Zero Waste Fashion

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on May 10, 2017.

Tonle has become a hit with ethical consumers worldwide.

In fashion, even the slightest imperfection on a roll of fabric can mean it is rejected, discarded and sent to an overflowing landfill. Ends of rolls are also tossed if they hold limited yardage. One fashion designer had an idea of using fabric that didn’t make the cut and creating a zero-waste line out of it.
Rachel Faller’s Tonle ( line is an ethical and sustainable collection made in Cambodia, a country she visited in college and where her business idea came to fruition.
Faller always wanted to work in fashion but realized she didn’t want to contribute to “an unsustainable and exploitative industry.” A trip to Cambodia with a friend during her studies got her thinking about both. This was a decade before the term fair trade was used that much. She wanted to merge her passion for design with something that was positive for the planet.
Winning a Fulbright grant allowed her to research sustainability through fair trade handicraft production there. For a year, she worked with craft groups and and NGOs. “The groups had best intentions, but many products they made were simply souvenirs. People would buy those products because of the story behind the piece but maybe not because they loved the product on its own. She knew she wanted to develop a fashion line she would want to wear.
Not long after, she started her first fashion line that was later rebranded as tonlé, a sustainable line ethically made. As the company evolved, she made it her mission to make it an entirely zero-waste company, using all factory leftover fabrics and not wasting a single scrap in the process. She started small, with five women working out of their homes. “My initial goal was to provide employment to support the community, but I also wanted it to be eco-friendly.” The biggest challenge was finding sustainable materials. “Few raw materials made in Cambodia were eco- friendly,” Faller explains.
The mainstream garment industry in Cambodia mostly produces t-shirts, so she started working with remnant dealers who look for and sell cut waste and overstock (extra fabric that a brand has because they have simply ordered too much) or defective fabric. Defects could be small. “Here, they cut by machine and if there is a tiny hole in their yardage, they may throw a whole roll away.” They bought all of these unwanted fabrics, mostly jersey, and aimed to make a design that was nice enough to sell at a higher price point.
At tonlé, big pieces of fabrics are fashioned into sportswear–easy t-shirt dresses, bateau tops — many color blocked or with simple graphic designs- and easy pants and rompers. Smaller fabric pieces are used to make woven vests, cardigans, and scarves or knit into new fabrics. Some seasons they don’t know what their remnant finds will be and styles are dependent on the catch.
“I created tonlé to be for every-woman: our clothes can be practical, functional, and comfortable, but at the same time playful and chic,” says the designer. “You can ball them up and throw them in your suitcase and then wear them to a night out. Our materials are soft and natural, our shapes are loose and fit a range of body types, and most of our pieces can be washed in the machine.
“Our handwoven vests, cardigans, and kaftans carry the most intrigue,” says Faller. “They are made from tiny scraps of remnants so they are incredibly time consuming to make and very eco-friendly. The textures are really special. Our buyers consistently comment that they have never seen anything like these before.”
Almost half of her business comes from 60 wholesale accounts in the U.S., Australia, Europe and Asia, from their ecommerce site and stores in Cambodia, and from producing for other designers.
“Most of the buyers are attracted to the product first,” says Faller, but increasingly, more of the buyers want a product with a story.” Faller says more companies are under pressure to buy products that are ethically and sustainably made, and their customers are asking for it.
In the future, she hopes to partner with larger brands and factories to recycle their waste and do collections with them. They would also like to produce in other countries.
Faller has a team of 50 in Cambodia and more in marketing and sales in San Francisco, her home base.
Through her time creating tonlé she has been increasingly vigilant about staying true to her mission. “I think social justice and eco justice go hand in hand. The earth will continue on long after we are here.”
For more information, visit

How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on EcoWatch on March 22, 2017.

In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”

In China, the factory of the world, it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. This sobering film is being screened worldwide this year, which premiered March 21 to a sold out crowd at the U.S. at the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film will be featured at the Cleveland International Film Fest April 3-5 and at many other festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The film examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.

Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet was almost three years in the making and follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries. Angelo explained that these waterways in China, India and Bangladesh are devoid of life even as local communities rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. The water in these rivers has become a public health crisis with a high incidence of cancer and gastric and skin issues afflicting those who work in the industry or live nearby.

In Kanpur, India alone there are more than 400 tanneries dumping toxic chromium into the water supply which subsequently turns up in cow’s milk and agriculture products.

“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Center for Science and the Environment in India. “We are deliberately murdering our rivers.”

The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper and what role does the consumer play?

Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health,” explained Angelo.

The impetus for the film came from a photo McIlvride found online. He and Williams, producer and director of photography, wanted to do a film on rivers. McIlvride found, on Google Images, a photo taken by NASA of China’s Pearl River with a dark blue streak of pollution running through it.

“It was the area of China where most of the blue jeans are manufactured,” he explained. “I thought everyone wears jeans. We could bring this problem to the world stage.”

The team thought if these rivers are being destroyed, what is the human impact? The film drills down to look at how jeans are made, specifically distressed jeans that are so popular now and how the chemicals used in the distressing process have been especially detrimental to workers, rivers and surrounding communities.

