UAE companies show fashion’s compassion

Some designers are going a step further than simply becoming fair trade.

Nadine Arton, fashion designer and founder of GlamOnYou which uses clothes as a tool for generating awareness about charitable causes and projects. Jaime Puebla / The National
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The fashion industry has not always been praised for its compassion. The dark underbelly of the industry was starkly exposed last year, as more than 1,000 people died when the Savar garment factory in Bangladesh, which made clothes sold by some of the world’s leading fashion brands, collapsed.

Worldwide, there is now growing demand for fashion companies to show they do put people before profits.

And some designers are going a step further than simply becoming fair trade. In 2006, the American Blake Mycoskie noticed that children he had befriended in an Argentinian village didn’t have adequate shoes to protect their feet. He created TOMS Shoes, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair for a child in need. What began as a simple idea evolved into a powerful business model – now expanded into eyewear and coffee – that home-grown fashion designers in the UAE are emulating too.

In 2011, the designer Sahar Wahbeh founded Dumye, a Dubai-based company that makes little girl’s headpieces and personalised dolls. For each handcrafted doll bought, one is given to an orphan to make at an art workshop.

And GlamOnYou, the Dubai fashion house founded by the Berlin-born fashion designer Nadine Arton, has also been gifting a doll for every one sold. In this case, it is the Syrian children at Jordan’s Zaatari camp who are the beneficiaries.

Ms Arton, 38, had a blossoming career in foreign aid and got into the fashion industry almost by accident.

But despite GlamOnYou’s growing success, Ms Arton felt something was missing.

“Although I was doing something I love, I had given up on something I had always wanted to do [working in foreign aid]. It was this feeling of being in between two chairs – you want to sit on both but you can’t.”

Ms Arton’s compulsion to use her skills to help those in need soon came out in her new line of work. She started collecting old fabrics from tailors around Dubai to pass on to the Al Noor Centre for Special Needs, for children there to make pillowcases and bags.

GlamOnYou then designed limited edition T-shirts and donated the profits to the Dubai Autism Centre, and following on from this, another line of t shirts to raise funds for the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

“We always choose charities that help women or children because they’re the weakest part of society,” she explains. Ms Arton has been working in collaboration with the charity Breathing Numbers, set up by the Emirati Muna Harib, to help raise Dh55,000 to improve conditions in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. As well as designing a doll named Amal (meaning Hope in Arabic) to sell and donate, GlamOnYou have designed three different T-shirts. Funds raised are paying for four caravans, kitted out with children’s arts and crafts supplies courtesy of Faber-Castell, to be transported from the UAE to the camp.

“We want the kids there to have a place where they can just be kids. So they’ll go there to paint, then bring their paintings home to their mums in their tents. When you have your own kids, as I do, you don’t just want to educate them – you want to build them nice memories,” she says.

Ms Arton will be saying goodbye to her family – Lilia, five, Kilian, one, and her husband Armand – in September to visit the camp herself, bringing with her a team of well-known artists to decorate the caravans in vibrant colours.

Another Dubai-based fashion company helping to elevate the lives of refugees is Palestyle, a social fashion brand that employs about 100 Palestinian refugee women in Jordan to make traditional embroidery for handbags.

And in Abu Dhabi, a German ex-model has been using her connections in the fashion world to raise funds for her own charity endeavour. Monja Wolf, 33, set up her non-profit organisation the Monyati Initiatives in 2009. They’ve worked on 14 projects so far, including building classrooms in India, setting up a centre for women to learn embroidery skills in Pakistan and helping children with special needs in Sudan. Last year more than Dh100,000 was raised to support the projects.

“In order for us to become more independent and not have to fundraise so much, three years ago we set up Maat by Monyati, a sister company that supports Monyati Initiatives through its fashion products,” explains Ms Wolf.

“We get a designer to create a specific product for us, such as a scarf or an item of jewellery, and 100 per cent of the profits goes to Monyati.”

One of Monyati’s designers is Dubai-based Myriam Besri, who designed their Dh2,000 Al Reeh handbag.

Ms Wolf adds: “We hope to offer a platform in the UAE that raises awareness, engages and inspires our community to take responsibility and to contribute to society. I truly believe the moment we give, we become receivers as well.”

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