Fast fashion is flighty and fickle and, as consumers, we are slaves to its never-ending whims and fads. But for someone like Vicky Ngari-Wilson, a fashion sustainability entrepreneur, she believes the route to emancipating ourselves from fast fashion, and its subsequent detrimental environmental and human impact, is to connect us with indigenous craftsmanship, making for a far more sustainable and ethical purchase. 

The Rural Retail, founded by Vicky almost ten years ago, is her organisation which seeks to connect rural communities, primarily from East Africa, and their indigenous craftsmanship to the fashion industry. But what is indigenous craftsmanship? What can it teach the fashion industry in regards to sustainability? And, why, as consumers, should we care about indigenous craft within the context of sustainable fashion? 

I spoke to Vicky at The Rural Retail studio at The Old Laundry Yard in West London. Until a couple of years ago it was disused land, but now, even in the autumn dusk while many of the workshops and studios were closing down for the night, I could sense the Yard’s energy. It is a vibrant creative hub where young innovative entrepreneurs and pioneers in the bio-tech and design field congregate and collaborate. A curious choice to set up a sustainable fashion shop, but more of that later …

Vicky’s passion for sustainable fashion is abundantly clear to see. Arriving while she was tending to the last customer of the day, I browsed her studio. Much of the ware Vicky displays comes with the name, story and meaning from its creator, demonstrating a clear care and authentic connection to the communities and people with whom she partners. And while speaking to Vicky, despite her apologising for lacking in energy from a long day, she effused total enthusiasm and dedication to the cause. 

Fashion with Vicky Ngari-Wilson: Working in harmony with nature

Indigenous craftsmanship: ‘in harmony with nature’

Indigenous craftsmanship and design are ancient craft and making practices, whether that be pottery-making, basket-weaving or sewing, that communities have passed down from generation to generation. Vicky lamented the loss of many such practices in the UK but she is eager to demonstrate East African communities’ products’ worth and relevance on the global market in tackling fast fashion. ‘[A] lot of these communities have practices that are ancient but they are solutions’.

So, what can indigenous craftsmanship teach the fast fashion industry? A great deal, according to Vicky. Their practices have lasted because they take what they require and leave what they don’t. Communities are ‘cautious about the products they use … sometimes they won’t use a plant because it’s sacred and not right to use that’. They are respectful of their environment, ensuring that the equilibrium of their land is maintained: their ‘practices work in harmony with nature’. And the products that communities create are unique, one-off pieces. By buying such ware, consumers can appreciate the ‘value in the small’, unique and individual products as opposed to taking for granted ‘the big and the mass’ which fast fashion is all too willing to churn out, forever feeding ‘the neurotic society that we have become with fashion’.

In addition, unlike fast fashion which has come up against a lot of criticism for its use of sweat shops, and rightly so, indigenous craft is created in the communities’ workshops and homes where women, very often, are crucial to crafts’ production. For Vicky, selling such craft ‘was tackling twice: the environment and the social’.

Craft, collaboration and creativity

We are all too well aware of the need to be more mindful and careful in the products we use in many aspects of our daily lives. So when it comes to mindful fashion, don’t we have the likes of H&M or Mango’s sustainable ranges or vintage clothes shops to tick, with smug satisfaction, the sustainable fashion box? Not necessarily. Vicky offered a fresh range of perspectives on this; spanning from the global, national, right down to the individual, as to why we should look to purchase indigenous craft in an effort to act more sustainably.

The world is interconnected: whatever we do, our actions affect someone, somewhere, even if continents and thousands of miles separate us. Purchasing indigenous craft can help those in places far removed from us. Vicky’s main passion when working with East African rural communities is working with women and ensuring that their skills, work and products connect them to the global market, giving them greater financial and social independence.

I sense that Vicky’s drive to give women these opportunities for greater agency might, in part, stem from her own experience of being a young single mother and understanding the need to be independent. Vicky shares 50 per cent of her profits with these communities ‘because it is a collaboration … people are my business’. She speaks to the women directly, understanding the products and the people behind the products, thereby giving them a clear voice through her organisation. By buying from people such as Vicky, it might be a small purchase but it is part of a wider global endeavour to ensure that rural communities, and especially women, are being given the proper recognition and pay they deserve for their skills and time, thus keeping economic and social exclusion at bay. 

