What is your role in the Fab Sosh Team?
All of us started out wearing all the hats and organically found out where our strengths lay. Turns out, Excel is not mine. I like to be involved with the storytelling because it keeps me excited about what we’re doing, which can be difficult when you’re a thousand kilometres away in San Francisco and all the action is in the field.
So I run all of our content: the website, blog, social media, analytics, publicity – as well as managing a small but mighty volunteer fundraising team. I get to brag about how tremendous we are to anyone that will listen – funders, the media, but especially to our social following.
Unsurprisingly, the personality of our brand voice has started to overlap with my personal traits – critical of the status quo, impatient for change and optimistic almost to a fault. Even though it sounds wanky, I am speaking my truth – and our followers respond well to that honesty.
What is your professional background and what are some of the skills you bring to the project?
I am a human rights tragic, having worked in volunteer positions all over the world for almost a decade. I always took any volunteer opportunities that allowed me to travel and experience new cultures. I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I hunted down anything that combined media and social justice.
My favourite volunteer role was working for The Post – a tin shed operation in Cameroon. I learned a lot from the resiliency and dedication of this group of writers, openly critical in a place where criticising the government can get you killed. They were bad-ass.
I then went on to do a Juris Doctor because (surprise surprise) the foreign correspondent trade is a dying one. Although I was studying a different field my style never changed – I looked for human rights and humanitarian law opportunities that would see me placed in the field. The subject may have changed but the behaviour had not.
What was it about Northeast India that first caught your attention and made you want to work with the community there?
My love affair with India started from an early age (my sister and I won the parent lottery and were lucky enough to travel all over the world growing up), but my fascination with the Northeast started when I saw Binalakshmi Nepram speak at the UN in New York. Bina spoke passionately about her home state of Manipur, which has suffered from decades of armed conflict, and the rest of India and the rest of the world don’t give a shit. She told us about the ferociously passionate grassroots women’s movement working towards peace in her forgotten corner of the world. Their little weaving projects; their advocacy work; their naked protest marching in the street against sexual violence.
The same day I cold-emailed Bina telling her how much I admired her work, and offering whatever skills I had in my pocket. Six months later I was on my way to Delhi to start volunteering as a legal consultant with the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, and I basically haven’t looked back. From collating extrajudicial execution cases for the Special Rapporteur, to securing an Endeavour Award from the Aussie government so I could afford to come back for a year and work on project design, to starting The Fabric Social as a way out of poverty for conflict-affected women in the Northeast. My eye has been on the prize since I heard Bina speak five years ago.
Describe in your own words what The Fabric Social does…
The Fabric Social is an ethical fashion company run through e-commerce. Northeast India is home to some of the most beautiful fabrics and designs I have ever encountered but much like the conflict there, the rest of the world has no idea about them.
What was your personal vision for The Fabric Social when you started the project – and how has this changed over time?
We really wanted to use smartphones to manage the business and build in digital tools for the women in the field so they could take other orders and play a much more active role. We wanted them to have ownership over the process; we never wanted to manage anyone. We haven’t been able to implement these digital tools yet, but it’s still a long-term dream.
Something that has surprised me is that our story doesn’t resonate with everyone. Feminist peacebuilding through economic justice is not as clear cut as, say, giving glasses to poor kids who need glasses. People like a social cause that can be explained in a Tweet, and this is something we have struggled with. Yes, we are sustainable. Yes, we work to support women. Yes, we work in insecure locations. Yes, we are an alternative to fast fashion. Yes, we are a fashion company with a strong emphasis on design. Sometimes being everything at once muddies the water, and we risk losing our voice.
What motivates you to keep going through the hard times?
But seriously, my colleagues Megan and Sharna are superstars, and it buoys me when our volunteers get so excited about the project. People are always putting their hands up to get involved, and we get a barrage of support whenever we put out a fundraising call. Even when sales are low support is high. People want us to win.
We may have stumbled in spots, but I know the products we make are dead-set gorgeous (I buy them myself). I know our supply chain is water-tight, I know our story is compelling, and I know that even if one day it all falls apart, at least I tried. I was saying to my Co-Founder Sharna today – I’m happier throwing myself up against a wall and getting knocked back than plodding along without even trying. Sharna’s advice was “FUCK THE WALL”. I couldn’t agree more.
What has been your biggest project-related achievement to date?
We just bagged a DFAT partnership with Action Aid Australia to work with their Myanmar project MBoutik. This will bring The Fabric Social to a whole new level, not only through diversification and an international presence, but by partnering with such an established professional organisation like Action Aid when we are so used to flying by the seat of our proverbial pants. Having the DFAT stamp of approval doesn’t only help convince others that we have serious potential, it is a very nice pat on the back after two years of hard slog trying to build something that I can be really proud of.
Fiona McAlpine is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with women affected by armed conflict, displacement and other insecurity. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.