Building sustainable relationships with artisans

Bulb vintage inspired garments

Bulb vintage-inspired garments as seen on models Stephanie Carter and Miranda Kerr

With so many mass-produced, high street, throw away fashions in the market today, being presented with a brand that treasures the hand made is refreshing.

With a passion for craft culture and hand made textiles, Julie Lantry traveled the globe selling her redesigned clothes and scouring the markets for hand crafted vintage. It was only when she landed in India that she developed a real appreciation for the art of textiles, watching the talented local artisans at work.

“They helped me modernize the hand crafted ideas for my label, Bulb. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been exposed to these unique talents earlier in my fashion career,” she said.

Now Julie is dedicated to bridging the gap between artisans, designers and consumers through products and education programs under her brand, Artisan Culture.

Julie has over twenty years’ experience in the fashion industry, including ten years of designing her own collections for Bulb, Julie Lantry and GTH Loungewear, as well as selling her product nationally and internationally including a signature collection for Topshop in London.

In this interview, Julie explains the Artisan Culture philosophy; why it’s important to educate designers and consumers about ethical practices and renewable materials; and why we should consider artisans in our design process.

Nandu printing artist with TAFE fashion student, Jess Wilmot

What is Artisan Culture?

Artisan Culture is a design and education platform connecting artisans, designers and consumers. In doing so, it informs the customer while promoting and adopting sustainable economic and ethical business practices.  Artisan Culture implements a two-pronged strategy, generating income for artisans through textile tourism and an e-commerce platform. Textile tours encourage emerging designers to travel to India to witness the Indian manufacturing industry first-hand while building relationships with artisans. In turn artisans are exposed to contemporary ideas while generating income.

We work with various fashion institutions and individual designers exploring the Indian market. The e-commerce aspect generates income for artisans but provides the opportunity for consumers to be part of the process. This will develop through different stages and we are currently working on a sustainable product with a long shelf life that will employ different sectors of artisans within India.

Your aim at Artisan Culture is to share your passion for hand crafted textiles and renewable materials – why is it important to educate designers and consumers?

Without these two groups, the fashion industry doesn’t exist. Hand crafted products are both ethical and aesthetic products, while it’s important to use renewable materials for environmental reasons. The fashion industry has been responsible for some horrific ecological and human disasters, as we have seen recently in Bangledesh. India has had its fair share of these disasters, including contamination of vegetable and rice crops due to pesticides in cotton production, villages have been left without drinking water due to garment dye contamination. Human rights issues have also raised their heads, such as artisans living on less than a dollar a day due to mass production of powerlooms, printing and unethical manufacturing systems.

The time for change is now. It’s important for designers to consider the materials they are using, the people that are making them, as well as where, by whom and for how much they are constructed. Consumers are becoming more aware of these issues and demanding transparency from fashion houses. Australia has traditionally been behind the eight ball in sustainable issues, but we’re catching up.

I’ve been working in India for over a decade and have seen first hand the positive changes our orders can make. Educating designers, manufacturers, buyers and consumers on the unique talents of traditional artisans, on the benefits of supporting impoverished societies, of recycling and renewable energy resources and raising awareness of toxic fashion waste issues, can only result in better production methods, and in more positive outcomes for cotton farmers, artisans and our planet.

Michelle Jank collaborating with Ashok Ladiwal

Michelle Jank collaborating with Ashok Ladiwal

Why should a designer use artisans when designing their collections?  What are the benefits?

Fashion is regularly tiresome and has the same look from mass retailer to mass retailer. Artisan work, on the other hand gives a unique statement. Working with artisans is a win-win situation – the designer gets distinctive hand crafted products of a high quality, while the artisan gets to work on contemporary designs and build a sustainable business.

How does this artisan aspect benefit the consumer/end user? What is the benefit to buying a garment with artisan aesthetic?

In buying a garment that has been hand made by an artisan, you know your garment has a distinctive feel. Plus you’re supporting age-old traditions, skills that could be lost forever if they’re not supported. That would be a tragedy.

Artisan Culture has taken that one step further. Through the bespoke shopping model, we aim to engage the customer that little bit more. The customer can read about the artisans and the production trail, then go onto the e-commerce page, choose a style, pick a colour, alter the design and the product will be made to your specifications. Being part of their own design creates a stronger connection to their item and the creators. For us, by making only as orders come in we are creating less product surplus that would otherwise end up in landfill.

You will speak at Fashion Exposed this year on the topic of `Building sustainable relationships with artisans’ – can you share some insights into your presentation?

I started working with artisans in India over a decade ago and felt it was a resource all designers should know about. However, although India has thousands of artisans sprinkled around the country, tracking down the right artisan for your job is not that easy. This presentation is going to be a very practical one discussing things designers will need to know; things like developing and maintaining ethical working relationships in India, how to interpret traditional design, cultural differences, collaboration examples and maintaining quality and delivery schedules. I hope attendees get a lot out of it.

What are some of the personal insights you’ve gained into the artisan culture from your own travels to India and working with the people there?

Even after ten years, India amazes me. Every time I travel there I discover something new – a new technique, a new destination, a little more about the culture and heritage. The Indians I’ve met are extremely generous, kind and helpful. I believe this has been built in time as I have maintained face-to-face relationships with my suppliers. It is important to build trusting partnerships, where your team understands the importance of quality, deadlines and intellectual property.

I advise new designers to do their homework on what they’re looking for. Be prepared to travel, as different design ideas are often executed best from different regions. Sometimes this can take a while to find, and some people get frustrated at wasted time, but at least they know they’re not alone in this. India operates on a different time from the west. There’s so many cultural layers, both spoken and unspoken, that sometimes it can feel like you’re getting nowhere, and then you’re suddenly surprised by a beautiful piece of work. It’s really like nowhere else.

UTS textile tour (Julie in middle)

UTS textile tour (Julie Lantry is pictured in the middle)

How did you modernise the hand crafted ideas for your own label Bulb and now artisan culture? And how can designers incorporate these ideas into their own work?

When I was working with my previous label, Bulb, I often worked from European vintage samples and changed the colours or placement of embroidery to modernise to final product. I’ve adopted a different approach with Artisan Culture. I collaborate with artists in Australia and India to create new looks that can be block printed, embroidered or dyed in a special way. My recommendation for any designer is to test your own ideas and travel with easy explained story boards or samples that can be interpreted or offer a base for collaboration discussions.

Don’t be afraid to collaborate with the right artisan, as you would be amazed at what can occur when you let go of your control and broaden your design mind. India is a key destination for embroidery, rich patterns, intricate stitching techniques and unique dying and printing methods. Prices are competitive which means you can afford to test those unusual design ideas.

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