Toward better working conditions?

Along with Bangladeshi and Chinese workers, Cambodian women have been fighting hard in the past months. There are hundreds of thousands working in the textile industry for brands like Gap and Benetton. They usually live close to the factory, at the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and most of the time away from their family. They work for a wage that is not even enough for them to live decently.

So, when the government increased the minimum wage only up to 61$ and fired some trade union members, they went on a massive strike, claiming a raise up to 93$/month. 90$ is indeed the amount that has been considered as necessary for decent living conditions by international organisations and NGOs, taking into consideration the fact that Phom Penh is an expensive town.

Three months after the big events of September 2010, the conclusion is ambiguous. The strike was a success, in the sense that it attracted the attention of the media and improved the awareness of workers in terms of social fights and power of mass leaverage. However it was a failure because the strikers had to face virulent police forces and the wage won't be increased again for a long time.

The seamstresses working in markets (see pictures above) may be better off than the factory workers: their work-environment is less stressful and they have more control over their work-time management . They also benefit from the fact that tourists and expats are ordering many items from them. However, they still have to work a lot for very small earnings, performing exhausting tasks.

At the end, the textile industry emploies about 350 000 persons and is one of the main economic resources of the country. Working extra hours, the factory workers are currently making 75$/month on average.

Some NGOs are trying to improve the textile workers living conditions. Some fight for class awareness and social movements in large factories, running information campaigns among trade unions.

In a different way, Mademoiselle Sarong decided to do something about that too. The brand has been created by two young French women, after one of them came back from Cambodia with tons of ideas and fabrics combination in mind. Their collections are centered around that particular cotton fabric called sarong, a very colorful print that becomes in their hands a leitmotiv, collection after collection.
But taking inspiration from Cambodia made them want to give the country something back: they partnered with NGOs supporting groups of seamstresses in order to rehabilitate women with great difficulties. They say the long distance management is not necessarily easy, and that their ethic commitment often makes business and production processes more difficult, but no need to add that some things are priceless.

And the collections are gorgeous. Heart and art combined into a modern blend. I love it. And so will you.

Mademoiselle Sarong F/W Collection 2010

Project 4: The Cocktail Dress

I am invited to attend a wedding next week, and for once I wanted to wear a dress that I had made, not bought. So, given the circumstances, here comes my first cocktail dress!
Once again I have to thank a dear friend for the fabric: when she went back to Cambodia, Audrey bought some lovely pink raw silk from the Russian market in Phnom Penh. The color is very sweet, while the texture is not regular (which is normal for raw silk): this gives an interesting combination and a more unique feel to the dress.

The model is a mix of two patterns: the top is from Burda and the bottom is the same as the India Dress (from Simplicity). The bottom from Burda was a tulip shape which I thought would be too lady-like combined to the top. The back of the dress, where the straps make a big bow, is the real strength of this design, while the front is very classic, even a little bit severe.

The fabric was relatively easy to sew, but the edges were fragile: I made sure I sewed every seam twice to secure the outfit.
With that dress I had to do my first lining, which was not so challenging. It just took a lot of time to finish the last seams by hand. I would have preferred to line it with the same silk, but I didn't have enough of it, so I picked a matching color in regular lining fabric.
I wish the waist were higher, but I guess it looks fine like that also. It's simply less flattering.
At last I succeeding in placing an "invisible" invisible zipper: you can't see it on the pictures (can you?). My zipper battle is over. I won.

I am not totally confident wearing that dress at a wedding, fearing that something bad will happen at some point (what if the zipper breaks? if the lining shows too much?). I will surely have another dress in my bag, just in case.

However, if everything goes well, I will be happy to accessorize it with the following head-piece that I made with some remnants. I bought the base, and covered it with silk before adding a silk flower and a white and golden button in the middle. I can fix it in my hair thanks to a pin. So chic!

A Vegetarian Wardrobe?

I could be a vegetarian. It would be hard, but I could live without eating meat nor fish. Would I be a veggie fashionista? Tougher question. I don't know. What would it mean exactly?
It would imply getting rid off fur : I can do that -I admire the beauty of fur coats and hats, but honestly I don't think I will ever wear some. Getting rid of silk (yes, according to some extreme activists, silk is also non vegetarian fashion) : I love silk (raw silk, silk satin, silk chiffon..) but I have to admit that it is now possible to produce high quality fabric with the same aspect and feel as silk but made up of synthetic fibres. So I could go with no silk. Now comes the most difficult part. Get rid off leather : what about shoes? handbags? my leather jacket? Leather has some properties that are very difficult to mimic. It's strong and soft at the same time, it's waterproof and warm.

