So many things have changed as a result of Covid-19 – how we work, how we engage with others, how we fill our free time and, in many instances, how we shop.
The pandemic has encouraged us to collectively re-evaluate our habits as consumers, and to question the values of the brands we support.
Enter a new wave of talent that prizes social responsibility over profits, and seeks to have a positive impact on both people and the planet. Here are some regional brands that are adopting new business models that weave ethics into every fibre of their designs.
Sheen: Jewellery for a cause
Saudi-Kashmiri designer Nosheen Bakhsh didn’t intend to go into jewellery. As part of a university project, she had to invent a fictional company and create the branding for it. “I came up with the concept of Sheen, and it was my perfect job – a creative outlet with some sort of humanitarian aspect to it," she says. "Some people came up with time machines, but mine was actually practical and doable. I had no background in jewellery; I didn’t know how to craft, but my family told me: ‘Don’t worry, just figure it out.' That was seven years ago.”
Bakhsh's delicate jewellery in diamonds and 18-carat gold (and more recently, sterling silver) is built around three pillars: design, culture and humanity. “For every piece that’s sold, a percentage gets donated to a different cause, which changes depending on what’s happening in the world,” she explains.
“I am Muslim, and our religion states that you should give with your left hand and your right hand should not know what you are doing. I do it for my own reasons, and because it is what I want to do. A lot of my customers didn’t actually know about it, so it’s an added bonus. It's not the reason that people purchase my jewellery.”
In 2018, Sheen received recognition from the British Fashion Council for its positive impact and fundraising work. Fusing traditional architectural motifs with modern jewellery, Bakhsh’s most recent collection, titled Kenza, is a tribute to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which she describes as her second home.
Katrine Hanna: Nurturing nature
Australian-Lebanese shoe designer Katrine Hanna has always been fascinated by plants. “I love plants, particularly those that are unique to a specific region. Being Australian, I already had a knowledge of the flora there, and that led me to experiment with banksia,” she says.
Native to Australia, the banksia tree has 173 different varieties and is so integral to the environment that the tree’s seed pod needs the heat of a bushfire to open, and a certain species of honey possum relies totally on its nectar for survival.
Dried, each pod has a distinctively gnarled, pocked look. “I had a seed pod on my desk and one day I looked at it and thought, as a heel [for a shoe], this would be insane.”
Having tested its robustness with a specialist Italian company, the shoe designer set about transforming this overlooked pod into beautiful and unique heels for her light, strappy sandals.
“It’s very hands on. People go out, pick it for me and ship it. It starts as a yellow flower, and when it dries and the petals come off, you get a closed, green pod. It needs fire to open the seed valves, and the seeds fall out and a new tree grows. The pod is what’s left. No animals depend on that for food.
“It’s completely sustainable and I am not taking anything away from the environment.”
Behnoode: Charitable couture
The eponymous menswear label by Behnood Javaherpour is unusual in many ways – from the Italian twist it brings to its slick tailoring to its strong humanitarian slant.
Every dirham from the brand’s autumn/winter 2020 collection will go towards helping impoverished children in Nepal. “Now more than ever, we have to help those in need and I’m truly committed to helping these children. It has given me a strong sense of purpose in life,” he says.
What began in 2016 as a trekking holiday in Nepal, led to Javaherpour establishing the Behnoode Foundation, in response to the poverty he witnessed there. Shocked that children had to walk two hours each way to reach the nearest school, he now helps bring school supplies, basic medicine and even food to communities in the country.
Although the designer visits Nepal four times a year, this autumn/winter season he decided to up the ante and expand his fundraising efforts. “This new collection is 100 per cent dedicated to funding my campaign, and the revenue will be donated to finance programmes that can help children in poverty in Nepal,” Javaherpour explains. “It’s couture for a charitable cause.”
The designer has also crafted a new collection that is 100 per cent vegan and cruelty-free. “2020 made us re-evaluate luxury as we knew it. It forced us to change and respect life and the environment. Vegan fashion is the future and this year has given me the opportunity to explore different materials that my busy schedule never permitted me to. As an avid animal-lover, I’m so glad to utilise different eco-friendly materials.”
759: Slow-fashion streetwear
Fares El Masri, founder of Jordanian streetwear label 759, firmly believes that it is time to rewire fashion. He is promoting an ethos of “honest exclusivity” and slow fashion, with pieces that are available in limited runs. Driven by ideas as opposed to seasons, 759’s range of T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, polo shirts and caps are crafted with a “zero compromise” approach to quality, and as the antithesis to mass-production and throwaway culture.
