Fiona McAlpine, Katie Rose and Sharna de Lacy
The Fabric Social; tech-start up and ethical fashion label
A woman in a region plagued by conflict spends two weeks hand weaving a piece of beautiful fabric. She takes it from her village to market where it is sold for the equivalent of $1.80. Much of her profit is absorbed by middle men.
After witnessing situations like this all over the world, Fiona McAlpine, Katie Rose and Sharna de Lacy, three friends with years of experience in development, law and social work asked themselves why? Why was there no better system? Why was there no alternative? So they thought of one.
The Fabric Social is an elegantly simple and innovative solution to some very complex problems. Using an app connected to an e-commerce site the project will link women in some of the most isolated and conflict affected places in the world to training, technology and the international retail market.
The Fabric Social cuts a swathe through preconceptions of working in conflict zones and what disadvantaged women are capable of; and sells beautiful, ethical fashion with a story.
With the app in development, and a successful crowd funding campaign under their belts, I caught up with Fi and Sharna before they headed overseas to hear more about the future of The Fabric Social.
How do you describe The Fabric Social?
F: For a while when we were trying to explain our idea to people we were saying that it was like eBay for conflict zones…we’ve come a little way from that now! We are a tech start-up, a fashion start up and also a human rights organisation. We have embraced everything.
S: I sometimes describe it as tech start-up come ethical fashion label.
F: It’s really about the women we are working with and what they are producing, how you label it doesn’t really matter.
Do you all have backgrounds in development?
F: We all have backgrounds in law and development and social work. Between the three of us we all overlap two of those areas.
Is this a full time job for the three of you or are you juggling other commitments?
F: We have all juggled jobs that we don’t love to pay for the work and the projects that we do love, for a very very long time. We thought maybe instead we could work for ourselves for free for a while.
How did you meet each other?
F: We all met working in Delhi last September, for a humanitarian organisation and a feminist law firm. It’s all quite new. Sharna was living with me; Katie was looking for a house. We didn’t end up living together but we did end up hanging out and became friends.
How and when did The Fabric Social begin?
S: In March this year after floating the idea and a lot of emails and Skype conversations between India and Australia.
F: It’s changed a lot since then. The original idea was prompted by us asking ourselves: why can’t these women sell their product independently, overseas or use tools like Etsy and eBay? Why is it that the only structure for them involves a horrible middle man who will take almost all of their income? At the beginning we didn’t necessarily think that we were going to be our own website or our own e-commerce platform. The app was the main element- the tool that could enable these women to break down market barriers, lose the middle men and sell directly to the consumer.
S: Our consistent idea has been that that you can purchase something directly from the person who made it.
Can you tell me more about the app?
S: At its core, the app is a business tool that facilitates selling via our online store. It will provide features to manage production, shipping, and inventory. It will also give the necessary tools to develop entrepreneurial skill - basic supply and demand data, sales growth, and the kind of details a small business needs if it is going to grow. The potential for this simple app to help grow women’s small enterprises in some of the most isolated parts of the world is truly exciting for us.
What prompted the idea?
F: Sharna and I had both been working on projects to train women up to be tailors and weavers in their own communities. These women would go off to market and try and sell their products and make a really low return. We thought, maybe this great structure may not be working that well.
S : Market linkages are generally where everything falls down. We are looking at economies that are depressed by years of conflict - add on top of that market saturation as everyone is producing more or less the same thing. A beautiful piece of hand woven fabric which can take up to two weeks to produce will return 100 rupees to the person who made it- the equivalent of about $1.80. We were trying to find a market solution to that problem.
Fast fashion can feel disposable and cheap; I think that there are a lot of people looking for alternatives. Do you think that people want to have a connection with what they are buying? Do they want it to be special and have a story?
F: Yes, we think there is definitely a demand for that kind of relationship with a product.
S: When we put our marketing hats on - which is something that is very new to us - we see that there is definitely a value being placed on something which has a story. Especially now in a climate of fast fashion and human rights abuses, which particularly effects women in developing economies.
F: We are making these products available for people like us, who think like us. In the beginning we just assumed that there would be a market, even a very small one. Once we started doing some rudimentary market research we saw that the fastest growing niche market in Australian fashion is ethical fashion. It was a happy surprise when we realised that there were a lot of people out there who think the same way we do.
Where is The Fabric Social going to start?
F: We have chosen Assam, which is an epicentre of silk and textile production not just in India but worldwide. We haven’t worked directly with women in that area before so we are going to need to work hard to develop close relationships in the field.
How will you be finding women who want to become part of The Fabric Social?
S: Essentially we will be adopting a kind of community development approach which means that we will be going out and consulting heavily, doing a lot of workshops, training and getting to know people and where they are working. At the end of the day it is up to the women whether they want to engage with us and be involved.
F: Nobody works for us. We will be helping in training them and providing intensive support, but these women will be working for themselves.
What will the consumer experience entail?
S: We want to be able to build on the consumer experience with the app, the experience of ‘slow fashion’ which means giving people a realistic expectation of how long something will take to be delivered. There is a lot of extortion along the highways, for example. If situations like that arise we will be able to notify the customer who will receive an email explaining why there is a delay, with a link to more information about the situation. The object is no longer just a pair of pants for example, sitting on a truck - it is the embodiment of the situations that we are looking at. The consumer isn’t just buying an item of clothing; they are getting to know what it means to do business in a conflict zone. If a bomb has gone off at the market and people can’t go to the market because they don’t want to get hurt, then the delivery is going to take 20 days rather than 14 days. The people who will be buying from us want to know the story behind what they have bought.
What kind of items can people look forward to buying from The Fabric Social when the e-commerce site is up and running?
S: Basic wearable fashion. We are trying to cultivate some pieces that are a bit trend-driven and also traditional cuts that never go out of season. We really want to feature the textiles as the show piece. We are working around what is already being produced; not introducing too much that is completely new.
When do you hope that people will be able to start buying from the website?
F: Christmas we hope!
Projecting into an ideal future, are you hoping that this can be an ongoing project for the three of you and you can start The Fabric Social in different locations and conflict zones around the world?
F: Yes, that’s the ideal outcome. That the whole process takes about 18 months and then we can move on and do it again in another location. 18 months is not a line in the sand, we are flexible. We will be nurturing the start of the process, making sure the support systems are in place and then stepping away when the project is ready to be self-sufficient. There are two basic assumptions that we are challenging with this project. The first assumption is that women can’t use technology if they are poor, which is absurd, and the second is that conflict zones are just too hard to work in. Challenging those assumptions in different places around the world will be really exciting.
So where to after India?
S: That's the next fight we have to have! I want to go to Nigeria, and I think Fi wants to go to Colombia.
F: Kenya or Colombia. I think Katie wants to go to Afghanistan.
S: We want to go somewhere where the product is completely different so that eventually you will be able to see on the website a range of different collections which won’t compete against each other.
Having just quit your jobs, do you have any words of wisdom for people wanting to start their own projects?
S: I think one of the only things I would say to people with an idea is don’t be afraid to start with just an idea. Be brave, just do it!