Originally Published on March 14, 2012 in PeruthisWeek.com

Susana Aguirre

Behind every garment there’s a story. Let’s make that, stories. Unfortunately, the augment of fast fashion has only made the gap between consumer, designer and garment makers wider. The design project Awamaki Lab, on a small but important scale, is making a conscious effort to design and produce garments in an ethical and meaningful way.

From its conception in 2010, the program aims to tackle social and economic development by providing sustainable employment for women in Ollantaytambo, empowering them with vocational skills, helping them build confidence through their work and cultivating a creative environment in which all involved are able to learn from each other.

I met with Annie Millican, Director of Awamaki Lab, at the Textile Art Center (TAC) in New York City in mid-February. She kindly spoke to me about the goals of the project, the experiences thus far lived and what the future holds for Awamaki Lab. This came after the project’s formal Season 2 presentation in late January at the TAC, an educational center for artists and people who wish to work with fibers. It became the perfect location for the activities aimed to showcase the products, including the opportunity for people to work with Andean textiles in a workshop that Annie says “created a hands-on activity for those interested in textiles or interested in the program. It was a really good experience.”

The project stems from the NGO Awamaki, operating in Ollantaytambo since 2009, which aims to address social and economic community empowerment through culturally sensitive and entrepreneurial programs. Their longest running program, a weaving cooperative in Patacancha (45 minutes away from Ollantaytambo) provides traditional weaving communities with employment and fair income. The different products made by the weavers are showcased and sold in Ollantaytambo, mainly to tourists.

Major flooding in the area in early 2010, however, became an eye-opening experience for the organization. With tourist traffic down– consequently potential customers – the team realized in order to insure the success of the organization and secure work for weavers, Awamaki “needed to target a different customer and a different market,” explains Annie. She joined the organization to work with product development, having interest and experience in the fashion industry and economic development. The first two months Annie says she spent, “visiting Patacancha and trying to assess how we could best showcase the textiles in a way that could resonate with more people.”

Indeed, Annie saw the creative potential that the textiles, the beautiful landscape and interaction with the people of Ollantaytambo could offer young designers. One important goal of Awamaki Lab, as Annie tells us, is “to create an educational exchange, for young designers to work with artisans and gain insight into a different way of approaching fashion design.” The project took off with the designer Nieli Vallin who relocated to Ollantaytambo to create the Season 1 collection in 2010. Having trained in couture design in Paris, Nieli “had the exact skillset that we needed,” says Annie about her ability to create beautifully draped one off pieces, seamlessly incorporating the local textiles into her designs.

Nieli’s designs were brought to New York in early 2011 and presented at the studio of Tara St. James, design mentor for the collection, whose help turns out to be key in the process. As Annie explains, the design mentor “provides feedback with more insight than any of us have in customer wants, market trends, and what’s sellable. We sold the S1 collection and used the money for infrastructure and start-up capital for the sewing cooperative.” Two patterns were selected from the collection, a high-waist mini skirt and a beautiful front tie jacket, for reproduction.

A goal close to Annie’s heart, the sewing program aims “to create sustainable employment for women in town.” In order to train the women who became part of the cooperative – Justa, Estela and Florentina – a special mentor came to Ollantaytambo in June 2011. Known as the Williamsburg Seamstress, Nayantara Banerjee went from helping distressed fashionistas in Brooklyn in need of garment alterations to implementing a sewing course for the women. “She and Paula created the curriculum for the seamstresses and they learned so quickly, it was almost intuitive to them,” Annie says of how fruitful and fulfilling the training program turned out to be.

If curiosity strikes you, check out the wonderful Awamaki Lab blog for anecdotes and photos of, for example, the celebration between seamstresses and weavers that took place upon the completion of the first order of skirts. The seamstresses also had the opportunity to design, creating the bags for the next collection. “The bag project especially was a culmination of a lot of hard work, it was a lot of fun for them. They have a very strong sense of shape and form. It’s a little bit more geometric,” Annie says of their design aesthetic. “The idea is for them to eventually have a much bigger role in designing as well.”

In this setting, Awamaki Lab began to work on the second season. The goal was “to focus on designs that had more ready-to-wear appeal,” says Annie. Around August 2011, Andria Crescioni and Courtney Cedarholm, who had recently graduated from Parsons The New School for Design, arrived to a production team that was slowly but surely taking shape, more so with the incorporation of Awamaki’s knitting cooperative, founded in 2010. With knitters, “now a group of 17 women,” Annie says, the creative possibilities grew for the two designers and was especially advantageous for “Courtney who came with a strong knitwear portfolio and ended up making a few knitwear pieces.”

The S2 Fall 2012 collection includes pants, outerwear, skirts and dresses, in addition to accessories like the Kunka hood, a very chic take on a ski mask with colorful woven strings, and of course the collection of wonderfully slouchy and functional bags. “This collection was inspired by vintage expedition wear. They were blown away by the weavers’ personal style, like their colorful skirts, and that kind of juxtaposed with the hiking tourists who come to Ollantaytambo with their rip-off pants, backpacks and khakis. Courtney and Andria immediately thought that that was an interesting aesthetic to play with and their previous work has been inspired by interpretations of menswear.”

The more striking pieces of the collection include the Chakra, a color block sweater, which comes in a couple of different styles; the Cusi poncho, a short-sleeved khaki colored jacket with woven details in the pockets; and a personal favorite is the Patacancha Anorak, which comes in two different earth toned canvas colors, it cinches at the waist with colorful strings and has perfectly located woven details in the pockets, shoulders and collar.

This collection definitely has the everyday wear appeal, designed for comfort and the Andean textiles only give the garments a special and unique factor. What’s more appealing, however, is the fact that the pieces make you stop and think about what went into making them. “What differentiates our product, from others that incorporate textiles, is that it’s done in an ethically minded way. It’s the story, the fact that the entire production cycle happens within 45-minutes from the center of Ollantaytambo. We work closely with all the women that work on the garments and it’s a very integrated process,” Annie explains. Each garment is intrinsically tied to the experiences of the women who made them, and each piece carries that personal history to the customer.

“We designed the season and now we’re here meeting with boutiques that kind of share our ethos, and in an attempt to keep this a personal shopping experience and reflect the small nature of our program, we did a trunk show,” Annie says of the event that took place in January. Plans are for the designers to take the trunk show to other cities in the U.S. and they are also setting up an online store.

“Andria and Courtney will be working alongside the seamstresses and the knitters during production and will be staying in Peru to design the third collection, which is great in order to capitalize on the skills we developed over the past year and create aesthetic consistency in the collection.” Annie adds, “Hopefully we will have enough orders that it will be full-time work for the seamstresses.”

The Awamaki Lab project calls for innovation with every season. There are a lot of variables in terms of creativity and design, but if there’s one constant it’s the commitment to provide fair and sustainable employment for the women in Ollantaytambo who are part of the Awamaki family. While the idea consists of designing and producing collections that appeal to a global customer, the positive outcomes are felt locally.

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