By creating pieces that are made to last, El Masri hopes to ignite a conversation about the value of clothes. “I didn’t want to simply say that something is limited, hoping people believe me. I wanted to clearly show it is limited and further break it down by size. Transparency is just as important to 759 as sustainability, so I thought let’s show exactly how many are made and be fully transparent on this.”
El Masri offers two unisex lines: One-Timer and Life-Timer. One-Timer designs are limited to as few as 50 never-to-be-repeated pieces that El Masri dubs “once in a lifetime”, while Life-Timer designs “might pop up again in future collections”.
Expansion of the brand's collection to include leather goods and charms made from precious metals is already under way, with swimwear and footwear also in the pipeline.
Fyne Jewellery: Diamonds with a difference
Hailing from a family of diamantaires, Aya Ahmad was already well versed in the natural diamond trade. Thanks to the complex supply chain that links mines to jewellery shops, she knew that tracing the precise origins of a gemstone was almost impossible.
With stories of child labour, environmental destruction and conflict stones linked to the extraction of natural diamonds, when looking to launch her own label, Fyne, Ahmad chose to only use lab-grown diamonds. “It was a no-brainer to me. Especially if you are starting a new business, you have to start it with the right values from the get-go,” she says.
Created in a laboratory rather than mined from the earth, lab-grown diamonds are physically, chemically and optically identical to the natural version, with the only difference being popular perception. “It has taken some education, but people understand these are not cubic zirconia. They are identical to natural diamonds and they have value.”
Although she only unveiled her brand in November, on a planet-friendly made-to-order basis, Ahmad is already eyeing new ways to cut the company’s carbon and environmental impact. Unable to guarantee that the gold she uses has been mined without human suffering or causing pollution, she aims to close this loop. “My intention is to go into purely using recycled gold, to ensure we are not mining or contributing to the mining of more gold.”
Despite initial resistance to lab-grown diamonds, Ahmad has found that once people truly understand the environmental advantages, everybody benefits. “Everything I use in my jewellery can be recycled. You can melt down the gold and reuse the diamonds. My factory is in Dubai and I try to keep everything as local as possible.”
HH – The Brand: Made-to-order footwear
It takes seven days for craftsmen to produce a pair of HH – The Brand sandals. In an atelier in the heart of Beirut that, thankfully, survived the blast on August 4, each pair is made by hand, using premium deadstock leathers.
The end results are the epitome of slow fashion. Produced in limited editions and only available for a single season, each pair of HH sandals is painstakingly made-to-order on-site, as a way of reducing the brand’s carbon footprint.
“Taking care of the environment is a top priority at HH. We produce zero waste. All the leathers are purchased from a couple of stock shops around Beirut. I don’t want fresh leathers – the idea scares me to kill an animal only for their skin. We are also looking into vegan leathers and other materials for the next collections,” explains the brand's founder, Hazem Haddad, who identified a gap in the market for stylish, high-quality, handcrafted sandals that did not come with a designer price tag.
“I wanted to create footwear that is minimal, timeless and classic, retailing from $170 to $190 [Dh625 to Dh700] per pair without compromising on the high grade of materials and craftsmanship.”
Haddad recently unveiled Collection Two, a line of sandals inspired by the colours of the sea. Made from premium cowhide with finely knit threading and lambskin linings, the sandals come in slip-on and adjustable sling-back versions, and are constructed with leather footbeds and flexible rubber soles to prevent perspiration, slippage and discomfort.
Yasmina Q: Fashion with a conscience
This Saudi brand has set out to create fluid women’s clothing that is mindful of the planet, but also of the people producing each piece.
Founded by Yasmina Qanzal, the label uses only deadstock fabrics, which would otherwise be wasted, and teams up with workshops that are close to the brand’s client base, to help support local communities and reduce the carbon footprint of its creations.
With customers in the UK, Hong Kong, Italy and Indonesia already flocking to snap up her designs, Qanzal is adamant that the benefits trickle down to everyone on the factory floor. In Hong Kong, for example, Qanzal works with Phvlo Hatch, an organisation that provides job opportunities and skills enhancement to those in need, and the YWCA’s Women Empowerment and Training Programme, which offers disadvantaged women vocational support.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, all factories used by Yasmine Q are Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production approved, and provide safe, humane and ethical working conditions.
“Creating a sustainable business requires me to consider many factors when commencing small production-runs of my styles. The proximity of materials is a key factor, the proximity of our customer base and the responsibility I personally have to support skilled workers and to empower communities,” says Qanzal.
"By setting these parameters and using sustainable and deadstock materials for my brand, I consciously have decided to try my best to slow down my environmental footprint, and encourage my customers to do the same. Working with deadstock materials allows me to produce small quantities and therefore not overproduce stock.
“My brand is small, but my responsibilities are important to me.”