This decline has not happened overnight but rather over decades. For the denim industry, it started after the signing of the much talked about North American Free Trade Agreement. From the 1960s to the 1990s, El Paso Texas was the blue jeans capital of the world producing 2 million pair of jeans a week. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed brands to find cheaper labor outside of the U.S., initially denim manufacturers left for Mexico and subsequently to China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where wages were low and environmental regulations weak.

As prices for denim jeans plummeted and consumers bought more of them, it was the waterways that paid the price. Today, the average American buys four pairs of jeans a year. In Europe they buy 1.5 jeans a year. Now in China’s Xintang province (where the movie’s polluted river photo came from) 300 million pair of jeans are made a year. Consider that one pair of jeans uses 920 gallons of water and many mills produce without water treatment plants.

The solution the film’s producers unveil is two-fold: through brand and mill innovation and consumer education and change.

McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans without environmental damage. He located the father of distressed jeans: Francoise Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago.

“It took 40 years before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong,” said Girbaud in the film.

In LA now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him.

“He led us to the Spanish company Jeanologia,” Mcllvride said, “where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) eliminating water without increasing the cost.”

While filming the movie, denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. It was not until they edited the film, that an innovative, Milan-based brand allowed them access. Italdenim has put money into water treatment at their mill and created a dye fixant made with chitosan (derived from the exoskeleton of crabs), a substance that is not dangerous for laborers to touch and saves money by allowing reuse of the wastewater.

“Going forward, the leaders of the fashion industry and other industries will have to be much more aggressive in cleaning up and make sure they are not making money off environmental destruction,” said former Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, one of the experts interviewed in the film.

Angelo agreed: “I think all corporations have to be accountable for their environmental practices. No one has the right to damage or destroy a river. More within the textile sector have to commit to a fashion industry without pollution. And, the consumer has the power but has to seek out clothing made in an environmentally friendly manner. That would go a long way to improve things.”

McIlvride hopes the movie will be an agent of change and thinks teens and college students, who buy the most fast fashion, are the ones who can make the most change.

“They are the ones who should know about this and try to cut back on their consumption. If they see the impact of these retailers, I think they would be receptive to change because they are socially conscious,” he said. “We want this to have an impact on the consumer level. We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘do you really need to buy more clothes.’ Consumerism is the problem.”

We are hoping we are taking the same route that the organic food movement took. When consumers learn more they will make different choices.

A Vow

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 22, 2017.

Hip Mata Traders lift women out of poverty

In December 2003 three best friends from Northwestern University set off on a year-long, around-the-world trip, falling in love with the people, markets and textiles of India. They vowed to make the country part of their futures. One of the friends, Maureen Dunn Fetscher, returned the following year and bought lots of textiles and jewelry to bring back to Chicago to sell. Shoppers asked if the things were fair trade. They wondered how they could use their buying dollars to help alleviate the poverty they saw in India?
The following year, Fetscher sought out fair trade producers in India to replicate a few dresses she brought them. She tested the market selling them at street fairs in Chicago, then retail pop ups, then holiday shops. Finally, they approached stores to sell their line and started marketing at trade shows.
In 2007, they registered the name Mata Traders. Today there are over 1,000 artisans in India and Nepal who create Mata Traders clothing and jewelry, wares that are sold in 600 stores in the U.S., Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom and provide a stable source of income to their families in the poorest of communities. Based in Chicago, Illinois, they design the colorful, hand-blocked print dresses and separates sold in 50 states and 12 countries. The friends work with 6 organizations in India and Nepal that educate, employ with fair wages and working conditions, and empower women in marginalized communities.
The printing helps to preserve a high-end cultural craft that is a dying art. “In India many times printing is a small family business,” says Fetscher. “Many prints are hand blocked or stamped.” The art of block printing has been practiced in India since the 12th century. “The printers have hundreds, maybe thousands, of blocks in their workshops from decades of printing. This kind of printing is passed down generationally in families. It had been the main technique for applying prints to textiles in India for centuries, a healthy and robust cottage industry, until the more efficient and economical machine-printing took over, putting many craftspeoples’ livelihoods, and the craft itself, in jeopardy,” Fetscher explains. Stamp designs are traced onto and then carved from wooden blocks, called “bunta.” Large pieces of fabric are fixed to a tabletop and the carved blocks are then dipped into colorful dyes, stamped on the fabric, and the process continues for the entire sheet of fabric, forming an intricate pattern. Block prints can be simple or can involve many layers of printing for each color. A special part of block printed fabrics is their occasional small imperfections – very much a part of the handmade process.
In India they also screen print fabric, a craft that has been in the country for centuries. A screen is burned with a design, fabric is pinned down to a tabletop, ink is pushed through the screen with a squeegee to transfer the design onto the fabric, and the fabric is left outside to dry. Often the process takes two people, one who handles the printing and one who assists in moving the screen and placing it in the appropriate place. Screen printed fabric, just like block printed, can sometimes contain small mistakes or stray spots, making each garment truly one of a kind. 
Hand embroidery is also a craft in India that is seen in the Mata dresses.  “Any pieces with embroidery come from our most traditional artisan group – the women can embroider from their homes and even get together in sewing circles within their communities.” At the co-ops where so many of their dresses are sewn, there are many benefits. They have social workers, health care, literacy training. workshops on financial literacy, domestic violence, hygiene and sanitation, and parenting. “This work helps them support their kids, buy their school supplies and afford educational fees. Many women can go to college or their kids can. That is where the change really happens for their kids. Some women can buy homes,” explains Fetscher. “In India the culture is such that women don’t work outside of the home. 
Workplaces are not inviting. Co-ops are opposite. The women are quiet at first; the co-op then becomes a family with the friendships becoming as important as the work. They become leaders in their communities.” 
In the fair trade model, a company like Mata Traders pays for half of their order advance and other half when we receive the goods. This way we know the artisans are being paid, not just when it sells. Fetscher says the dresses are popular not only for their style but because they are ethically made. “When we first started the line we felt there was a deficit of cute, young clothes that we would wear that are fair trade,” she says. “I do think the story is important to our customers. There are a lot of people who have been searching for ethical.” 
But Fetscher believes more consumers have to embrace the alternatives. “Most consumers don’t even know where their products are made. There has to be public outcry.” While the three friends are entering their 10th year, they keep pushing towards producing more ethically and sustainably while preserving cultural traditions. One goal is to make sure that the fabrics they buy in India are organic. Another is to continue to help the women in their co-ops. “Our motivation is off the charts. We are doing it because they are counting on us but we wouldn’t have this business without them.

