Interview of Fi McAlpine by Isabella Roxburgh
If you don’t know about The Fabric Social yet – here’s the deal:
Started by three young Australian women, The Fabric Social is a Melbourne-based clothing label whose producers are conflict-affected, displaced and other vulnerable women in Asia. They are basically Fashion Without Borders.
Their social mission is to secure economic independence for their producers that is not dependent on charity. They also want Aussie women to have better choices; to buy less, and buy better.
We chatted with Co-Founder Fi in the lead up to their winter release.
How did you guys come to start The Fabric Social?
It’s kind of insane that we started a label, as none of us were from the fashion world. My Co-Founders and I shared a crumbling Delhi apartment, and worked for various women’s rights projects that focused on the conflict and post-conflict zones of Northeast India.
We wanted to do something that would create real and immediate change for women living in these areas. The work we were doing was great, but writing reports to be sent off to Geneva didn’t really help women on the day to day level, we wanted to generate income straight into their pockets.
We found a perfect partnership in a bad-ass group of silk weavers in an ex-rebel held part of Assam. These ladies had commandeered an old government building to build their own production house. They were poets, political activists, and worked as a collective. We were so in.
We made our very first collection of just three silk shirts with these women, and have grown to work in 3 locations, and hold a place as one of the many awesome Aussie brands raging against the fast fashion machine.
What type of investments do you make in the lives of the people who make your clothes?
We listen, and we are there. It sounds simple, but it is a major point of difference to actually give a shit. It’s more unusual than you might think.
When one of our artisans fell off their scooter and hurt their leg, we knew about it. When our co-op asked for solar lamps, we sourced some. When there was flooding last year, we crowdfunded so that urgent aid could be distributed to the community. When the storms hit this year and all was well in the village, many a happy-dance emoji was exchanged.
The main investment we make is providing sustainable, regular income where there was none. As loads of young Australian women know, the ability to plan beyond a single paycheck makes a world of difference – being able to plan your future is a massive weight off the shoulders.
And we’ve asked the women we work with point blank what they want their impact outcomes to be, and they tell us: cash. Regular income is the best possible investment we can make in these women because it allows them to invest in themselves, which is something no one has done before. Confidence in the women as living, breathing individuals is an awesome investment in the future of these communities. If you wanted to be real cheesy you might call it the audacity of hope.
What makes your brand awesome?
In Assam and Mizoram, we work with women who are otherwise outside the traditional development system. The aim isn’t just to make a little bit of cash for our target communities – the aim is to completely disrupt the inefficient and ineffective international development models that have never reached these communities because of complex and absurd diplomatic hurdles.
At the same time, we want to flip the exploitative elements of the garment industry on their head. Most of our closet contributes to horrific labour conditions for young women in South Asia, buying from us is an opportunity to do the exact opposite. You can fuck off fast fashion and support a feminist cause all in one go.
Do you think Australians are wising up to ethical shopping?
Definitely. I think social enterprise is going to be a really big deal in this century, especially as the millennial generation grow up to be the primary bread winners. We put the power in the hands of consumers to change the things they think are shitty about the world, because that’s something that we wanted for ourselves.
And we are a design label, we market on a platform of “this is an excellent product” rather than “buy this thing because the producer is poor”. We want people to buy the products because they are magnificent, not out of some weird obligation or guilt – and I think the social enterprises that have this approach are the ones that will stand the test of time. We refuse to let anyone feel sorry for our ladies, because they’re fucking awesome. This isn’t a pity party: it’s a revolution.
What’s the environmental impact of this collection?
Across the Northeast region there are multiple strains of indigenous silks that have been handspun and handwoven for centuries. The fabric we fell in love with was ‘eri’ – a silk that uses the discarded husk of the moth’s cocoon. These women were upcycling long before it was cool.
Our weavers in Assam don’t have any sexy certifications, but everything they make is organic, derived from the local flora and fauna and hand spun into fabric. These traditional practices die out as cheaper alternatives dominate, but that cycle doesn’t need to be inevitable.
What do people love most about your stuff?
They like that it’s better in substance, not just in story. We have become so used to clothes that fall apart in two washes, held together with the weakest stitching. You don’t need to know anything about fabric to be able to tell immediately that eri silk is a totally different ball game – that you should take care of them and wash them much less frequently.
The thing I personally like best about the eri silk is that it doesn’t stink. I’m under no illusion about my potential for stinkiness – I’m constantly sweating bullets: riding my bike, lugging the shopping home, all the things an actual person does. You just need to hang up eri silk and the smells just fall out. I told this to my grandma who was like “duh, that’s what all clothes were like before they were all made of plastic”. We all wash everything way too much because everything we own is usually at least 20% plastic, and that is a stanky way to live your life.
What’s next in your brand’s journey?
I really feel like this is the collection where we’ve hit our stride. This is the second iteration of our Ara collection with Ally Deam, a Melbourne based designer who puts an emphasis on zero-waste fabric consumption, and has been working with our flagship eri-silk and khadi-cotton blend from day one.
This collection puts together all the things I love about Melbourne – her immensely frustrating weather patterns and charmingly contradictory clash between high culture and trash culture. Is it jacket weather or mini skirt weather? Normcore or cheerleader? Who gives a shit, I want all the things, and I want them all at once.
As you can tell, I am pretty excited.
Any advice for consumers on how to shop smarter?
You no longer need to read the label of a $5 tee to know that it was stitched by women living in shitty conditions and derived from nasty chemicals. You’re not an idiot, the price point tells you that.
The best thing we can do to shop smarter is to shop way less. Couple 3-4 beloved wardrobe keepers with op shop goodies that can come and go. Don’t look at your wardrobe as a collection of individual items, think of it like one of those 3 ingredient cookbooks. Wouldn’t you rather have a basil-tomato combo that goes perfectly together that you can throw on anytime and feel confident in? Or would you rather have some kind of fish milkshake curry that you have to wade through on a daily basis to find something edible? It’s better for the environment, and way better for your stress levels.
Oh, and no more plastic bottles. No excuses.
You can find out more, or shop the Ara 17 Collection at thefabricsocial.com[share]