Fashion with Vicky Ngari-Wilson: Working in harmony with nature

Vicky also spoke about the national as well as local benefits in buying indigenous craft. For communities in East Africa, it keeps their local economy buoyant as demand for their products continues. But there are also huge benefits to be had for the UK. Much of our conversation centred around Vicky linking indigenous craftsmanship to the growing and exciting field of bio-tech and design. It wasn’t chance that led her to the bio-tech Yard: it was an astute and strategic decision. She playfully stated that ‘I stick my nose into science labs and conversations as much as I can’ and ‘sticking her nose in’ has paid dividends: her work with her neighbours, Open Cell, is proving particularly fruitful. Using woven baskets from The Rural Retail, Vicky and Open Cell have combined these with lichen, a globally abundant moss-like plant that helps to detoxify the air around the wearer.

Fashion with Vicky Ngari-Wilson: Working in harmony with nature

Vicky has also been partnering with Post Carbon Lab who are adding antimicrobial properties to headscarves sourced from Vicky’s suppliers. Such properties have been proven to help people with vulnerable scalps. The Yard is one hub in the fast growing bio-tech and design industry and Vicky is determined to ‘get more of us looking at biomaterial … and drive more jobs’. And buying bio-designed craft isn’t only an economic driver, it also generates ‘a fashionable interest in STEM’ which, in turn, could generate even more innovative and creative solutions to some of the world’s great problems.

But very often, due to human nature, nothing creates greater incentive when the impact is brought back to the individual.

‘People should care about sustainability for themselves’.

Vicky asserts that our current ‘lack of sustainability is driven by this culture of grabbing for identity, grabbing for the way you should look when going to an event, making sure you are wearing the latest’. She attributes social media and style feeds to people acting as fashion sheep but the pressure also comes from shops, the high-street and online — all encouraging consumers to ‘complete the look’. In a world where many feel their identity and sense of self is being lost, browsing and purchasing indigenous sustainable ware can be a fun creative outlet, enabling reconnection with the self and a chance to ‘find your true identity’. 

Of course, using indigenous craft to aid the sustainable industry is not without its faults and foibles. For me, I wanted to hear Vicky’s thoughts on how sustainable fashion can cater with the same speed and volume that fast fashion can. Vicky’s answer is unequivocal: ‘That’s the whole point … to slow down the need for instant gratification’ and find appreciation and care through purchasing sustainably. We can also take a few leaves out of rural communities’ books. As Vicky pointed out, in many instances, ‘everything is worn for meaning, for purpose, for a message’. And that is what she hopes we can learn as consumers, that ‘we change the relationship we have with our clothes’.

Sustainable fashion is so in season

It was hugely enlightening and inspiring speaking to Vicky and hearing more about her work with The Rural Retail. And while she is ‘not convinced there is a perfect model that has zero impact on the earth’, with the knowledge and expertise of rural communities’ use of natural resources and combining that with the wonders of bio-design, she believes that, currently, this is one of the most holistic and sustainable models out there. As consumers, we have the power to change demand and vogue and so we need to, both literally and metaphorically, buy into this sustainable method.

Fashion with Vicky Ngari-Wilson: Working in harmony with nature

As I left Vicky’s studio, I couldn’t help but notice Westfield, looming large over the Yard, with its neon lights and numerous shop logos emblazoned across its building: a little gaudy and artificial when comparing it to the Yard’s virtues. Did I feel I was standing at the intersection between the present and the future? Yes, I did. If the future of fashion is going to come from somewhere, then I see it emerging in one of these small ateliers at the Yard. Indeed, it already is. 

Vicky ended our meeting on a positive futuristic note. Instead of shopping for new and adding to our overburdened wardrobes, we may be ‘visiting labs to re-dye our garments or nurseries to grow our next season’s coat. Now that’s seasonal fashion!’