To innovate, we often look ahead. But sometimes, the best way forward is found in traditional knowledge. Here, we ask fashion, textile, and apparel industry professionals around the world how their cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge shape their work—and how it might help move the fashion industry in a more sustainable direction.
Daniela Poulsen (Yanchapaxi Silva): Ecuadorian and descendant of an Indigenous Andean community from the Cotopaxi province in Ecuador; operations and supply chain manager for Cotopaxi in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In her work for adventure apparel and gear company Cotopaxi, Daniela Poulsen regularly encounters people who assume Cotopaxi is nothing more than a fictitious name created to attract attention. As a Native Ecuadorian, she knows there’s much more to it than that.
“Cotopaxi is not just a name. It’s not just a business,” she explains. “There’s an entire community that lives around the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador.” Poulsen has direct ties to that community—her father was raised there.
Brands have a responsibility to respectfully represent their namesake, and Poulsen takes every opportunity to connect the dots between the business base in Utah, suppliers in Asia, and the community in Cotopaxi. “When I reach out to a new partner, supplier, customer, or client, I always tell the story of where we come from and where the name comes from,” she says. “We want to use the name with care and respect, taking into account what it means to the people, community, and country of Ecuador.”
Poulsen’s deeply rooted sense of community provides her with a compassion compass that guides the decisions she makes in her day-to-day work, and she recommends others in the industry consider the same. “Look at your supply chain more than your revenue or target numbers,” she suggests. “Think about who you are impacting—positively or negatively. You’re not working with just a factory or machines; you’re working with people and communities.”
More Is Not Better
Kini Zamora: Native Hawaiian and Filipino; former Project Runway contestant and designer and creator of The Clique in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Native Hawaiian and Filipino designer Kini Zamora lives in one of the most naturally beautiful places on the planet. And he works in one of the most environmentally damaging industries. He believes that fast fashion (clothing that is produced quickly in mass quantities in response to trends, and is often low in quality and not meant to last) is creating unnecessary waste, and a simple mindset shift—for consumers and creators—could steer the industry in a healthier direction.
“In my culture, you don’t make or take more than what you need,” he says. Respect for the natural environment is central to Native Hawaiian culture and integral to Zamora’s approach. “We have to stop creating—and buying—mass amounts of clothing that people are only going to wear for a week or year, and then throw away.”
Instead, he aims to “create clothing that’s special, that [consumers] will pair with another piece from our collection three seasons from now, that they will keep for 10 or 15 years and pass down to their children.”
Designers can help curb waste and stop fueling the fast-fashion beast by focusing on high-quality, unique pieces consumers can continue to wear and share for years to come. “We don’t just create something pretty,” Zamora explains, “there’s always a story behind it.”
Embedded in that story is respect for his roots and inspiration for the future of fashion. “We always ask our kupuna (elders) about the cultural significance of our prints and the right way to use them,” he says. “When people buy our clothing, we can tell them a story. And then when someone asks them what they’re wearing, they can share the story too. If we can tell a tale through our prints and create a special piece for the customer, we create a connection and keep the story of our lineage alive.”
Culture Is a Vital Resource
Louie Gong: Nooksack tribal member of mixed heritage; artist and founder of Eighth Generation in Seattle, Washington. In November of 2019, Louie sold Eighth Generation to the Snoqualmie Tribe. He remains CEO under a multi-year agreement.
Sustainability is not only about environmental conservation. “I always talk about cultural art like a natural resource,” Native American (Nooksack) designer Louie Gong says. “We have to be stewards of that resource by nurturing it. If we keep taking without stewardship, eventually, we destroy it.”
Gong believes that failure to respect and protect Native art is one of the reasons some cultural arts are disappearing. When companies sell “Native-inspired” products without actually working with Native artists, it’s a loss for us all. “Every fake piece of art has a fake story to go with it. And every fake product represents a missed opportunity for a cultural artist. Fewer people are practicing [cultural art], because it’s hard to make a living from it.”
Gong’s company, Eighth Generation, is on a mission to change that—creating economic opportunities for Indigenous artists and offering authentic products to consumers. “We’re committed to always working with an Indigenous artist when we’re putting Indigenous art on products,” Gong explains. “The artists are paid, and if they need it, we provide them with business capacity building.”
When cultural arts are celebrated rather than appropriated, everyone wins: Consumers receive authentic products, artists are fairly compensated, and the related businesses and communities also benefit. “Collaborating with an Indigenous artist [as Eighth Generation does] doesn’t just pay off for the individual artist,” Gong says. “If you choose a community-engaged artist, they’ll take the skills that they’ve learned and amplify them.”
Gong recognizes that the value extends well beyond what bottom lines can account for. “There are more currencies to pursue than just money. Education and long-term opportunities for people like us are other currencies we pursue.”