Manos Zapotecas

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 9, 2017.

Creating handbags to educate

Five years ago, at an age when most are making retirement plans, Shelley Tennyson, who had run an outdoor adventure business, decided to start Mano Zapotecas, working with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico to make loom woven accessories and home goods. Before her business idea came about, Tennyson had been a volunteer for a microfinance company working in a traditional Mexican village. On average, households in the village had four looms, where extended family—grandparents, sons and their wives would partake in the craft. Grandparents would teach their children to weave and most started at age eight or nine. 
Tennyson got to know the village families through her volunteer work. “We taught them things like money management skills.” What she had found was many families had up to 200 rugs stacked up in their homes that they couldn’t sell. “Tourism was down and big items like rugs were tough to sell so we looked at making woven bags. We felt like high-end bags that catered to the American market would sell. “
So Manos Zapotecas, a fair trade company, was born to help families support themselves while preserving the craft and cultural heritage. The company produces two to three collections a year, giving work to 50 families. One recent collection was inspired by artist Frida Kahlo and featured deep scarlet reds, teals and navy in the palette. 
When they first started creating the collection, the first thing the creative team did was change colorations in the bags. Instead of making them in the traditional bright colors native to Oaxaca, she advised them on on-trend colors to use each season. While their rugs are in intricate designs – they may have six patterns and 12-15 colors (in their culture the more intricate, the more valuable a piece is), the bags are less so. In a bag they will have four colors maximum. Once colors are chosen, they dye the yarn, made of churro wool, and make all the patterns. The women create their own designs based on traditional symbols. “You see a lot of the same symbols from the Navajos, Incas and Aztecs,’ Tennyson explains. “Every indigenous group will say they have certain patterns. If a style is chosen for the line, the villagers will then hire people to produce it. 
A part-time style coordinator lives in Mexico and communicates with the weavers and California where Tennyson is.  “The weavers will suggest a style and size for their pattern and Samantha (the style coordinator) encourages them to mix it up where needed.”
While they sell many bags in the U.S., they are also selling in Australia, Japan and Europe. One recent German account found the company on Instagram. This fall, she started a new line of rugs and pillows in similar color palettes as the bags.  
In the future Tennyson, who employs four people who work from home in Portland, Chico and Oceanside, California in and a production team in Mexico, would like to get into larger U.S. stores and get an Asian distributor (they just found a European one) and have a strong ecommerce site. “We want to get into museums and specialty stores and diversify into other products as well.” 
The impact these bags have had on the community who makes them has been tremendous. Last year the company sent $250,000 to the village and much of it goes to education. Many can now send their children to university, make improvements to their housing and pay for healthcare.  
“For me this business is a natural result of all of my life endeavors, including a love of different languages and cultures, social services and responsibility, business entrepreneurship, and adventure, “says Tennyson. “In some ways it was inevitable that I would start Manos Zapotecas. To the artisans I think it is a way to continue their rich cultural heritage and weaving tradition, and still make a decent living. It also allows them to work at home and stay close to their extended families.”
For more information, visit

Made Institute fashioning entrepreneurs (and more Makers) in Philly

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on PhillyVoice on January 23, 2017.

Class is in session at Rachel Ford’s Made Institute in Old City.

The first cohort of aspiring designers in the 15-course Designer Development Program is sketching, draping and sewing, and this summer they will have new, bigger digs in the Spring Arts District as one of the centerpiece businesses in a new maker community masterminded by developer Craig Grossman.

Grossman, who worked for the late visionary developer Tony Goldman (SoHo, South Beach), is best known for revamping South 13th Street into the current Midtown Village and sees this section of town as a center for the creative class where art, culture and technology will co-exist. His father worked in the New York garment industry and when he met Ford last summer, they clicked.


Ford, a designer and educator, has a vision, too: a new fashion ecosystem in a city that was once a hub for clothing and textile design and manufacturing.

In August, she will move Made Institute into a 3,400-square-foot space at 448 N. 10th St. The 7-story, 50,000-square-foot building formerly housed the Haverford Cycle Company, one of the last industrial buildings in the area. The Spring Arts District spans from 8th to 12th streets, from Noble to Spring Garden streets.

