11 women in slow fashion you should know about

In honour of Women's Day that came and went this week, we’d like to introduce you to some of the incredible conscious minds we truly admire.

From slow fashion brand designers to climate activists and educators, pioneering women all over the world are taking matters into their own hands to make the world a better place. Here are just a few inspiring figures we think everyone should look up to.

Sally Holkar, founder of WomenWeave

With the modernisation of fashion production in our age, much of the traditional ways, often, by-hand methods and craft, have become less favoured by large, influential brands. It’s not a surprise but certainly not a sustainable move as we experience the environmental destruction fashion has had with each year that passes by. Sally Holkar has been fighting against this norm since 1978, an Indian-born Texan who has dedicated much of her life to supporting weavers in Maheshwar, and ultimately create WomenWeave, an NGO that connects “the threads of Maheshwar’s history and intangible cultural heritage with sustainable employment for local women today.”

A lover and supporter of the slow art, the organisation brings together the women of the weaving community to, not only give them a safe, ethical space to work in but to also educate and further their skills in business as to operate in the modern market. Gudi Mudi is WomenWeave’s core founding project which “connects the dots between a Gandhian idea of village economy and todays’ rapidly transforming urban market in India, as well as international markets for artisanal and sustainable luxury.” while their 2015 project, The Handloom School, invites young weavers to come along and build their knowledge from computer skills to English.

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Kalpona Akter, activist & founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS)

In most recent history, the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse was what brought stark attention to the hazardous working environments much of the fast fashion world creates. It was a tipping point and catalyst that prompted many around the world to use their voice to fight for better worker rights as well as build businesses focusing on creating safer, more ethical working spaces in fashion. However, long before this tragic incident, Kalpona has been fighting for that very cause. She has been fighting for garment workers rights since the 90s and was the recipient of the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism in 2016. Her campaigns revolve around worker safety, fair wages and the right to labour unions, and it all began and was prompted by her own experience working in garment factories.

At just 12 years old, Kalpona began working at garment factories in her native Bangladesh.My name is Kalpona Akter. After 2 years working, her first opportunity to advocate for better rights presented itself:

“the management came with the demand that they will pay us less for our overtime pay. And we did not agree with it. We called for a strike without knowing the law and rights. Among 92 men, I was the only young female worker who joined in the strike, and behind of us, it was 1,800 workers who were supporting the strike… They started firing the strikers. So the workers, they came back with the good news that they sued the factory owner… They started telling what they learned, and they invited me to come for that labor law training. A week or two later, I went to that training which completely changed my life… The following morning when I came to the factory floor, I cannot resist myself to share this with my coworkers, and I started telling them, “Hey, we should work like eight hours. We should sign the union application.” And that is how I started, you know, and never stopped.”

Since then, although targeted by the Bangladeshi government and factory owners, Kalpona founded the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) devoted herself to trade unions and activism, has been instrumental in engaging stakeholders, and has connected with government bodies and the UN all to demand respect for garment workers.

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Orsola De Castro & Carry Somers, founders of Fashion Revolution 

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse brought the attention of the world to the completely unethical and dehumanising standards fast fashion production was upholding. It started conversations picking apart how the disaster came to be and what brands instilled similar standards. And so, in order to keep the conversation going and initiate real action, Fashion Revolution was founded that same year by Orsola and Carry. In Carry’s words, “Fashion Revolution is the world’s largest fashion-activism movement. We are a positive and collaborative platform, working with citizens, policymakers, unions, NGOs, brands and retailers in more than 100 countries around the world.”

When it comes to each woman's own experience and impact, Orsola has been upcycling since 1997 through her own label, From Somewhere, that takes textile waste to be crafted into new pieces. She launched Esthetica with her partner in 2006 at London Fashion Week to specifically showcase labels designing sustainably as well as is an associate lecturer at UAL. Carry first established herself through her brand Pachacuti, launched in 1992, that aimed to support “sustainable livelihoods for marginalised, rural women in the Andean region…  Pachacuti had been a pilot for the EU Geo Fair Trade project, which aimed to provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials and production processes.” The brand was the world’s first fair-trade certified company!