This holistic, conscientious, community-minded approach that’s rooted in his heritage is proving to be good business as well: Eighth Generation is the fastest-growing privately owned Native business in North America.
Understand Your Interconnectedness
Amanda Westley: Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal artist in Middleton, South Australia, and collaborator with multiple brands, including Life Apparel Co, Lifewearau, and Aya Optical.
Ngarrindjerri artist Amanda Westley grew up on a farm just a few miles from the coastal town of Victor Harbor. Her contemporary Aboriginal dot work reflects her culture and natural environments. “My family is one of the oldest Aboriginal families on the south coast,” she says. “My father was a boat builder, so the water and the ocean have always been a big part of my life.”
Westley’s dot-style paintings are often done in vibrant colors inspired by her coastal upbringing. “My art represents the importance of country,” she says.
Country is a Kriol term that, according to Marcia Langton’s book Welcome to Country, refers to traditional land estates Aboriginal people inherited from their forebears. It means much more than land and soil. “I see country as a mother,” Westley explains. “When we talk about country, we talk about it as though it is a person. It’s not just the land; it’s the rocks, sky, water, and all living things.”
Westley’s art—now featured on apparel and accessories for various brands—serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness and our responsibility to people and planet. “My art creates a connection between country and people. Once that link has been made, people see the importance of taking care of country,” she says. “Country is a connection. We take care of it, and it takes care of us.”
Find Innovation in Tradition
Olga Reiche: Guatemalan of German and Queqchí descent; natural dye artisan and weaver at Indigo Custom Textile in Antigua, Guatemala.
For more than 35 years, Olga Reiche has been working with Indigenous artisans and textile cooperatives in Guatemala. She fears the constant need for “new” in the fashion industry is creating excessive waste and quashing the traditional craft. “Guatemala has always been known for its beautiful, intricate, and sophisticated hand-loomed textiles,” she says. “But that is quickly being lost.”
Reiche aims to bridge the gap between Indigenous textile artisans and consumers that appreciate traditional arts. She provides guidance on product development and marketing—even traveling with some artisans to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe for the past seven years—while also developing her own knowledge, skills, and products.
Reiche sees the value—and the future—in traditional techniques, such as backstrap loom weaving and natural dyes. “I give traditional focus to my designs,” she says, “using only handwoven, hand-embroidered, hand-dyed, and hand-sewn textiles” to create high quality, authentically handcrafted products. She also applies indigenous weaving techniques and her eye for design to upcycled waste, fashioning recycled bags, shoes, and other accessories.
She hopes other designers find ingenuity in indigenous tradition as well. “Innovative designs can be made without disturbing the tradition,” she explains. “On the contrary, traditional textile knowledge is very inspiring.”
Mother Earth Is Worth the Effort
Andréanne Mulaire Dandeneau: Métis of Anishinaabe and French descent; designer and creator of Anne Mulaire in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
An eco-friendly approach has always been part of French Métis designer Andréanne Mulaire Dandeneau’s business plan. Compassion for the planet is integral to her identity and her mission. “I was raised very eco-conscious,” she says of her French Métis upbringing. “Indigenous people have a strong connection to the earth. It’s embedded in who we are.”
So when she set out to design her own line, Dandeneau put her heart for the planet and pride in her heritage front and center—diligently sourcing eco-friendly yarn from slave-free farms and hiring Canada-based knitters and dyers to produce the bamboo fabrics before adding embroidered and graphic indigenous designs created by her and her father. The result: ready-to-wear clothing that is soft yet durable, unique yet versatile, and gentle on people and the planet.
Dandeneau admits that the route she’s chosen is not always easy or inexpensive. But it’s worth it. And it’s possible for everyone to start making small changes that could make a big difference too. “I will always make sure Mother Earth is taken care of,” she says. “It’s not all about profit. Consider what you are consuming and wasting. Buy less, but better. Buy locally and support the people around you. Be mindful and creative. Find little ways to be more sustainable. Yes, we have a long way to go, but if everyone takes a small step, that’s a big shift in the right direction.”
Take Your Time and Treat Your Team Like Family
Lisa Folawiyo: Nigerian and West Indian designer and founder of the Jewel by Lisa Group in Lagos, Nigeria.
When Lisa Folawiyo married traditional West African textiles with hand embellishment and modern tailoring, the fashion and entertainment world—including singer Solange Knowles and actress Lupita Nyong’o, both of whom have been seen wearing Folawiyo’s designs—took notice. Folawiyo was the first designer to hand-embellish Ankara, a bold and colorful wax-print fabric.
“The Lisa Folawiyo label is centered around hand embellishment,” she says. “Certain garments in the collections are hand-beaded by artisans. Each season, I find inspiration from different cultures of Nigeria and my personal travels.”
Every carefully crafted piece conveys a story—of heritage and hard work. On average, there is a 240-hour process behind each hand-embellished item. “This method of craftsmanship has contributed to the growth of the label,” Folawiyo explains, “and its continued reliance on slower, more functional production.”
