Carla Fernandez is creating a movement to build an ethical and sustainable supply chain in the fashion sector by enabling artisans to be protagonists in the design process and promoting fairer industrial procedures throughout the value chain.
The New Idea
Carla and her team is changing fashion industry norms by engaging the government, third-party resellers, and leaders in the industry by implementing fair, sustainable market practices and empowering rural communities to commercialize their designs to wider global markets. Carla is demonstrating to the sector that quality, small-scale, ethical, and eco-friendly textiles by artisans, respecting the integrity of their ancestral production techniques, can secure commercial success at international scales. Furthermore, her bottom-up creation process, rooted in careful study of Mexico’s rich variety of artisanal textile-making techniques, enables artisans to be protagonists in the production and design process. Carla simultaneously preserves traditional pre-hispanic production techniques and designs from extinction, while transforming them into high fashion and actively plugging them into international value chains.
Based on her years of experience in the field, Carla and her team systemized their methodology on working with artisan cooperatives through publication of a manual detailing her work in 2013, with the support of the Mexican Secretary of Culture. Disseminating her efforts in documenting traditional textile-making techniques and empowering rural artisans through fair wages and market access, the detailed training manual enables other actors to learn to emulate her model. As a leader of the slow fashion movement in Mexico, these publically available resources on her work, in addition to the copious training workshops and classes that she leads herself, Carla actively promotes best practices in the industry. Aspiring actors in the fashion ecosystem look to Carla to acquire knowledge on sustainable production techniques in indigenous communities, and how to fairly integrate them into the fashion industry, along with her sensibilities and business acumen such that they can replicate her model. In fact, she is considered an outstanding pioneer in the field, and uses her widespread recognition to lead the global industry shift from fast to slow fashion.
According to Mexican National Household Income and Expenditure Survey (ENIGH) data from 2008, 70% of the country’s artisans live in rural areas, and 75% live in poverty. In recent decades, NGO and government programs have attempted to bring economic activity to Mexico’s most remote regions via rural development programs intended to support and train artisans. However, programs such as those implemented by FONART (the National Fund for the Promotion of Handicrafts), specialized in training and supporting artisans making garments for sale nationwide, stalled in their success as they not only brought in foreign production systems to rural communities, but also because they were unable to give artisans adequate access to markets or provide fair pricing mechanisms, only paying them after the products were sold by third parties. As a result, many rural communities abandoned their traditional artisan activities to seek better economic opportunities in the cities, or even migrating to the United States. This rural exodus trend in turn accelerates the loss of cultural patrimony as artisans refrain from practicing their traditional craftsmanship and production techniques, which over time become vulnerable to extinction.
Meanwhile, the need for quick profits in the textile industry drives the mass production of disposable garments at the expense of natural resources and human dignity, due to its highly pollutant and low-paying nature. This increasing production of ready-made, or “fast” fashion in sweatshops in urban areas or maquilas fuels the growth of the US$1.2 trillion global fashion industry, but results in negative consequences in less developed countries, where due to insufficient legal structures, human rights and wage violations prevail. Compounding the negative effects of the industry are the global market’s appetite for ever changing trends, with brands churning out up to 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Sacrificing quality for quantity, with the goal being to produce as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible, fast fashion companies tend to compensate for the almost weekly changes in consumer demands by using cheap materials, and unscrupulous or even illegal production practices.
Carla Fernandez is spurring a wide-scale transition in the Mexican textile industry with a holistic strategy that effectively changes industry norms. Her first efforts in transforming the field of Mexican textiles was ensuring workers’ right to fair payment, leading her to intervene in public policies to achieve changes in fiscal policy, such that resellers of artisan-made goods could deduct them. The public policy change that Carla drove ensures more competitiveness on the international market for Mexican artisans since prior to the law, it was cheaper for resellers to buy and sell cheaper-made products, often made in sweatshops abroad. Furthermore, Carla has successfully lobbied with third-party resellers such as the Museo de Arte Popular for changes in how artisans are paid, eschewing the traditional model which has been to sell artisan products by consignment, only compensating the artisans after the product is sold. Her impact is further demonstrated in how she leverages her reputation in the ethical fashion world by working with recycled material and promoting a culture of zero waste by creating geometric clothing.
Carla’s advocacy work for artisans is supplemented by her direct impact in communities, where co-creation and empowerment of artisans is as the core of the model that is now being replicated by other actors in the fashion ecosystem. To start working in a community, 90% of communities ask to work with or are referred to her via NGOs or government programs, while the other 10% she seeks out directly. She first meets with the artisan groups to understand their particular heritage to document and recover, their unique traditional techniques. From there, they define together each artisan´s role in the community according to what they do best (leader, accountant, quality control, etc.) within the productive and creative value chain. After initial research, Carla and her team begin the co-creation process to work with the artisan group based on their expertise and traditions, where the final product is considered the collective property of the community, since traditional textiles and designs are rarely based on the work of one individual. Creating garments in which artisans participate as creative agents, versus seamstresses for the ideas of designers, ensures that artisans are truly committed and empowered stakeholders. Carla provides market linkages and supports the artisans to negotiate fair prices and contracts with local stores and market fairs to sell their products, thus improving the artisans’ income generation. To guide artisans’ work after the intervention with communities, Carla’s team compiles a customized manual for each community aggregating the relevant textiles, designs, and techniques for creating each group’s unique products. The collaborative design experience is meant to be iterative and reciprocal, such that artisans and designers exchange ideas, develop new products and hold sessions in which they seek joint solutions to the needs of each cooperative.