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Susannah Jaffer, founder of ZERRIN 

UK-born and Singapore-based, Susannah has stated how “Growing up in the UK, I was exposed to a very sophisticated retail market where high street brands and luxury labels were everywhere, including online platforms like ASOS. By my mid-20s, I outgrew all that and became less influenced by trends; instead I look for clothes that really made me feel good,” And so, ZERRIN, an eco-fashion multi-brand retailer and media platform was born in 2017.

Previously an editor for fashion and beauty magazines as well as a creative director, her shift to entrepreneur and full time slow fashion advocate came from the need to make conscious brands a bit more discoverable, something Susannah mentions she always found lacking. This lack of accessibility for more sustainable brands really drove how ZERRIN now at all times spotlights emerging designers and independent labels that put positive environmental and social impact first. The platform first launched with 14 brands being hosted to now, almost 6 years later, with over 50 across the south and south-east asian region, including Cambodia, India, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

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Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed & The Conscious Closet

If you have been engaging with the slow fashion world for some time now, chances are you have heard the term ‘conscious closet’, a term that was first coined by author Elizabeth Cline in her book The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good. A conscious mind and fashion lover, Elizabeth’s works encourage others to take a more sustainable path with their clothing, educating on the many transgressions the fashion industry has inflicted on our planet and guiding on how we can all do better individually and collectively.

With two decades worth of experience in journalism covering fashion, tech, labor, women’s rights and the environment, as well as an expert in post-consumer textile waste, she’s well aware of the fashion’s global impact and sought to reveal it through her first published work, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, in 2012. Her second work, The Conscious Closet, published in 2019 “delves into fresh research on fashion’s impacts and illustrates how consumers and fashion lovers can leverage our everyday choices to transform the apparel industry and change the world for the better.”, and more recently, she’s turned her attention to organising the #PayUp campaign that calls for labor rights in fashion.

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Aditi Mayer, sustainable fashion blogger

Through her blog ADIMAY, Aditi Mayer “explores the intersections between style, sustainability and social justice.” With a conscious outlook, a craving to discuss the injustices within fashion and a yearning to understand how we can all do better, Aditi is a resounding voice, an activist, content creator, and photojournalist, who seeks to empower others to make better choices and share her own journey while at it.

The Los Angeles-based blogger first began her personal sustainable journey in 2014, offset by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. From this tragic event, Aditi knew she wanted to use her blog to discuss her opinions on the fashion system and uncover its injustices, exploring topics such as systemic racism, fair trade, and labour exploitation to name a few, all while using her photography to immerse and connect her readers to these human stories - she also gleans much of her knowledge in connection with her cultural roots in India. Today, she’s become a spokesperson within the fashion industry advocating for more conscious systems. To understand her viewpoint and also share one of our favourite statements from her: “Fashion, for me, is a vehicle to unpack culture and beauty. It’s also a tool to unpack systems of oppression and power, while acting as a subversive method to capture audiences, because, at face value, if we talk about the politics of labour and the environmental impact of fashion, it might be overwhelming, but if we talk about a pretty dress that’s inherently tied to those topics it becomes a lot more approachable. Fashion is our second skin, we either use it to conceal or express something, this became a democratic medium to unpack that.”

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Céline Semaan, founder of Slow Factory

Céline Semaan is a writer, designer and advocate based in New York with a Lebanese-Canadian background, who shaped much of her views and relationship with sustainable fashion through her experience being born in war-torn Lebanon, particularly the cost it brought human rights and environmental justice. These formative experiences led her to found Slow Factory in 2012, a non-profit that focuses on fashion’s worldwide impact on the planet, aiming to act as an educational hub as well as create initiatives dedicated to its social and environmental impact causes.

