What is your role in The Fabric Social?
I’m one of the Co-Founders, so that means my role is looking after our baby’s entire health. But practically, I don’t have my nose in the day-to-day of every aspect of the business. I have two main roles: in production and in business.
At the production end, I manage product development and getting things made. I work with the designers, the artisans and our local partners to create and then produce a final product. In each case, it’s the collaboration that makes the end product – which personally I find very cool.
But it also means a lot of time spent consumed in the specifications of fabrics, tailoring patterns and mapping out production times. You really have no idea how technical a single piece of clothing is until you get into every detail of every element of how it’s made. A big part of being boss of The Making End also means I’m doing the work of building supply chains: meeting local suppliers, constantly hunting for new partners for things like dye work, and trying to find local solutions to benefit the community. The nerd side of me gets a real kick out of supply chains and how to make them work and sing like a beautiful orchestra.
I also manage business development. That is much less interesting, but much more challenging. Really it’s about trying to align all the pieces of the business so that it runs smoothly, grows steadily, and puts more work on the looms and the sewing machines for all of our local partners. That’s the end game really: build a business that supports women and helps their businesses to grow.
What is your professional background and what are some of the skills you bring to the project?
My background is in social work and international development. Practically, I took these skills into the world in a few areas. I was a hard-core public servant for six years – so I’m good at internal operations and processes and all the stuff the public service inculcates you with. I also spent many years working in international women’s organisations, mostly around advocacy, disarmament and addressing the root causes of inequality. It put me in contact with lots of incredible women and gave me an opportunity to handle lots of really interesting and important work.
Social work and development are both about the individual as they exist in the world and how their experiences are shaped by the power dynamics that exist in the home, the community, right up to the highest levels of government. I have a very structural approach to all of my work as a result. I have been able to gain some pretty solid strategic skills and an ability to develop very practical interventions. For The Fabric Social, those interventions are partly generating work through business, and partly supporting skill development in areas where they are needed. Business skills, production management, social referral networks, supply chain improvement, and even just the simple bargaining power that we bring as an international company. Talking to people, connecting the dots, and putting things into action.
What was it about Northeast India that first caught your attention and made you want to work with the community there?
I first encountered the Northeast when I met activist Bina Lakshmi Nepram. I met her in New York at a massive UN conference on women. Fi had worked with her before and she convinced me to go to India to work for Bina’s organisation. Bina is such a powerful voice of non-violence for her home state, Manipur, and for the rest of the Northeast – which is variously plagued by insurgency, military occupation – and also areas of India that have passed through horrible years and are just trying to recover. I learned a lot while working for Bina and now living in the Northeast, I still learn everyday.
The Northeast is so diverse and mainly comprised of indigenous tribal peoples. Political author Arundati Roy once connected the experiences of military oppression, land and resource theft with indigeneity in India. This is a global phenomena but the longer I live here, the more I see this played out in the Northeast. I also see how the development agenda in India is resisted and absorbed, and in all cases how women are totally invisible, totally unheard, and totally excluded from any of the benefits some development programs might bring (while bearing the brunt of the harms that much development also brings). The Northeast is a centre of power struggles of all kinds, and what brought me here – and what keeps me here – is the work women are doing. I simply want to express my solidarity through practical action.
Describe in your own words what The Fabric Social does…
Fi calls it a mechanism of discrete peace building. We came to this work by wanting to support women in conflict-affected areas, and to do it based on what they said they wanted most: income. That was it really. So we developed a market solution to support the work already being done – products woven, stitched, women trained, new centres built – and not a shred of anything being sold. There are complex reasons for this – but to put it simply, we just wanted to become an income-generating machine for women in conflict affected areas. Help them make products and sell them. Channel our efforts and income generated directly into their hands and their projects. We have lots of add-ons as a social enterprise – we support each of our partners in ways they need. We fill in skill gaps, help mobilise funds – whatever is required. But at its core, The Fabric Social is a women’s business out to support other women’s businesses operating in some of the most difficult climates to be a woman and to be in business.
What was your personal vision for The Fabric Social when you started the project – and how has this changed over time?
I don’t think about the early days that much – a LOT has changed. We have learned a lot. But my vision for the next five-to-10 years is to be supporting a number of projects and to be offering unique products that really capture the skills and uniqueness of the place where they were made and of the people they were made by. Killer design, killer products. A living celebration of making things well, and making things that matter to people. Offering the artisans we work with a chance to really use and develop their skill, which is marketed and sold on its own merit – not for charity.
I’d also obviously love regular and reliable sales volume and multiple retail partners. I’d love a fully operational social impact department that can coordinate support for all of our projects in the areas they’ve identified. And I would love for cashflow woes to be a problem we used to have!
What motivates you to keep going through the hard times?
Not getting up everyday and doing a job I hate!
What has been your biggest project-related achievement to date?
That we are still alive and still growing is our biggest achievement! Working at this level is hard, time consuming and expensive. But at the end of a few years, we have two great collections and a third in the making. I love all of our products and I love that we can say exactly who and how and where it was all made. This has to be the future, whether you’re talking about big corporate fashion houses or small boutique labels like us. There is a place for trade in this world, a place for thoughtful consumerism – and I think we are doing a pretty great job of showing exactly how that’s done.
Interview by Emily Lush
Sharna de Lacy 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.