Zazi in Vogue India - The Hills are Alive
19th December 2022
This week an eight page print interview in Vogue India came out about the work we do with Zazi around the world and we have just been feeling so many emotions and gratitude! The piece is beautifully written by senior Vogue editor Bandana Tewari who wove in 'Women who run with the wolves', Buddhist economics by Schumacher and described the women behind Zazi as the 'David and Goliath' changing the fashion industry.
“I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories...water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom”
— CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS,
AUTHOR, WOMEN WHO RUN
WITH THE WOLVES
THIS IS A story about a global interwoven sisterhood that tirelessly supports small, home grown, culturally vibrant, hand-crafted enterprises led by women, who collectively call upon the divine feminine to co-create and coexist in harmony with Pacha Mama.
Yes, this is not the typical fashion language. Zazi Vintage, a symbol of a wave of creative collectives across the world, is a beacon of sacred creativity and upholders of cultural sustainability.
Culture is the fourth pillar of sustainable development, a concept developed under the 2001 UNESCO Universal Dec- laration on Cultural Diversity. Zazi Vintage, a clothing and accessories brand is a perfect example of what happens when craftspeople and culturally-attuned entrepreneurs come together: the very vocabulary of business changes. From consumerist tropes of faceless production, invisible hands, mass production, excess inventory and wastefulness, the ethics of creativity emerge: intentional co-creation, cultural appreciation (not appropriation), equal participation, partner families, respect for diversity.
Serendipitously, the gems of wisdom in a profound book written in 1973 called Small Is Beautiful: A Study Of Economics As If People Mattered by the luminary German economist EF Schumacher, points to the ethics of Zazi Vintage, a 2016 creative enterprise based out of Amsterdam.
Schumacher opined that economics is not a self-contained science, that it is intrinsically linked to the whole social matrix of life and isn’t independent in its purpose. In short, money for money’s sake is reductive, oppressive and futile. “Work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.” When Schumacher wrote these words in his seminal essay titled ‘Buddhist Economics’, he heralded a way of working that brought ethics, economics and environmental awareness to our lived experience.
Zazi Vintage is also an example of the proverbial David vs. Goliath paradigm in the fashion industry today, a torchbearer for every small-scale creative collective in the world that stands up against the ‘system’, and strives to bring together people, product, process and purpose in a seamless model of humane creativity.
Zazi Vintage founders Jeanne de Kroon and Madhu Vaishnav met and wove a vision they had for fashion. Vaishnav, who started her own women’s social enterprise, Saheli Women, agreed with de Kroon that when women, already creating from their bedrooms and kitchen floors, come together and become the storytellers, magic happens. So they started in a small bedroom, a cultural crusade that sprang from seven ikat dresses.
“I didn’t start the brand because I wanted to be a fashion designer or do runway shows. I came from a place of environment and social impact and fell into fashion like falling into a spider web...all the threads pulling at me. I decided to be a facilitator to showcase the real champions of craft, whose energy I felt in every single stitch. For me, it was about going back to the origin story with their ancestral wisdom, their community, their culture,” says de Kroon.
Zazi Vintage’s approach to cultural sustainability was to tailor-make creative programmes that are led by communities, so that they thrive effortlessly within their own environment and have the immediate impact of being equal stakeholders in the ‘business’ of fashion. Each Zazi Vintage piece is a result of intentional collaborations designed with over 1,100 artisans from all corners of the world. With their partner families, they weave ancestral techniques with contemporary ideas to co-create garments that have deep significance and beauty.
“It was very important to create a storytelling platform using craft and creativity to enchant people. And from that enchantment, we hope to create an inner revolution.”
The latest collaboration with Kullvi Whims and its ancestral craft of knitting honours women who intuitively follow the cyclical rhythm of nature, singing songs of fertility, life and creation in the goddess temple. Up in the Himalayas, the goddess is said to have turned into a spider and woven a temple that is shaped like a web.
“Working with our indigenous wool is rooted in the reciprocity of nature. The shepherd who walks the land and the sheep which feed off the mountains then give the gifts of reciprocity, wool, which we then weave into beautiful pieces,” says the extraordinary artisan Lata Ji from Kullvi Whims.
Apart from Kullvi Whims, Zazi Vintage co-creations include IkatUz, a family-run ikat design enterprise in Margilan in rural Uzbekistan famous for its ikats. Then there are the ‘guardians of the forest’, the Huni Kuin, an indigenous community of Acre in the Amazon, and the ‘feminine fire’ Ozara, an all-female social enterprise in Khujand in Tajikistan. In India, it is Saheli Women, an all-female artisans collective in the village of Bhikamkor, and the sister-duo of Akané Studio who specialise in natural plant dyes in Mumbai. To this incredible repertoire belong the female basket weavers of Ghana and the prolific artisans of Afghanistan.
“Artisans have a very strong sense of their identity embedded in the craft and their connection with it. From so many artisans I have heard the statement, ‘It is in our blood.’ So that sense of the craft runs very deep,” says Nisha Subramaniam, co-founder of Kullvi Whims.
Today, fuelled by complex economic systems, big global brands are known to submerge small, home-grown industries in their display of scale and size, quantity, speed and (to no lesser degree) patriarchal ownership-wreaking havoc, especially for marginalised, indigenous, female-led creative communities of a very colourful and diverse world. It is already demonstrated that the culture of the majority threatens and overtakes the minority, a phenomenon called acculturation. It is, therefore, imperative that brands like Zazi Vintage are recognised as the antithesis to acculturation. Globally, for hundreds of millions of women who work from home, craft-based work is a fundamental source of employment. A study done by the New York-based NGO Nest, states that for centuries, craftspeople and hand-workers around the world have played critical roles in reviving and sustaining local creative economies, often working from informal settings like homes and small workshops. The International Labour Organization estimates that upwards of 30 million people work from home, engaged primarily in handwork. Predominantly women, they (unlike the men) invest more than 90 percent of their earnings back into their families.
“For a fulfilling business of co-creation, it has to live beyond the finite dimensions of the market and be built on a relationship dimension where power balances are equalised and stories are exchanged. True innovation comes from within, from the custodians themselves,” says Subramaniam.
So in the spirit of Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist Economics’, it is clear that for the labour force to become a human force, rejecting purely materialist positions, ideas of ‘maximising individual capacity’ and ‘exponential consumption’ are necessary. Brands like Zazi Vintage across the world prioritise human scale creative businesses that respect ‘natural capital’, are decentralised, empower women, and reject the male-dominated top-down expansionism that favours productivity over presence.
Let us teach our children that clothes are ‘culture carriers’, the totemic warp and weft of our ancestors and their wealth, not money. Let us teach them what we buy will define our sartorial integrity.
Image credits: model Archana Akil Kumar and artisans Kullvi Whims captured by photographer Dolly Devi
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