In their own words, they work “at the intersections of climate and culture to build partnerships and community to advance climate-positive global movements through the lens of human rights, science, technology, and fashion… Slow Factory empowers people of the global majority to advance climate justice and social equity through educational programming, regenerative design, and materials innovation.”

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Kirti Poonia, co-founder of Relove

In a world that produces waste abundantly from single-use plastics to food waste, fashion is one of the top culprits that affects our planet’s environment with a massive 92 million tonnes of textile waste being produced annually. And so, many around the world are trying to find solutions to this problem, including Kirti.

Always being a fashion enthusiast, influenced by her fashion designer mother, Kirti has always had love for the industry. Her career, however, began in engineering where she spent several years in the field before finding herself being connected to and eventually becoming the head of Tata Administrative Services’ Okhai programme and initiative, immersing her into the world she had always admired. Created to support rural female artisans, the project has made great strides: “In 2015 she started with 350 women in Gujarat and today Okhai is impacting 2300 women artisans across the country. In this period, Okhai has grown 6 times.” Fast forward to 2021 and Kirti along with her spouse, Prateek, co-found Relove, a reselling platform for clothing brands to give discarded, unused, excess or preloved clothing new homes as well as help them build their resale store - essentially an online thrift shop designed to combat “the deep-rooted discrepancy in consumption habits in the clothing sector.”

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Kate Hall, content creator & sustainability advocate

A self-proclaimed serial smiler and kombucha brewing addict, New Zealand-based Kate is an educator, activist and blogger “who advocates for living and decision making that respects and protects people and the planet.” Growing up in an environmentally and socially conscious family, her interest in sustainability began in her young years and only grew from there. Moreover, her business mind was also something she developed early! At the age of 8 she managed household tasks for her neighbours, at 14 she was managing a holiday home, and at 16 she worked as a nanny and a musician.

However, the pronounced beginning of her slow fashion journey started in 2015 when she watched a documentary on fast fashion that left her changed. She took to social media to channel her frustration with the industry, naming herself ‘Ethically Kate’. Some years go by as she maintains the platform all while working in IT then freelancing as a writer and blogger, until 2020 where she made the move to focus on it full time. Ever since, she’s attended TEDx as a speaker, spoken at schools and workplaces, expressing the core notion that sustainability can be a matter of small acts, and whatever you can manage, acts big or small, can make a difference:  “I want people to understand that living sustainably doesn’t mean your life has to look wildly different. The perfect sustainable lifestyle doesn’t exist. But the more we encourage each other to be bold, to say no to a single-use item or to walk instead of taking the car, the more we challenge the norm.”

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Christine Dean, founder of Redress & The R Collective

When it comes to sustainability, we all need encouragement, support and the willingness to help others also grow into conscious ways of living. Continued effort and innovation is key in making sure we all are working towards a greener future, one that values our communities and our planet. Founded in Hong Kong by Christine in 2007, Redress is an NGO that embarks on that mission, it “is a pioneering environmental charity with a mission to educate and empower the fashion industry and consumers to reduce clothing’s negative environmental impact by shifting to circular solutions”. Interestingly, Christine’s career did not start in fashion, in fact, before she moved to Hong Kong in 2005 when she first began her research into apparel manufacturing, she was a journalist and dentist. Her journalistic research delving into environmental issues in Asia, however, set her on a different path as she realised that there was a great need for more environmental education for aspiring designers.

It’s no wonder then that one of Redress’ better known initiatives is the Redress Design Award, introduced in 2011, which is “the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition [that] raises awareness among emerging fashion designers about sustainable design theories and techniques in order to drive growth towards a circular fashion system. This educational area of our work gets to grips with the design phase, which is so crucial given that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in here.”

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We hope you get to know these women and their journeys as well as seek out other incredible voices in the slow fashion world!

Remember, every day is Women’s Day so don’t forget to cherish the women around you as much as you can, support each other on your journeys and use your voice to tell the stories of those who inspire you.

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