Awamaki Lab Puts Impoverished Weavers From Peru to Work on New Upscale Fashion Collection (Interview)

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Kate Reeder for Awamaki Lab

Peruvian non-profit Awamaki Lab has released an inaugural collection head up by designer Nieli Vallin, a student from Paris's Chambre Syndical de la Couture.

Vallin participated in a four-month residency program that brings designers to the Patacancha Valley of Ollantaytambo, Peru where they work with impoverished Quencha women weavers and develop contemporary clothing for a western market using fair trade textiles.

The made-to-order Awamaki Lab collection launched in New York at Guilded, the design studio of designers Tara St. James, who mentored Vallin on sustainable design processes, and Bahar Shahpar. At the event, I sat down with Vallin to discuss the difference between working in luxury fashion and with artisans in Peru, and more.From Parisian RTW to Peruvian Made-to-Order
Vallin first heard about the Awamaki project from friends in Paris, where she was living at the time. She was unhappy working in the luxury and ready-to-wear scene there--though she calls working with Yves Saint Laurent "an amazing experience"--and wanted to do something more ethical. Awamaki Lab was an opportunity for her to work both in ethical fashion and break into the fashion scene in the United States, another one of her goals.

Vallin sewed the entire collection in Peru. All of the garments on view--with the exception of one--were made entirely by Vallin and the weavers.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Kate Reeder for Awamaki Lab
TreeHugger: You spend four months living and working to develop this collection in Peru. Can you share an unexpected experience from your stay?

Awamaki Lab Designer Nieli Vallin:
I went there with an un-judging mind. Everything was very observational.

My perception was most shaped by my favorite experiences, like working with one of the weavers, Daniel, who sells to Awamaki. In his community, Awamaki offers these dyeing retreats where you go and hunt your own dyes--all of the colors of the rainbow--under this natural palette. It's amazing to see that come together, especially if you're used to synthetic colors.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Emma Grady

The Western World is Saturated with Synthetic Material

We never know exactly where our colors come from, where our dyes are coming from, and how they're hurting the environment, so it was amazing to be using plants and natural dyes to come up with amazing colors.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Emma Grady

The amount of synthetic material that we use in the Western world is overbearing at times. In Peru, it was nice to say, "Okay, we're taking our dyes from the earth and we're taking our wool from the sheep."

When you're a designer, you're working with fabric, you're not working with paint. In this process, you get to see from A to B, from sheep to clothing, from plant to clothing. That is one of the most important things for a fashion designer: knowing the origin of your work.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Emma Grady
TH: So this was the first time you were able to fully see the life cycle of garment production?
NV: Yes, the full life cycle of any construction of fashion. The clothing on our back all comes from a natural source unless, of course, it has been created in a factory with synthetic materials.

TH: You used all hand-dyed and hand-woven alpaca and wool. As a designer, were there any challenges working with these Artisan-made textiles?
NV: No. I love textiles. I guess that's one of my strengths. Every textile presents a different opportunity for design. You've go to love all of them, if you don't you're a one-trick pony.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Emma Grady
TH: Can other designers source the textiles you used in this collection?
NV: Awamaki is really hoping to do that. I think that's one of their really important long-term goals: to create a buzz for Peruvian fabric. There's a surplus right now and it needs to be accessed. There needs to be a buzz.

TH: Could the surplus satisfy major demand or would it strain communities?
NV: If that happens, that's a very good thing. You don't want to overwork someone, but you want to give work where there's a need.

TH: And what are next steps for you?
NV: After I fill all these orders, I hope to continue designing whether it be with a company out in L.A. or on my own.

awamaki lab photo
Photo: Kate Reeder for Awamaki Lab

The final collection, which is comprised of nine garments, is entirely made-to-order and made-to-measure. Vallin says it is important to get input from the client. Production turn-around time is about six months, and should be ready for next fall.

Awamaki Lab hopes the fashion design residency will help Ollanta women develop long-term economic growth and also aid the preservation of endangered weaving traditions. In addition to their fair trade textile initiative, Awamaki runs a sustainable tourism program based in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

They are still in the early stages of developing the Awamaki Lab and need all the help they can get. Browse the Awamaki shop online or consider making a donation to Awamaki Lab on Global Giving.

What do you think of the styles? Would you wear them? Tell us in the comment section, below.

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Tags: Clothing | Peru | Sustainable Fabrics


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