Grossman’s Arts and Crafts Holdings has also signed leases with two tech firms, Azavea and Boco Digital, and the Roy-Pitz brew pub.

“This pocket seemed like an overlooked area with a great history where some of the original makers of Philadelphia worked,” he said.



Before launching Made Institute, founder and owner Rachel Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. “This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling,“ she says. ”We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own.“


Made’s space will not only hold classes for aspiring fashion designers but also feature a membership-based “Fashion Co-Working Space,” fully equipped with industrial machinery, cutting tables, dress forms and resources for the growing fashion community in the city. This past August, Ford received a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the program. She has already received more than 50 application requests for the spring session.

She and her staff will train students to become professional sewers, tailors, fashion designers and design entrepreneurs. 

“This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling. We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own,” Ford explained. “We focus our curriculum on the entrepreneurial experience, while still presenting the fashion landscape as a whole. A focus on sustainability, resourcefulness, and embracing the latest technical methods are what really set us apart from other school experiences.”

Before launching Made, Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. Her instructors have master’s degrees or work as fashion designers, she said. Her students come to her with other degree backgrounds, looking to switch careers or save money getting training. The Designer Development Diploma in Fashion Design, which focuses on teaching start-up designers what they need to know to enter the marketplace, can be completed in one year. The full cost of the diploma is $7,845.

The second prong to the Institute is the launch of their Fashion CoWorking Space, which allows members to use their state-of-the-art machinery, tables and start-up know-how to produce small collections. It will be open late night and offer three levels of membership (4 visits monthly, $75; 12 visits monthly, $150; 25 visits monthly, $300) as well as locker storage, access to machinery and 10 percent off classes. Ford received a $10,000 grant from The Merchants Fund to purchase 12 new industrial sewing machines for the making of both knit and woven garments. 

“Designers that need a home base can avoid the costs of equipment capital and space, and use our studio whenever they need to,” Ford said. “In order to bring some manufacturing back to Philadelphia, there needs to be an investment made by private businesses like us into the design community at large. Our fashion co-working space is created to be a hub, open to the public at a low cost to promote and facilitate Philadelphia design businesses.

“I hope that the space serves to inspire other aspects of the industry, like textile factories, fashion tech resources, and manufacturers will start to pop up and grow to inspire Philly’s designers to stay in Philadelphia and imagine their design goals,” she continued. “Textiles, fashion tech and manufacturing have so much room to grow here in Philadelphia.”



In August, Made Institute is scheduled to move into the former location of the Haverford Cycle Company, in a section of the 50,000-square-foot building at 448 N. 10th Street near the elevated Reading Viaduct.


It was just four years ago Ford opened her doors in Old City teaching skills to the start-up designer, dressmaker, or home sewer with hands on instruction. She expanded to courses in patternmaking, textiles, tailoring and design studio. She will now add product development to the list of services they offer.

“I am now in a position to create a full circle ecosystem, where designers and makers are treated as equals, working together toward the common goal of making beautiful garments for their customers,” she said.

Ford said the program will have two starts a year. While the curriculum she wrote is heavy on technical sewing, a designer who doesn’t care for sewing can come to the fashion gym and pull from their batch of sewers to complete a small collection.

“Small-batch manufacturing and direct-to-consumer selling is a trend in the industry for smaller designers,” she noted.

Her long-term vision addresses the challenges of domestic clothing manufacturing. For many emerging designers, getting into a factory means reaching certain piece minimums that are just too risky for start-up businesses. The challenge for factories is finding sewers to man machines.

The trade of sewing and patternmaking has been harder and harder to sustain in this country, according to Ford.

“With fast fashion driving price points and constant deliveries, American consumers have a false sense of what a garment should cost,” she explained. “This creates a false bottom line for what designers can spend on manufacturing and in turn, what manufacturers can pay their workers. By educating designers and their customers about how a slower, more sustainable fashion landscape can keep sewing jobs domestic, more and more people will seek out sewing as a viable living. Independent designers could hire their own small team of sewers, and manage production themselves.”

Grossman has high hopes for Ford’s enterprise.

“When I was introduced to Rachel and visited Made Studio, I saw the Wolf forms and the machines and it brought me back to visiting my dad in Midtown Manhattan,” said Grossman of his father, who worked in the childrenswear business his whole life.

“I have been intrigued by makers my whole life,” he said. “What Rachel is doing speaks to me. She is a true maker and feel she can attract other makers to this area.”

Proud Mary: A Modern Sensibility

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on December 15, 2016.

