artisans of India. It has been incredibly popular. But the dress was just the beginning. Since then the Ahmedabad range has expanded into skirts, hand embroidered stoles that take over 70 days to complete and a jewelry line. “We have also started production of a boutique collection in Lucknow, India,” Yvonne says enthusiastically “and accessories are being made up in Chile”. Aware… is also involved in a street wear T-shirt range created to rescue women out of the sex slave trade in Calcutta. We’re sourcing from all over the world now, changing lives and making a difference. I can hardly contain my excitement, that this project has proven that once ‘Aware‘ people for the most part do care and support Fair Trade.”
Driven by her enthusiasm and passion, Yvonne has expanded Aware… to incorporate education talks and market stalls providing information, fashion and accessories that will inspire the consumer to reconsider what is valuable. This is something Yvonne is particularly passionate about. “The value of something is more than the dollar amount tagged to it” she explains patiently. “Linked to every product is a human, who has the right to fairness, as much as you or I. Our merchandise is an educational tool driving an important message to consumers and the fashion industry alike: Consider Fair Trade. Show humanity the compassion it deserves.”
Yet in the face of success, Yvonne has not forgotten who inspired her dream. “Kylie wanted to offer these artists a second chance at life and Kylie was also my biggest support,” Yvonne smiles. “Because of her, Aware… may never have gotten off the ground. She gave me the courage to chase my dream and make it reality, to make every day count in my own unique way.” Yvonne pauses for a moment, tears in her eyes. “She has been my inspiration from the very start. Kylie lost her battle with cancer, but what I do now with ‘The Kylie Project’ and ‘Aware’ will be a reflection of her heart for humanity and her compassion will be remembered and honoured.”
“We were just two young woman daring to dream, daring to believe that with Fair Trade a reality of empowerment can change the lives of thousands across the world. The Kylie Project is one Kylie would be very, very proud of, and for me its a constant reminder of the heart of my best friend – Its her legacy.”
Written by Christine Banks/ Kylie Dress photo: Photography: Rachel Bardsley / Make- up: Cacey Anderson / Models: Annabel Fry and Genevieve Fry