Folawiyo applies the same care and integrity to her business as she does her designs. “The Lisa Folawiyo brand imbibes a sense of family, even at work,” she says. “Staff are not only paid above the minimum wage, but they are also constantly trained and developed in their skill sets, and supported in personal and professional areas of their lives. They work in clean and sanitary environments and receive bonuses, medical care, and assistance as needed. Furthermore, the brand works with Genesis House, a charity that helps rehabilitate women back into society and employment.”
Connect the Dots
Brandy-Alia Serikaku: Native Hawaiian artist and collaborator with OluKai in Hilo, Hawaii.
Native Hawaiian artist and hula dancer Brandy-Alia Serikaku’s connection to the ‘aina (land) is evident in her work with OluKai, where her nature-inspired designs appear on eco-friendly footwear. “My designs reflect my Hawaiian environment,” she says.
Her process from start to finish is influenced by her Hawaiian heritage. “I always say a prayer before I design,” Serikaku explains. “I go out into nature and see the flower or plant and create a firsthand experience to draw from. I put love into my work so that it becomes a real extension of me.”
Naming the products is equally important to her. “I use the Hawaiian language to name my designs, within its layers of meanings, I make sure the intent of my art lives on by choosing words with a positive effect. Being aware of your intent, actions, and words, and maintaining your balance in nature is a Hawaiian practice.”
By creating designs from the natural world around her and carefully selecting Hawaiian names that hold cultural significance, she connects the dots between the earth, her heritage, the product, and the consumer—simultaneously perpetuating Hawaiian culture, cultivating curiosity and compassion, and reinforcing our connection and responsibility to one another and the land we walk on.
You Have What You Need
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu: Ethiopian founder and CEO of soleRebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Growing up in the Zenebework/Total community, an impoverished area of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu witnessed the negative impact of externally controlled charity and the media portrayal of Ethiopians as “helpless, passive recipients of aid.” She also saw remarkable craftsmanship, natural materials, rich heritage, and great potential in her community and country. For Alemu, an appreciation of handcrafted traditions started at home, where she learned from her mother how to hand-spin cotton.
“We had a lot of talented people in my community, but there were few job opportunities,” she shares. “That struck me as both an immense tragedy and an opportunity.” In addition to creative skills, Ethiopia has an abundance of natural resources—free-range leather, organic cotton, jute, and Abyssinian hemp. And a mindset to make the most of what you’ve got. “Barabasso and selate—recycled tire-soled shoes—were all around.”
Alemu drew inspiration from her culture and community to create soleRebels, the first totally hand-spun and hand-loomed footwear. She is not just in the business of selling shoes; her aim has always been to empower local artisans and create economic opportunities rooted in cultural heritage and eco-friendly practices to change the narrative from “the myth of poverty alleviation” to the hope of more sustainable “prosperity creation.”
“There is a distorted but powerful belief here and across Africa that if you want to succeed, then you have to get out and go, especially west,” she explains. “But should somebody really have to leave their country and family to survive or be successful?” Alemu recognized a wealth of natural and cultural resources existed closer to home and, with soleRebels, has proven “it is possible to deploy local resources and create a global brand. It is possible to be a local person in Ethiopia and Africa, and be globally successful.”
Being Mindful Is Always in Style
Jamie Okuma: Native American of Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock descent; fashion designer and creator of Jamie Okuma on the La Jolla Indian reservation in California.
For Native American designer Jamie Okuma, sustainability is second nature. She was raised on the La Jolla Indian reservation and still lives there today with her husband and two sons. From the eco-friendly materials she uses to the imagery she creates, Okuma makes mindful choices guided by her heritage and upbringing.
“All of my work has tradition at its core,” she says. “For example, [in our culture] every part of the deer or buffalo is used. So I try to utilize everything possible in my work—with my art, supplies, fabric—and not be wasteful. I even save the scraps and find uses for them.”
Okuma also produces a limited number of pieces, avoiding excessive overstock and offering customers something bold and unique yet timeless and high quality. “We all have those go-to pieces in our closet that we keep for years and literally wear out before we retire them,” she says. “I’m here to make the go-tos, the keepers.”
Prior to the launch of her latest collection, she sent a note to her subscribers, reaffirming her commitment to sustainable fashion and urging people to consider that poor working conditions and low-quality, unsustainable fabrics are often behind fast fashion and inexpensive clothing.
“Slow fashion is ethical,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to make trendy pieces that are in one season and out the other. They are collectible staple pieces meant to be worn for years to come … they are meant to make you feel good knowing this collection was created with everyone’s best interest at heart.”
Lead image, left to right: Brittney Couture Photography/Louis Gong; Jamie Okuma/Jared Yazzie of OXDX; Lisa Folawiyo.