Travels Shape Fashion Views and Voice

In the late 1990s, my work took me to the beautiful country of Italy. My initial visits were short stints until 2004 when I lived there for one year.  As a young female, I saw my life in Italy as a wonderful dream come true because of the country’s rich history, archeological wonders, scenic landscapes, delicious food and wine, and most of all, its reputation as a fashion mecca. Most women feel like they’ve ‘died and gone to heaven’ when they discover the amazing clothing and shoes there. And, the quality of the handmade leather accessories is — bar-none — the best you’ll find anywhere in the world.

From my first two visits in the nineties, to my life there in 2004, I recognized some subtle changes in Italy’s outdoor markets and boutique shops though. In just one year there, I witnessed the Italian marketplace losing quality in several products. And, to locate the same high-quality dresses, shoes and accessories that I’d found years before was then like trying to find ‘a needle in a haystack.’ Unless I went straight to the top shopping district in Naples, Rome and Florence, Italy, I simply couldn’t find the same level of fashion that I’d once enjoyed.

At that point, I couldn’t grasp why the change was occurring. Italy had just begun using the Euro as currency, in place of the Lira. The change definitely raised prices, but I just assumed the adjustment in prices might have happened because original costs were too low. I simply didn’t know the root cause of the changes or of the decline in the country’s famous high-quality fashion. I accepted it though, with some frustration, but continued to forge on to find ‘the good stuff’ during my weekend shopping adventures.

Over that year, I also visited Morocco on business.  I spent a few months there, and of course, once again, I searched out the shopping zone – the Medina! What an amazing place for a Western girl, I thought. The flare of North African design and fashion, with all the Berber cultural touches, just made me want to buy everything I laid my eyes on. Morocco’s Medinas were full of unique, vibrant fashions. The cottons felt wonderful and many of the fabrics were richly colored with natural vegetable dyes as opposed to chemicals. I long to go back and shop again in Morocco’s Medina – to enjoy the colorful sights, to hear the sounds of bartering, and to smell the rich sweet aromas of spices in the air.

After my time in Italy, I moved to Ukraine.  It was an amazingly historic time for anyone to be in the country. While I was there to do election observations, the famous ‘Orange Revolution’ began. Streets quickly filled up with people of all ages, especially students, some in favor of Yuschenko (the Orange guy) while others favored the candidate of the older, established regime of the days when there was heavy Russian influence – Yenakovich (the Blue guy).

In between my work as an observer, I learned enough ‘street Russian’ to get out and shop. Russian was the language of choice over Ukrainian in some of the Eastern region of the country where I lived, about 120 miles from Moscow. The open market, referred to as Azortka, was bustling with life, and I learned to get used to the sights of hog’s heads on my search for unusual stockings and lingerie that I’ve only ever seen in Ukraine. The designs there were truly original and like no other fashion I’d ever seen before. While much of the fashion had to initially ‘grow on me,’ over time I began to revel in the fact that I could wear something home to America that I know no one would have ever seen. And, it was beautiful fashion! Every time I’d return home for a short visit, several of my friends would ogle my totally unique clothing and shoes. They’d often beg me to buy them something there and mail it. The boots in Ukraine were especially off-the-wall, and I spent months searching for just the right pair. No two seemed to be quite alike in the shops. Anything that you could possibly think up in the way of fashion design has already been thought of by Ukrainian designers, believe me!

A few years after my time in Ukraine, I ended up in Afghanistan. You see, I’d been a Navy reservist (part time). And with the war underway full-scale, the Army began back-filling many of its positions with Navy and Air Force personnel who had the specific expertise needed there. Being recalled to active-duty in Afghanistan for 18 months seemed dreadful in the beginning, but I quickly realized I was blessed over the coming months to meet many wonderful Afghan families through my travels there and through volunteer humanitarian work in refugee camps. Every Friday, Afghan merchants would bring their bazar (open shopping market) to many bases in the country so that military members could experience the unique products that Afghanistan has to offer. The bazar merchants sold traditional Afghan fashions plus many of the shop owners would sew clothing from scratch, all custom-made. They usually had several hundred patterns to choose from for both men and women.

All these experiences have brought me to the point where I am today. I now ask questions that I would have never known to ask before, such as: Who’s making all of these unique items? Have the unique designs of artisans been stolen to reproduce those designs I’m starting to see for more and more of a bargain? Is anyone enslaved and/or working in unsafe conditions just to bring this beautiful fashion in front of my eyes?

The reason these sorts of questions now enter my mind goes all the way back to my time spent in Italy. It took a long time for me to figure out that as quality was decreasing, wages to the designers and fashions makers also were being minimized over time, plus their designs were often stolen and cheaply reproduced. However, the more I read and educated myself about fashion production in these countries and others, the more I realized that workers were being exploited in horrible ways in the clothing manufacturing industry just to make clothing that would eventually end up in my closet. Watching the decline in artisan design of fashion, the bastardization of their designs, and the exploitation of human beings for the purpose of bringing fashion to the consumer at much cheaper rates, point blank, made me sick!

Just like a beautiful painting revered for years as something unique and original, so to is fashion that hard-working designers create for our wearing pleasure. And for the factory workers that actually use their hands to sew the fabrics stitch by stitch – their labor is just as valuable as my labor. No one should ever be treated as less valuable just for me to own a new outfit.

And since my last blog, less than two weeks ago, where I discussed the many lives lost in a Bangladesh fire, another factory there has claimed the lives of well over 140 people when it collapsed upon the workers within it.

Consumption is fine, as long as it isn’t at the horrific expense of others. Fashion should be fun, not frightening!  Please review this link below:

Jo’el Worldwear will soon be a public website highlighting creations of grassroots artisans and fashion designers from around the world. Some of these designers are recovering from exploitative situations like human trafficking. They are rebuilding their lives through fashion. They are utilizing their talents to bring us unique cultural designs from their region of the world. This blog is simply meant to be educational and provide a thought-provoking environment that can help each of us consider what types of buying decisions we’re making and with what businesses we are patronizing. If many of the large department and super stores are profiting due to our shopping habits, shouldn’t they be conducting all of their business practices, both here within the Western world, and abroad in places like Bangladesh, in the utmost professional and ethical manner? You decide.


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