Philanthropy in fashion: the Middle East designers embracing the concept

Three altruistic regional designers discuss the power of philanthropy in fashion in the current climate

Pangaia conducts research on material science to develop new eco-fabrics. Photo: Ounass
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As far back as 2010, the Cone Cause Evolution Study, which investigated consumer attitudes towards businesses’ support for social and environmental issues, found that 85 per cent of consumers had a more positive image of a brand when it supported a charity they care about. Meanwhile 66 per cent would choose a brand that supported a charity over one that didn't. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sentiment became ever stronger once the pandemic hit.

Aware of the appeal of feel-good fashion, brands and retailers have long been teaming up with charitable initiatives, offering exclusive, limited-edition items.

Chloe has created T-shirts supporting Unicef’s gender-equality projects, and Asos is selling a shirt emblazoned with the word “Heroes,” donating profits to charities supporting the NHS in the UK. But an increasing number of start-up labels, too, are centring their businesses on charitable intentions, going further than one-off fashion-pieces made for specific causes.

Cult label Pangaia can be credited for ushering in this wave of ethical retail. The brand’s trademark tracksuits in solid shades of fabric formulated with recycled and organic cotton, have received the fashion industry’s nod of approval not only for their striking minimalism, but also for their commendable, sustainable element. For every item sold, the brand pledges to plant, protect or restore a tree.

In April, Pangaia launched an exclusive regional capsule collection on Al Tayer-owned luxury e-commerce site Ounass. Campaign images from the desert-inspired collaboration stretched across massive hoardings along major streets in the UAE – a country where designers and consumers alike are becoming more conscious when it comes to fashion.

Philanthropic fashion is in vogue

Many regionally rooted fashion brands have charitable foundations, from The Giving Movement, a unisex athleisure label that donates Dh15 from every sale to Dubai Cares, to Blssd, a contemporary womenswear brand that funds a cancer support group.

In the luxury sector, there’s SemSem, helmed by Abeer Al Otaiba, who partners with a different non-profit organisation each season. The brand has been worn by celebrities such as Blake Lively and Gigi Hadid, and its spring/summer 2021 collection, featuring regal silhouettes and dramatic pleating, is available through Net-a-Porter and Farfetch.

“From day one, I knew I wanted SemSem to have a philanthropic component,” Al Otaiba tells The National. “As a mother raising a young woman, I believe it is important to support and champion women.

"For me, the notion of giving back and being philanthropically active is bigger than a focus on corporate responsibility – it is personal. The most meaningful part of life is how we treat others and what we can do to make the world a better place. This is my small way of paying it forward.”

The brand has staged a fashion show supporting the International Rescue Committee and partnered with initiatives such as Every Mother Counts and Women for Women International. Last year, SemSem donated about Dh75,000 to The Afya Foundation to help distribute medical supplies for Covid-19 frontliners.

Fashion built on ethical foundations

While donating funds is certainly an effective way to lend support, many up-and-coming fashion labels have humanitarian and eco-friendly ideals woven into each step of the design process – from fabric-sourcing and production to sales.

Ohoy Swim, a label that has its headquarters in Dubai, produces its swimsuits ethically and sustainably, and donates a percentage of its profits to Healthy Seas, a charity that sends volunteer divers to retrieve abandoned fishing nets.

Anna Nielsen and Henna Kaarlela launched the brand in 2016, and produce their designs in small, family-run factories in Portugal and Sri Lanka. They were inspired by Scandinavian aesthetics, but wanted to ensure their designs would be environmentally responsible before starting their business.

“We researched the market and came across Econyl, which makes fibres out of recycled plastics and creates an amazing fabric that can be endlessly recycled into the circular economy,” Nielsen tells The National. “We would not have launched a brand if the option of a recycled fabric weren’t there.”

Giving back to the community

While sustainability and philanthropy may be buzzwords in fashion, the brands making a lasting impact have ethics ingrained in the ethos of their businesses. A recent Vogue Business feature, titled Fashion’s Philanthropy Play stated that to make a real difference to charities, brands should establish long-term commitments rather than one-off trending donations. These commitments need not always be purely monetary – there are many ways brands can offer support to communities in need.

“I am dedicated to supporting women not only in the form of funds donated, but also in the form of knowledge shared. Sometimes, education, mentorship and friendships are equally, if not more, as helpful as funding,” explains Al Otaiba.

She notes that since many non-profit organisations in the arts world have been adversely affected by the pandemic, SemSem is collaborating with the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts to promote free programming and accessible arts education. The brand also partnered with the Washington Ballet to broadcast its annual Nutcracker Tea, which has traditionally been a closed, invitation-only affair.

Minimalist jewellery brand uSfuur (Arabic for “bird”), from Dubai, is also passionate about supporting communities through fostering education and creativity. The brand recently launched a campaign in collaboration with grassroots community organisation Myhomeland, wherein clients can pledge monthly donations to help cultivate craftsmanship within displaced communities in the Arab world.

“We align with projects and initiatives that support and help empower refugee communities via educational or creative means, as well as focusing on the children and the youth – we believe those are the future leaders of tomorrow, and it’s important to invest our resources and skill sets to help support them in whatever way we can,” says designer Yara Tlass.

Patrons’ donations go towards running learning centres, covering teachers’ salaries, training staff, rent, school supplies, Wi-Fi and hosting regular art workshops that function as forms of trauma relief.

Fashioning a more mindful future

Recent global crises and social movements have not only helped consumers to become more woke, but also more conscious about how they spend their money.

“With the current state of the world, people have realised the importance of ethical consumption. They have become more aware of and responsible for their choices as consumers,” says Tlass. “It’s good that it’s become mainstream because it’s made consumers want to shop wisely – I just hope it remains the case after the hype is gone.”

Market analysts McKinsey and Business of Fashion’s 2018 The State of Fashion report found that 66 per cent of global millennials are willing to spend more money on clothing that’s sustainable, and Nielsen believes these shoppers, with their spending might and social media activism, have the power to change the tide in retail.

Climate change and human impact is undeniable now, and I think everyone is looking for ways to feel better about still buying fashion and taking small steps towards a greener future
Yara Tlass, designer

“The younger generation is aware of consumerism and the impact it has on the environment as well as the conditions of the people making their clothes,” she says. “Climate change and human impact is undeniable now, and I think everyone is looking for ways to feel better about still buying fashion and taking small steps towards a greener future.”

Sustainability has, undoubtedly, emerged as one of the key demands from mainstream fashion, and by definition, it aims to maintain an “ecological balance”. For many activist-designers, giving back to the community is a critical part of striving towards this balance, which is why many are focusing on the final destination of profits earned through sales. But in the cut-throat world of fashion, where the market is not only saturated with competing designers but also by the increasing threat of fast fashion, can philanthropic brands flourish financially?

For designers truly invested in making a difference, the ethical foundations of their businesses trump all else, says Nielsen. “We are determined to leave a positive impact. That’s more important to us than making lots of money, and this will never change.”

Updated: August 29, 2021, 2:06 PM