Harper Poe was living in New York City working in a job she hated when she decided to take some courses at NYU in global affairs. She traveled to South America to work for Habitat for Humanity and became more passionate about international development. With training in interior design, she combined her schooling with passions to start Proud Mary in 2008 and works with artisans from Mexico, Africa, and South America to help design everything from accessories to clothing and home goods for sale in the United States, Europe, and Japan.  How does she make artisan appealing? “I go into a place I am working and figure out a modern sensibility,” says Poe from her headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina.
She started her first collaboration with artisans in Guatemala making woven bags and pillows and moved to countries like Peru for woven scarves. In Africa each country brings a new craft. In Morocco she is designing raffia shoes, in Mali, there is mudcloth and indigo dyeing and in Lesotho there is shearling slippers and mohair accessories.
Her newest collaborations are in the Dominican Republic, Syria, and Lesotho.
The Moroccan collaboration came via a friend who was living on the country’s coast and came to visit her in South Carolina wearing the most perfect pair of raffia shoes. “They were the most amazing ankle tie shoes. We initally developed 2 new styles and have expanded from a small group of 8 raffia weavers to 18 in one group and an equal amount in a new workshop. It can take a day to make a pair of shoes from raffia that comes from Madagascar and East Africa. Some of the production is done in the coastal town of Essaouira where there is a workshop women go to work and some in Marrakech where the women work from home.  In the production process the raffia is dyed by hand, then the uppers are woven by the women and soles attached by male cobblers. Over three quarters of what she makes, she sells to stores like Madewell, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and high-end Japanese retailers. For spring she has sold 1,500 pairs of raffia shoes made by about 40 weavers. The women began making orders in September.
When working with new artisans, Poe first looks at their traditional designs and materials to understand what they can make. For the shoes, there are standard weaves and a more crochet like technique used. “The traditional raffia shoes we initially saw in the local markets were either an ankle tie, a traditional babouche, or a slight wedge heel both with a standard tight, woven raffia weave. The first shoe we developed was a d’orsay style slip on in the traditional weave and then incorporated a crochet style weaving technique that our artisans introduced to us. Each season we try to introduce a new style including new color combinations, technical sole details, and raffia weaving combinations,” she explains.  For the soles she works with a technical designer to ensure the best design for fit.
She has found that with something like weaving, skills aren’t always being passed down from generation to generation. “Often artisans want to advance beyond what their parents and grandparents have done but by giving them work and fair wages they start to think it is worth it. If their kids see that, they want to continue the craft. I am passionate about creating and maintaining jobs first and setting up the systems long term and then preserving the craft.”
For more information, visit

Arresting Design: Bringing a Creative Collaboration to Market

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on November 30, 2016.

Susan Bibbings was never that enamored with fashion. In fact, she found it a little frivolous. She had spent most of her life working for charitable organizations and it was during a trip to Africa to help build a Montessori school that she changed her mind about fashion. A trip into Kilimanjaro to get a cup of coffee proved life changing. She stumbled upon a tiny shop selling beautiful beaded jewelry and learned from the owner the pieces were designed by Italian students and made by Maasai tribeswomen. She’d never seen the two cultures mixed before. The result was arresting Bibbings recalls. “I can’t be the only person who finds this interesting I thought.” She wanted to introduce this to the marketplace and asked if they were sold in North America. They were not. A lightbulb when on.
In 2011, Bibbings, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, joined Lotusland Imports (it had been around since 2006 but only selling in Italy and Africa) and began bringing this creative collaboration of ethical, sustainable and fair trade accessories to the North American market. The collection features modern, geometric shaped necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings she sells to ten stores in Canada and 30 in the U.S. including museum and gallery stores.  Last fall she added a small collection of leather goods made from skins that are food supply sourced turning waste into something beautiful.
Before Bibbings came on board the idea to pair Italian and African Maasai culture came to a Swiss woman named Marina “Tati” Oliver who ran a safari company in the African rainforest and spoke Swahili.  Oliver saw the Maasai women cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for their survival. It was backbreaking, dangerous work which kept them separated from their children. She wondered how she could help. Giving them a safer way to make a living while preserving their culture was part of business idea. She met Francesca Soldini at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan through an organization called OIKOS.
The two thought about putting a course together at the design school where students learn about the Maasai culture and history of the beading techniques and they design a piece of jewelry for the collection for course credit. Some of the pieces have more of an Italian influence and some more African. The students learn to be culturally sensitive to the traditions of the tribe, learning what certain colors represent in Maasai. About 22 students a year create a piece that is sold in the collection.
To make the jewelry more appealing to the Western consumer, however, they first had to make it smaller in scale.  “Traditional Maasai jewelry is very large —  like the giant cuffs you see around their necks,” Bibbings explains. “The cuffs tell a story, like a map, of the compound in which they live. The women are very proud of their culture and are always dressed in traditional clothes,”says Bibbings.
The collaboration has given the women an opportunity to bead for others and to get paid a living wage. “Most of the women had only beaded for friends and family before. Now, they get the chance to be master craftspeople with the added benefit of more income.” They can also bead while they are with their families.
Francesca travels to Africa to meet with Tati to work on the new patterns and show the artisans how to do designs. “We encourage the women to get as involved in design and production as they want,” says Bibbings. “We have taken the fair trade model a step further. The women have ownership of the company. They are paid as employees and vote on everything including how the necklaces are priced and they are paid as employees.” They went from employing just five artisans 10 years ago to employing 200.
Right now Bibbings sells through her website, through her current list of high-end retailers, direct to consumer through social media, at trunk shows and fashion shows like the recent Seattle Eco fashion show. 
For more information, visit

Good Karma: Lumily’s Fashion Sense with Meaning

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on November 25, 2016.