To disseminate her replicable methodology and demonstrate to others how to build a fairer value chain in textiles, Carla developed a detailed manual, The Barefoot Designer: A Handbook, highlighting the differences between fast fashion and small-scale artisanal textile production as well as aggregating step by step instructions and best practices on her community intervention model. Carla distributes the manual by giving it out to all of the students at her many workshops, while also making it publicly available for download on her website. She also gives a condensed version of her methodology, in magazine form to all consumers of her products. The manual, and educational material emanating from it, not only inform consumers on the importance of buying clothes that secure fair conditions for all actors involved in the value chain, but also provide a new standard for other organizations, students, and designers on how they can be active stakeholders in changing processes and attitudes in the transition to a sustainable and fair textile industry.
Carla uses her own brand as an exemplary business model, making wholesale orders from artisan cooperatives based on the textile or design the group has developed expertise in. From there, Carla’s team tailors or reworks them into high fashion styles, the profits from which are used to pay the artisans, their supplies, and to seek out and train more communities to collaborate with. Just this year her brand was certified as a B Corporation, demonstrating its commitment to strict social and environmental standards. Carla has directly trained more than 1,000 artisans and about 3,000 indirectly throughout Mexico, through training she gives to leaders of organizations and cooperatives. Although Carla orders directly from the artisans she works with for her own brand, they are not exclusive suppliers to her, rather selling 50% or more of their production in markets or stores, that in most cases Carla connects them to. An example of Carla’s direct economic impact lies in the figure of Don Juan Alonso, an artisan who used to make chocolate grinders by hand for 1 USD each, which took much more time to make than a bracelet he is now selling for 4 USD. Thanks to market linkages provided through Carla’s model, he is currently making customized oversize chocolate grinders for a luxury hotel chain in Cancun that sell for more than 5,200 USD each.
Carla has made cultural preservation a reality by being the first to make prehispanic styles and textiles such as the rebozo, the wool of San Juan Chamula, and many more styles mainstream, all while giving recognition and fair payment to Mexican artisans. Carla is renowned as the reference for slow fashion in Mexico and globally: she has given trainings to National Fund for the Promotion of Handicrafts (FONART), itinerant design schools, Fondo Semillas, Aid to Artisans, Harvard University, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Jumex Museum, UTADEO Colombia, Casa del Encuentro Medellín, OPEN Singapore, Universidad Iberoamericana, FUNDEMEX, among others. Thanks to Carla’s systematized methodology and her trainings, she is able to effectively mentor other brands in slow fashion. Some of her pupils who have made their own ethical fashion brands based on her model include Guillermo Jester, Ricardo Seco, Daniel Villela, Montserrat Caballero and Taller Nu. Carla is in the first phase of creating a school for Mexican arts and craftsmanship to also serve as a cultural space to accelerate more slow fashion multipliers, and where anthropologists, designers and students can actively work together to learn traditional techniques and rescue the region’s artisanal heritage.
Carla’s love for Mexican artisanship she inherited from her mom who traveled as a child across rural Mexico with her parents looking for handicrafts to sell in their restaurant and gift shop near the United States border store. From a young age, Carla demonstrated a passion for making her own clothing. Eager to become independent financially, as a teenager she would sew costumes to sell to friends in a modern dance troupe. When she became of university age, she studied history of art, which is how she got drawn into world of indigenous textiles, while interning at Mexico’s national Museum of Indigenous Clothing. At the museum, Carla started researching her “square root” pedagogic model of more than forty Mexican ethnic groups using the same technical and creative base, arriving at different final results. The square root became a recurring element she found throughout her work, for its two fundamental components: the root, representing the reclaiming of the roots of Mexico, and the square, the basic geometric form in indigenous clothing.
At twenty years old, she traveled to remote communities in the mountains of Chiapas with school of designs and later with a rural development program to support artisans. Arriving with sewing machines and measuring tape to develop new designs with the artisans, she quickly realized the program made no sense for the artisans who did not use traditional tools for their work. Carla decided to stay there many months to understand problem of underemployment and top-down development models in these rural communities that focused not only on making products foreign to the cultural and production systems of the indigenous communities, but also without really empowering artisans to access fairer prices, markets and conditions for their products. For this reason, Carla decided to start her own organization, facilitating co-creation workshops with artisans and bringing their products to wider markets, first with the communities in Chiapas and then growing to other states as her work became more recognized, demonstrating her commitment to giving a voice and face to previously forgotten and invisible rural artisans.