The mission of nonprofit Anchal Project is simple: to provide alternative career options to commercial sex workers in India. The women employed by Anchal Project are educated and trained as artisans and granted sustainable employment opportunities in textile design and production. The fruits of their wares are then available for sale in the form of scarves, quilts, pillows, and more.
And the cycle continues.
Sound familiar? There are similar models used by many ethical brands these days, but Anchal was one of the originals in the fair trade fashion business. They've been around for a while and were one of the first fashion brands providing sustainable work opportunities I'd ever heard of.
In honor of the launch of the kantha-stitch bananda (and the upcoming release of their new collection), I spoke with Anchal co-founder Colleen Clines about building a socially conscious fashion brand.
Below, Colleen breaks it down and takes us behind the scenes:
Nice to meet you, Colleen! Tell me about the background of Anchal Project. How did it get started?
I started Anchal Project with some of my fellow graduate students while I was at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for Landscape Architecture. Anchal started out as a small project for a “Design for Development” seminar, and it was through a class trip to India that the desire to help people through design became a tangible thing we could accomplish.
We met women in the commercial sex trade while we were there, and learned about some of the local textiles being made in West Bengal. When we got back to Providence, we used the profits generated from a small notebook/notecard sale to fund the textile training for the first group of women.
The work that you do is so important, and I can imagine that would add an extra layer of complication in setting up the business. What were the early stages of Anchal like?
I would describe them as chaotic, inspiring, and idealistic. We had so much energy behind accomplishing this mission, and when you're just starting out you learn everything as you go. Everything was an experiment. We still have that to a certain extent, but in the beginning we just went for it. It was more of a 'look before you leap' mentality.
Tell me about the creative process from start to finish. How are Anchal’s pieces designed? Is it a collaboration between yourself and the artisans?
When new women are hired, they go through training with other artisans – usually ones that have been a part of Anchal for a while. They are taught basic design principals like color theory and composition. We have some guidelines established to make things a bit more predictable for the people buying the finished products, but leave as much of the decision-making and design up to them as we can.
Anchal is there to empower the women, many of whom haven't had much control over their own lives up to now, and we've found that giving them creative freedom gives them more confidence overall. Start-to-finish, everything is hand stitched, and some will soon be hand-dyed as well. (We're rolling that out in the collection coming out in October!).
Why do you think doing this type of work is so important?
Ethical home goods and fashion are the next wave of the 'socially conscious living' revolution. Awareness surrounding where your everyday items come from is the first step to influencing change in some of the most abusive industries. As a designer, I am driven by the power design has to positively change lives and the environment.
For me personally, I get to witness Anchal artisans improving not just their own lives, but also the lives of their children. Many of our artisans have now been able to purchase their own homes after joining the program, and all of the women have vowed to keep their daughters away from a potential future in the commercial sex trade. Now their children – boys and girls – have seen their mothers, sisters, and grandmothers empowered, as well as have the chance at higher education. The impact we are having is very real and life changing!
Tell me more about the Didi Connection – what an inspiring program!
In India, women affectionately call each other didi, which means 'sister' in Hindi. We were inspired by the strength of community between the Anchal artisans, and wanted to find a way to expand that connection to a global sisterhood. The Didi Connection is a collection of scarves and totes that support education workshops, health care, scholarship funding for children, and vocational training through their sales. Being a part of the Didi Connection means you are raising your fellow sister out of the sex trade.
What’s the one thing you’d want people to walk away knowing about Anchal, your products, and your mission?
One of the coolest things about an Anchal product is that each piece is not only made from vintage saris, but it's also 100% one-of-a-kind. Each artisan stitches their signature onto the quilts, scarves, and pillows, so you have a direct connection to the woman you are supporting with your purchase.
And just for fun:
What’s one book everyone should read? One movie?
"Creative Confidence" by Tom and David Kelley
"The True Cost" – it's a documentary that really drives home the importance socially conscious design, particularly in the fashion industry.
If you weren’t living in Louisville, Kentucky, where would you live?
I love to travel so I dream of sharing my time in several of my favorite cities with my favorite people in Louisville, New York, Providence, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Is there anyone out there who’s work you really admire?
Ultimately the Anchal women in India inspire me the most. The abuse and pain they have endured is devastating. And yet these brave women show up to the workshop space with joyful smiles and willingness to learn. It is truly incredible what they have overcome, I don't know how they do it!