On the other hand, it is reasonable to think that leather should be avoided for several environmental reasons: first, as the animal activist may argue, it involves killing animals, most of the time in awful conditions. Secondly, the ecological activist would say that it involves breeding animals and thus polluting the planet with greenhouse gases emissions. At last, any responsible human being may think that it is disturbing to know that the tanning process of leather is highly toxic, and that the products (such as chrome) and techniques used to obtain the final product prevent leather from being biodegradable, creating a long-term environmental problem. Some new tanning methods are more environment friendly, but they are also more demanding and expensive.

So what can we use if we decide to stop buying leather? There's a lot of noise at the moment about vegetable leather. Vegetable leather can be many things: in some cases, it is called treetap and comes from a rubber tree species in the Amazon forest. In other cases it is mostly a blend of natural and synthetic fibres.

Treebag proposes bags and shoes using treetap as well as fair trade ethics and a higher remuneration for the producer. I must admit however that the design of the products is not the most appealing.
At the other end of the fashion scope stands Stella McCartney. Her commitment to the green cause is well-known. Her clothes are all vegetarian. She uses faux leather made from synthetic or natural fibres, but she underlines how more difficult and more costly it is to use that kind of fabric compared to leather. I actually own a pair of her "suitable for vegetarians" shoes. They are as comfy as leather ones, and, except for the absence of the distinctive leather smell, you could admit they look like leather.
A little bit less expensive are the collections by Olsenhaus. That hot brand produces gorgeous shoes with a minimum impact on the environment and absolutely no animal-related material.

Olsenhaus Fall 2010 collection

Thanks to the support of some artists such as Nathalie Portman, the movement for vegetable or faux leather is spreading rapidly, along with the raise of general awareness for environmental issues. Designers avoiding leather are indeed the ones who are more likely to use recycled materials and low-energy fabrication processes.

So what will I do? Obviously I can't afford McCartney or Olsenhaus on a regular basis. And I can't resign myself to buy only that not-so-glamorous fair trade items. Waiting for a broader scope of offers, I will certainly buy more leather shoes while keeping an eye on the industry and hoping that the innovative techniques will disseminate quickly.

Will it help if I send a petition to H&M? After going organic, they may accept going vegetarian and they are definitely one of the most influential brands. Who knows?

Project 3: The India Dress

Introducing my first dress....

How do you aquire gorgeous fabric without actually looking for it? Ask your friends who travel to bring you a souvenir! That's what my friend Carole generously did, bringing back from her last stay in India amazing printed fabrics. Two of them are very light and difficult to tame, but with the third one I decided I would do my first dress, because it seemed reasonably easy to manipulate.

I chose a pattern from Simplicity. My criteria were the following: I wanted sleeves and a high waist.The fact that the top and the bottom were two distinct pieces was reassuring: you have the impression you can adjust more than with only one piece.
Putting the sleeves together was not the easiest, but the fact that they are puffy made it acceptable that they were not perfectly sewed.
I have got some more serious issues though: I fixed an invisible zipper...without understanding clearly how to do it. So this is a visible invisible zipper!
There were supposed to be two pockets, but I lost one in the zipper process: it is not accessible if the zipper is up.
The hem was once more my least favorite part. I had to redo it several times before the bottom looked even.

On the other hand, it was very interesting to play with the different types of pattern details and to place them differently on the top, the clivage, the sleeves and on the skirt.

I wear that dress with dark tights (the fabric is not totally opaque), by itself or with a black top underneath if it's too cold. This is a highly comfortable dress. I will definitely buy more Simplicity patterns (and ask Carole more fabric)!

Cambodian inspiration

The decision to start sewing for good was made there. Going through the markets, choosing my own fabric for my own design and bringing everything to the tailor (the amazing always-smiling woman pictured below) : that feeling was unbelievable. And I thought it would be even better if I could sew myself and really make my dream clothes.
So, still with Cambodia in mind, I started.
Following is a glimpse of what inspired me back in Asia: prints, mix of prints, kramas, sarong fabric, and a sort of bling that is never very far from traditions.

Project 2: The Cat Skirt

Do you all remember Miu Miu stunning Spring 2010 collection made up of crazy prints? If not, here is an example (see right).
On the same outfit one can observe cats, birds and a naked woman. The whole thing is looking quite classy though. Or maybe kind of preppy. The prints are mixed with a great sense of humour combined to a subtle taste. If you want to see more of this gorgeous collection, you can go there.

I don't pretend that I wanted to design something Miu Miu like. But that inspiration gave me the courage to use this lovely print that I fell in love with, and to build from it a playful skirt. The result is definitely youthful, and that's my idea of the perfectly easy-to-wear skirt.

The pattern was from Burda. I learned how to gather fabric and how to sew a zipper (however that was before I discover the invisible zipper's magic). It was also my first invisible hem: that project gave me the opportunity to discover many techniques (and the hem is for sure something that I don't enjoy doing...)!

At the end I wear that skirt very often, but I wish I had picked a stricter shape to contrast with the childish print. A little bit more in the Miu Miu spirit I guess....