Change Through Beauty

Garments featuring traditional Mapuche weaving techniques might not be an expected find at the W Hotel or The Ritz-Carleton, but as of a few months ago, indigenous textile traditions broke new ground at the W Hotel boutique in Santiago. Jasmine Aarons, founder of the ethical fashion label VOZ ("voice", in Spanish), has made it her mission to craft an innovative model for contemporary fashion production – one where fashion luxury meets social change. VOZ hand woven and knitted garments are designed by talented Chilean artisans through sustainable education programs and outreach initiatives that provide vital economic opportunities for their communities. Ancestral art motifs and crafting methods are also revisited through the traditional designs recreated on Mapuche looms. Lustrous natural fibers of ethically-sourced wool, alpaca, and llama are naturally-dyed with local fauna—allowing each textile piece to tell the story of Mapuche cosmology through ancient symbols and rich hues from the natural world.

The ground breaking design collaboration that takes place between VOZ designers and textile artisans in the Araucanía Region of Southern Chile allows for a production model that is respectful of local wisdom and craft while also exploring viable offerings for the international fashion market. Aarons sees this method of connectivity as having a possible ripple effect to other communities: "We see VOZ design teams collaborating with other artisan cooperatives in Latin America (and later worldwide) that wield different artistic mediums—in essence, replicating our localized design workshop model and creating ongoing fashion collections from every rural location we connect to."

The VOZ design method is based on Stanford d.school’s collaborative and exploratory philosophy. VOZ team members participate in communal workshops where artisans and fashion designers work closely and iteratively together. The artisans create drawings and develop early fashion prototypes, while the design team then works with them to carefully select, adapt, and translate their ideas into future collections. The weavers and knitters craft the final designs themselves—with the pride of knowing that the work is their own, in turn earning royalties and name credit for their creations.

The VOZ Journey

The journey began in 2009 when Aarons, who was studying Mechanical Engineering in Product Design at Stanford University, volunteered to help traditional Mapuche weavers from Araucanía create a line of internationally competitive, artisan-made products. "After an investigation of the designs of Peruvian Quero shamans, the designer realized that many traditional artisans struggled to compete within saturated craft marketplaces, many of which are often filled with foreign-made copies of traditional artwork sold at knockoff prices. Observing that products typically sell for style and quality before their social message, Aarons founded VOZ to bring the marketability of fashion to fair trade." She wanted to offer design tools to help artisans create unique products that allowed them to profit in contemporary marketplaces.

A unique workshop model was subsequently initiated in Araucanía where invited weavers learned fundamental (modern) design strategies – enabling them to express and adapt their ideas into final prototypes. These early pieces were curated and presented at select trade shows and settings across the U.S. during 2010. A year later, Aarons returned to Chile to introduce an international team of design professionals into the collaborative design studio setting.

HAND/EYE: How the d.school at Stanford University impacted your overall vision as an ethical fashion advocate and founder/design director of a label like VOZ?

Jasmine Aarons: The Stanford design program was outstanding – for many of the same reasons that make Stanford's campus and Northern Californian culture truly unique. With Stanford's d.school (and proximity to Bay Area design programs and entrepreneurship philosophy), everyone can be a dreamer and creator. Playfulness and open-minded experimentation are encouraged to reign. We are not discouraged by the prospect of failure, and the answer is always, "Yes, AND…" In terms of design, this liberates people to brainstorm and collaborate freely, and brings experts from diverse background to the same table to arrive at the most relevant and elegant solutions to problems. This collaborative design thinking method is subsequently the fabric of VOZ today, allowing us to connect across cultures and mediums as well as applying big picture thinking to many of the creative and logistical challenges we surely face."

H/E: How would you like to see VOZ evolve over the next year or two?

JA: Over the next few years, I would love to see VOZ flourish into a sustainable fashion operation with various collaborations with artisan cooperatives in the South of Chile, specifically with an arts and design innovation center in the Mapuche heartland. The center would not only be a studio for production, design, invention, and art, but a gathering place for the community to work together, further advance their techniques, and share these opportunities with students.

I envision seminars in art, craft, and culture taking place, where specialists ranging from natural dyes to Italian design techniques to exportation processes can give lectures to the community. I see a space in the backyard where we can experiment with natural dyes and other eco-friendly design processes, and hopefully a library where we have many books on the ancient knowledge of the art of the region as well as the latest fashion magazines from around the world. Sharing and cultivating traditional indigenous art knowledge and design innovation with the weavers of the area and also their children and community members creates a haven for creativity, growth, and inspiration locally that celebrates the artisans' knowledge and their togetherness. The most important thing is that VOZ become a source of respectful, sustainable income to as many artisans as possible through consistent orders, so that women and their families can continue living in their present culture and rural communities without being forced to move to cities to find jobs."

H/E: Do you have any additional thoughts and observations for us?

The fashion industry is broken. From sweatshops offering pennies on the hour, to the textile industry’s responsibility for over a fourth of the pesticides we use in the United States, fashion production poisons our environment and exploits humans to produce clothing that people buy and dispose of quickly … Most eco and fair trade brands don’t compete on design alone, instead focusing on their product’s story. While traditional craftwork struggles to connect with today’s clothing consumers, fashion plagiarizes ethnic fashion without crediting or profiting indigenous cultures. We aim to offer a new future for fashion.

VOZ is working to creative a meaningful dialogue on this front—one where luxury is synonymous with aesthetic quality that is genuinely fair and fashionable. Beauty and hope can be sustained through the threads we touch and chose to cultivate. Ethnic fashion must move beyond our previous definitions of what seems globally-minded and beneficial for everyone involved. 

Be further inspired by this video interview with Jasmine Aarons.

VOZ products are available for purchase at the W Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton in Santiago, and will be debuting in boutiques in the United States and Europe during the Fall of 2012. VOZ collection is also now available for sale through their website. They will be featured in a New York Fashion Week trunk show at Kaight shop in NYC on September 13 and in the EcoLuxe London ethical fashion showcase from September 16 - 17, 2012.



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