Meet Jeanne de Kroon and Madhu Vaishnav, women who strive to remind us that fashion, much like food, comes from the earth, and that the most beautiful garments are those that tell stories. Amsterdam based Jeanne, founder of Zazi Vintage, started her business with 500 euros in her pocket in her student bedroom in Berlin. From a young age, her fashion journalist turned art-historian mother instilled in her a love for the beauty and magic of fabrics that tell stories, she had a preconceived idea of what fashion is, but this fantasy was soon shattered. After dropping out of law school and immersing herself in la vie bohème in Paris playing the ukulele and singing on street corners, she was scouted to model and was taken to New York where she posed for fast fashion brands in $10 polyester dresses. She found herself questioning that if these dresses cost so little to buy, how much did the people who make it earn?
She then stopped modelling and went on to study philosophy. During her studies, Jeanne travelled to India and was introduced to Madhu Vaishnav by one of her 200 Instagram followers at the time. It was an instant meeting of minds and hearts, together they embarked on a journey of learning, growing and empowering women through the beauty of creating garments that travel directly from the earth to our bodies. Being a woman in a rural village near Jodhpur, Madhu had a traditional and conservative upbringing: she had an arranged marriage at the age of 23 and was told that her future consisted of being a housewife. After craving freedom and the opportunity to study, she was finally granted permission to learn English, and at the age of 39 she was accepted to do a diploma in social welfare at UC Berkeley. Upon her return in 2015, she started the Saheli Women initiation in her village, in which a group of women learnt how to embroider and make garments. Slowly but surely, cultural norms were being broken by women in a society that was run by men. Zazi is a love letter to artisanal work, it gives a platform to those without one while bridging the gap between the creators and buyers of garments.
1. The terms ‘ethical fashion’ and ‘sustainability’ are thrown around by brands such as H&M and Zara who gratuitously greenwash. To be truly ethical, brands must demonstrate transparency and evidence of working conditions. How would you define the term ‘ethical fashion’?
Jeanne: “For me, fashion is a woven story that you tell as a brand. Ethical fashion is when you are facilitating the stories of the products and the people in the community in the most authentic way. There are two pillars when it comes to fashion: land and labour, and if you take these two things into account and really come on top as a brand to co-create something rather than dictate it, that is the true meaning of ethical fashion. It’s the same with food… when something is ethical it’s wholesome and nourishing for the entire community and the earth that produces it. This mindset of symbiosis with land and labour is an essential part of the global decolonisation process as well as a global rising of consciousness to connect people to the garment they are wearing.”
2. The exploitative nature of fast fashion brands is no longer a dirty little secret, yet they still buy clothes from such brands that exploit women and land. Can you think of an effective deterrent for people to actively stop supporting fast fashion?
Jeanne: “We tend to point fingers at specific big fast fashion brands when actually the global fashion industry works in the same way – for example high fashion brands like Prada produce their clothes and uses the same sorts of chemical dyes as fast fashion brands, they may add the finishing touches in Italy however the process is pretty much the same. The whole system of global fashion is complicit in terms of waste, it’s a vicious cycle in which consumerism is the culprit.”
Madhu: “The responsibility is on the young generation, and new businesses. It must be a collective effort with the producers, artisans and brands who sell the clothes. With Saheli women we tell the story of where the garment comes from, all the garments have the women’s sketches and stories behind them. We need to build the relationship between consumer and creator.”
3. Humans are wired to connect to stories. How can one facilitate a connection between the buyer and the maker?
Jeanne: “We have a conditioned gaze with which we look at fashion, which has only existed in the last 100 years. As a brand, we are thinking about how we can put the farmers and weavers in the limelight, so they can tell their own stories. For me Zazi is an amazing place and opportunity to learn about these dynamics and be aware of it myself while going through my own process of decolonisation. I said to Madhu when she was struggling in the beginning that she could work with a big commercial company to make napkins for example, so you always have a stable income and you know that the women can do that. She then said to me ‘Jeanne, this isn’t a factory. My ladies don’t care, they would get bored.’ That really proved that in a Western capitalist society we would rather do what we hate just to put food on our plates.”
4. Western feminism is centralised around women being successful within a patriarchal, capitalist society. From what I know of the way your brand operates, it values ‘feminine’ qualities such as love, respect, and compassion to succeed. Do you believe a feminist can authentically succeed in a capitalist society without compromising her morals?
Jeanne: “No. On a spiritual level the world is cyclical, which is the feminine force of beauty, life and nourishment. Women and the moon move on 29.5-day cycles, that’s the magic of the moon and the menstrual cycle. The masculine however works with the day and night: testosterone goes up as far as it can go and then sleeps and repeats this every day, and our system is built through male energies. Unlimited growth doesn’t work in any system, we need to work within the cycle of nature rather than against it. We are starting to see a deconstruction of all the systems that were man made, and by raising the voices of women we will be able to rise as a global community in a more balanced way. In the past few years, the world has seen so many shifts and it’s just the very beginning of what’s about to come.”
Madhu: “Women are born with the opportunity to make everything possible. It’s part of our DNA, if we can deliver children in this world, we can do anything. Women are the best managers, we manage the home, pregnancy, periods, family – Saheli women is run by women from top to bottom. I have learnt a lot from these ladies, even though some of them are illiterate I’ve learnt that intelligence doesn’t come from academic language and going to good schools. They are the most open minded and non-judgemental people: they have cultural competency and humility which is so important to learn. Women nurture everything – creativity is part of our DNA. In our studio we do not have a single amount of waste material – we don’t need a third party to create a sustainability model for us as that is naturally the way we operate, and this is mainly because we are a female-led organisation.”
5. How will the industry change in the next few years?
Jeanne: “My big dream is to create a platform where consumers can directly buy from artisans, this would make artisanal work more affordable and it would be possible to have 100% rural supply chains, and we would no longer have to mass-produce. Once we can decolonise the supply chain, artisanal communities can be self-sufficient without a person like me (white and European) to make it happen.”
Madhu: “It’s changing a lot. The pandemic has taught the consumer to think about how they are consuming. Now is the time for small businesses to grow again, it’s almost criminal the way big companies machine copy designs made by small designers by using factories: art is someone’s livelihood, it is so wrong to cheaply copy art using machines and sell it cheaply.”
6. Who designs the clothes at Saheli women?
Madhu: With every garment, all the women are very involved in the designing and aesthetics of them, they have so much knowledge about technicalities. Even though the brand sells the clothes, it is us who works with the garments every single day, and we understand the nature of textiles, stitching, design, fabric and all their complications so well. Our master designer called Shoba is from the Dalit community (known as the untouchables) which is the lowest caste in India. She’s a widow with two children and for many years she was living outside the village and she was disrespected and that her job was nothing more than to just sweep roads. On a grassroot level, caste discrimination still exists very much; the teacher at the centre refused to teach Shoba in the beginning because of her caste. Now, however, she is a role model for the community: she is a master pattern cutter and embroiderer. This proves that creativity is inherently part of us.
Image credit Farhan Hussain