Eight years ago Giovanna Mantilla quit her corporate job in telecommunications and began to travel. She had plans to volunteer in Argentina but stopped in Guatemala first. Born in Mexico to Peruvian parents, the pit-stop proved life changing. “That was it, “she says. “I felt like I stepped back in time.” She met artisans who not only made jewelry but hand and loom-made embroidery for clothing and accessories. “The weaving and the looms were magical. I stayed in Guatemala for four months admiring the strength of the women I met, their culture, their family values and what they made.”
Mantilla spent all of her money buying up all of the artisan made things she could and brought them to California to sell at the State fair. She shared the story of the merchandise with buyers and the reaction was overwhelming. She decided to open Lumily, a company that partners with artisans to create handcrafted accessories, home décor, and apparel that would help preserve cultural traditions and craft making techniques passed on from generations.
Her company has grown from employing eight women to 150 in three countries (Guatemala, Mexico and Thailand) making 400 products with the purpose of providing economic opportunities in poor and destitute areas and follows Fair Trade Federation guidelines. “With fair trade pricing, we follow the guidelines and pay promptly and fairly.  Fair Trade empowers artisans to set prices within the framework of the true costs of labor, time, materials, sustainable growth, and related factors. Lumily exceeds local Fair Trade Minimum standards for our employees and producers. We seek to ensure that income is distributed equitably at all times, particularly equal pay for equal work by women.  We ensure prompt payment to all of our artisan partners. Artisans are offered access to interest-free advance payment for handmade goods,” said Mantilla.
The lion’s share of her accessories come from the highlands region of Guatemala where Mayan women have learned to embroider for hundreds of years from their mothers. Hand and loom embroidering techniques and pattern making is passed down from mother to daughter. 
Mantilla had the idea of making upcycled bags and accessories made from traditional, embroidered blouses (huipiles) made from the Mayan women who take their used hand or loom embroidered clothes to the market to re-sell. The company buys them at the market and has them made into totes, wallets, clutches and backpacks. Other accessories are original, colorful embroidered designs made by the women. Mantilla feels the repurposed textiles bring an energy from their previous life. “Women there still dress the way they did hundreds of years ago. Their wardrobe staples are the huipil or traditional shirt, the corte wrap skirt and a faja belt. Every village wears their own colors and designs on the clothing. “They are masterpieces,” says Mantilla. “Mostly hand embroidered, their designs tell the story of their education, the number of children they have, the dialect they speak, and the village they are from.” Women will wear the shirts for 2-4 yrs. The corte (skirt), made on a foot-powered treadle loom, is much wider, longer, and thinner than that of a huipil. The wrap-around skirt consists of a cut of cloth joined to form a tube which the woman steps into. Because no two of these items are alike, Lumily accessories are one of a kind. 
In the home mothers teach daughter how to embroider and use the looms. “When you ask about patterns, it’s all in their head. These patterns come from ancient times and they are mathematical,” Mantilla explains.
Mantilla travels there 2-3 times a year to work with her production manager and meet with the artisans. The company now sells to 1200 stores around the world.
The impact has been huge. She started working with one family and now it is 100.” To see the changes economically from what they are eating, where they are living — dirt floors and metal walls to a home with rooms and a garden is huge.”  Last year, the company even sent 17 children to school.  “I know these women and their children. I share photos of the trade show booths and of the stores to the artisans. It means a lot to them.” 
Mantilla credits the success and popularity of the product on a changing consumer who want to support artisan made with one-of-a-kind purchases. “There’s been a real shift in buying power in the past 3-4 years. People ask more questions—was it fairly made. It’s a shift of consciousness knowing where an item is made and its’ story it brings.” 
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Changing Demographic Pushes Philadelphia’s Retail Development

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in Women’s Wear Daily on October 7, 2016.

In the past five years, Philadelphia has exploded with retail and residential development, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of the multitude of cranes that fill the Center City sky.

To the chief executive officer of one of the nation’s largest real estate firms, the booming population in Philadelphia can be explained in terms of sidewalk cafés: Cafés filled with young people, he contends, tell the tale of the changes in the City of Brotherly Love.

“In 2001, there were only a handful in the city,” said Joe Coradino, ceo of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, or PREIT, which owns seven malls in Greater Philadelphia and 26 worldwide. “Today, there are 370. That’s a proxy for the growth of Millennials and other residents who want to live, work and play here.”

In the past five years, Philadelphia has exploded with retail and residential development, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of the multitude of cranes that fill the Center City sky. By 2018, more than 2.8 million square feet of retail will be added in the city.

Why is Philadelphia more appealing now?

“Most people have a frame of reference in Philadelphia that goes back a decade that includes Rittenhouse Square as the epicenter of wealth in the city,” said Coradino. “Now the wealthiest neighborhood is the Washington Square area. The money has shifted from west to east.”

Thank visionary developer Tony Goldman for that. He came to town at the end of the Nineties and saw potential in Washington Square, taking it from seedy to swanky. The area, called Midtown Village, is where the dollars are. Most recently, adjacent pockets near Washington Square and closer to historic Independence Mall are being snapped up by developers for mixed use. In walking distance from the square, there are seven major developments under way, adding more than 1.9 million square feet of retail and representing a $715 million investment east of Broad Street.

An influx of out-of-town investors are finding Philadelphia’s prices more approachable than New York or Washington, D.C. “The east side property values are lower, so the ROI rate is better now on the east side,” said Catherine Timko, retail consultant with the Riddle company, who helped the team at the Center City District position the city to investors.

According to investment firm CBRE, prime retail rents in Center City are pushing $225 a square foot for corner space. Rents on Walnut Street average $154 for inline space now, as compared to $80 to $100 five years ago for inline space. Chestnut Street is now averaging $60 to $75 a square foot west of Broad Street, as compared to $35 to $40 five years ago.

“The dramatic change in retail rents reflects a change in the quality and character of retailers locating in Center City,” said Paige Jaffe, first vice president at CBRE. “Larger-size retailers such as Target and Mom’s Organic Market are going east of Broad. Ath-leisure tenants like Under Armour, New Balance and Lululemon are paying the high rents of Walnut Street west of Broad.”

The other thing that made Philadelphia attractive was the growing and changing consumer. According to, of the 300,000 college students who study in the metropolitan area, 64 percent are now staying after graduation to live and work (companies with offices in the suburbs are looking to open satellite offices in the city to attract the best talent). Empty-nesters are also ditching the suburbs for this culturally rich, walkable city, and residential has had to keep pace. There are 4,100 units under construction in town. All of these factors have created the perfect storm for investors. “Center City skews twice the national average of Millennials. The missing link was retail,” explained Coradino.

Of the people who are now calling the city home, incomes are up. According to a report by CBRE, in the past 15 years there has been a 288 percent increase in households making more than $500,000. The average Center City household income is $111,034. “When we first started going to investors with these numbers, they said, ‘Why haven’t we looked here before?’” said Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications at the Center City District. “Investors and developers say Philadelphia is a bargain compared to other cities.”

Several national tenants who cater to Millennials are seeing some of the highest sales per square foot in Philadelphia out of their portfolio.

In 2014, Coradino, PREIT and California-based Macerich invested $325 million in the redevelopment of the Gallery mall, which dates back to 1977 and will be renamed the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia (Market Street between Eighth and 11th). Its first anchor tenant, Century 21, has taken over in the former Strawbridge’s flagship adjacent to the mall. It was the first out-of-New-York location for the retailer. FOP will feature 125 retailers, including additional flagships, outlets, artisanal dining and entertainment, and will open in spring 2018. The new design opens up the old inward-facing Gallery to the outside. There will be more street-level entrances and lots of cafés. “We are thinking about the visitor walking from Independence Mall to the Convention Center. We want it to be inviting,” said Coradino. Flanking the new development is the Jefferson University train station, where 22 million commuters pass each year, and the Convention Center, which gets 10 million visitors and nearby office workers. Across the street, another development, East Market (11th and 12th streets on Market Street), will feature 325 apartments and retail. “There is $2 billion being invested in the neighborhood. In the next 24 months, it will be transformed to a very hot neighborhood.”

National Real Estate Development will expand the Market East retail district and connect it to the vibrant Midtown Village just south of the project. Dan Killinger worked for Tony Goldman in New York in the Nineties. National bought a rare, 4-acre site across the street from the Gallery in 2013 and has invested $250 million in it. East Market will feature two mixed-use towers, a warehouse space with 130,000 square feet of retail, apartments and 161,000 square feet of office space. One tower will open in the spring and will feature a 15,000-square-foot Design Within Reach flagship. The former warehouse next door will be redeveloped into modern office spaces above ground-floor retail that includes Mom’s Organic. The Marketplace Design Center will relocate to this space. “We were interested in investing here because Philadelphia hadn’t had overbuilding like other cities had,” said Killinger. “If you do it right, you create a place where people want to live and work.”

Also under construction is The Collins (11th and Chestnut streets, The Brickstone Group). Just blocks away, (Sixth and Walnut streets) the Curtis Center, the site of the former Curtis Publishing, is being redeveloped with an investment from Keystone Property Group, Mack-Cali Realty and Roseland into luxury apartments, office space and 50,000 square feet of retail space and will house a P.J. Clarke’s, which will overlook Washington Square.

Not to be left behind, Rittenhouse Square has also seen a revitalization and expansion of retail in the past two years from stores mainly on the square and Walnut Street northward to Chestnut. New independent tenants include Skirt, a designer shop with two other Philadelphia locations; indie boutiques Shop 65, ellelauri and Bela Shehu. “The local boutiques are even more important because it makes us different than a mall and makes us more of a regional destination, too,” said Shannon. Add to that Rag & Bone, Michael Kors, Theory and Under Armour. Veteran designer retailer Joan Shepp moved off Walnut to bigger digs on Chestnut Street.

Just off the square, a new $300 million development, 1911 Walnut, will feature residential and 55,000 square feet of retail. It is being spearheaded by Tennessee-based Southern Land Co. At 19th and Chestnut, Pearl Properties is building another residential tower with ground-floor retail including the city’s third Target.

“Developers aim to draw a young workforce to downtown offices using retail as a strategy,” said Casandra Dominguez, manager of business retention and retail attraction, Central Philadelphia Development Corp. This shopper is attracted to national as well as independent retailers. Just four years ago, before the hum of dump trucks permeated the city, the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s, or PFI, opened its design space at its flagship at 13th and Market. It, too, is looking to open a place in which graduates can share retail and office space. This is the next step for grads to have a space to sell from and do market research. “Michelle Shannon and I have wanted to do this for four years,” said executive director Elissa Bloom. “We always wanted to rebirth this fashion sector in the city. In Philadelphia, access for designers to enter the market is more feasible than other cities.”

Catherine Timko will complete a feasibility study and they hope to open this space next spring.


A short drive from the King of Prussia mall is the new King of Prussia Town Center by JBG Real Estate, the largest commercial real estate firm in Washington, D.C. The outdoor, upscale-lifestyle shopping and dining center, in the middle of the Main Line, features 260,000 square feet of shopping, dining and entertainment. It is intended to be a complementary destination to King of Prussia mall, according to Tom Sebastian, co-ceo of JBG. In the works for five years, it’s next to a 24-hour Wegmans and close to 10 million square feet of office space. “Workers are looking for a place to go. People are eating out more.”

JBG created a main street with 17 buildings that will include a Nordstrom Rack, REI and Ulta. Dining is local (Honeygrow, Davio’s and Cityworks) and from the D.C. area (Founding Farmers). “Many are buying online versus department stores,” he said. “People crave experiences to relax.”

The Town Square is a pavilion with live music, movies in the evenings and a wall of fire that illuminates the square at night. Twenty leases have been signed, but the company hopes to fill the remaining spaces with fashion, accessories and home retailers by next spring.

Fashion Brand Strategist Crafts a Chic, Socially Responsible E-commerce Site

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in Triple Pundit on September 13, 2016.

Ace and Jig’s cotton woven Beatrice turnaround dress made in India, $340

Social entrepreneur Jason Keehn, CEO of Accompany, worked in fashion brand strategy for most of his life. Mid-career he felt he was missing a sense of purpose. He went back to graduate school to study global ethics but knew policy work and academia weren’t for him. How could he combine ethics and fashion in an entrepreneurial venture?

“I asked myself: Why wasn’t I currently an ethical fashion shopper? I shopped ethically for food,” he says.  In 2013, he set out to create a socially responsible brand that he calls a Barney’s-meets-Whole Foods e-commerce site selling curated high-end apparel, accessories and home goods from around the world.

Tadesse Cognac Bucket bag, $148, Made in Ethiopia, on

On Accompany, you can buy everything from a baby alpaca fringed poncho dress made in Peru or a windowpane woven dress from India, to a black horn inlay bracelet from Kenya, a beaded clutch from Guatemala, or a leather backpack from Ethiopia. The products are artisan made, fair trade and also serve a philanthropic or humanitarian need.

The traditional craft techniques used in making the products on the site are reflective of the cultural heritage of a community. “People are looking for brands that are sustainable and related to human values. We have 125 brands impacting 43 countries that are stylish and do the most good, “ Keehn explains. “The idea of supporting people and communities inspired the name Accompany.”

The Accompany design team comb the world looking for items for their shoppers who are fashion forward, words not normally reserved for eco/fair-trade. Some are contemporary fashion labels like Lemlem, an Ethiopian line of handwoven clothing found in high-end retailers like at Barney’s. “At Lemlem, for example, we are simply picking from their line of sheets, knowing they produce ethically and fit our conscious sourcing model,” Keehn explains. With other brands, his team works closely on creating exclusive designs for Accompany that are often a design shift or color change of an existing style.  “With other partners, we are creating products from scratch for the site.”

Everything Keehn and his team does comes back to human impact. Merchandise they choose on the site supports artisans with indigenous craft, often in remote regions without market access; or fair trade workshops focused on paying above-average wages, good working conditions, training in underprivileged areas and capacity building. Keehn believes consumers are looking for a “return to humanity” in their shopping choices.

“In our modern techy world, with so much digital impersonal communication, and faced with large, opaque corporations steering our lives — people are, in response, really appreciating things made by humans for humans — the maker, the artisan, cultural authenticity, handcrafted items that are special and not mass produced, but rather made with intention and with a unique personal touch.”

Symbology’s Cherry Blossom Print Maxi Wrap Kimono Dress, $168

In three years, Accompany tripled the number of brands it works with. When creating original items with artisans, it’s an interesting balance to make sure the company respects the craft and traditions of the “maker” community, while at the same time giving the products a modern twist to make them marketable.  “I think it’s in the intersection of modern trend and the timeless tradition of the crafts and ethnic influence — the tension between the two — where the products become truly compelling,” Keehn says.

“It’s a respectful collaboration and co-creation,” he continues.  “Many of the artisans appreciate the outside push to try new things, get them out of their comfort zone a bit more, shake things up artistically.  And at the same time, we don’t want to simply be commercializing their heritage of craftwork or appropriate their culture.  It’s a balance – respect and representation should always lead the exercise.”

While initial research shows visitors to the site are mostly from the New York metropolitan area, the company’s scope is expanding as consumers learn more about ethics and sustainability in fashion and hear about Accompany through social media and press.

“Consumers are now becoming educated, and therefore guilty, about making the wrong choices,” he says. “And at the same time, they love the positive stories of making a difference, knowing that something on your body was made intentionally by a person with local skills in an overlooked corner of the world, who is appreciative of the fair work and environment.  It feels nice to know that as you wear your clothes, and tell that story when you’re asked about it.”

For the same reason, gifting is a huge area for Accompany.  “It’s so great to give a special, unique item that has a positive impact,” Keehn says. “We are all aware that we have too much ‘stuff’ and overly commercial, mass-produced items don’t have the same meaning that they used to, compared to something made by hand, influenced by a remote local culture, and authentically different than everything else you see.”