This week’s soapbox rant: a reaction to Saving Face and ‘Why do they hate us?’

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This week has had me thinking a lot about violence against women. Last Wednesday I attended a screening of Saving Face, the Oscar award winning documentary co-directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, that brings to light the unconscionable practice of acid burning and earlier this week I read the cover story in the newest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine- ‘Why do they hate us?’, an exploration of violence against women in the Arab world by Mona Eltahawy. While mostly unrelated, I think both pieces do a remarkable job of presenting the true dichotomy that arises amongst the ‘victims’ of gender based violence; On the one side, you have women who refuse to take the abuse silently and almost become stronger because of it, and on the other, you have women, like Rukhsana in Saving Face, who bravely (and rather silently) endure their suffering, not necessarily believing in their own ability to conquer the burdens they face.

Both pieces really got me thinking about the strength a woman must possess to overcome the prejudices placed upon her, and how in many unfortunate situations, she must also overcome actual physical and emotional assaults on the basis of her gender. In recent months I have become all too familiar with gender based discrimination. To clarify, by no means do I mean to compare my own experiences to those presented by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mona Eltahawy, but rather I’d like to make the point that violence and discrimination in some level persist in all regions. This unfortunate reality is not limited to a group or isolated to a region.

I’ve been reading several though-provoking rebuttals to Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy. Her critics argue that her tactics are sensationalist and that her article is only helping to perpetuate negative Western stereotypes about Arab men.  And though I can see their point, as Eltahwy makes it clear that she believes this is a problem inherent in the region, I must depart with her argument, and that of her critics here. Violence against woman is not restricted to the Arab world, nor the Western world, or any place in between. On the last page of the article, Eltahawy references the Egyptian officers performing ‘virginity checks’ on female activists. Is this really that much different than the demeaning practice of underwear checks for women working in the maquiladoras in Guatemala? This treatment of women as second class citizens has been endemic throughout history and across all continents. So we as women hoping to help make a change need to stop looking at these issues solely through specific cultural or religious lenses.

Yes, it is certainly true that some cultures/religions have higher incidences of such abuses, but we should not be fooled into thinking that culture is the singular cause. That would not in any way help to explain why throughout history, be it in the US, Australia, or England, women were silenced and degraded until the point that they united and fought for equal rights. Eltahawy says the revolutions in the Arab world will mean nothing without inclusion of gender reforms. True, but before casting judgement on the success of the Arab Spring in bringing about gender reform, let us in the Western world, and specifically us Americans, not forget how many decades passed between our own revolution and the women’s rights movement. Ruling men did not just decide to start granting women rights, rather, previous generations of women fought vigorously and passionately for the ‘equality’ that we enjoy now. Woman across the world have always had to fight for the inalienable right of equality.  And yet, even equality doesn’t always bring a freedom from violence. Women are still abused at a much higher rate than men even in countries that enjoy relative parity between sexes.

So jumping off my soapbox for a moment, what really prompted my indignation here (in addition, obviously, to reading about the abuses against women) was reading how many Arab women were offended by the Foreign Policy article, believing that it cast Arabs and particularly Arab men in an unfavorable light. Shouldn’t these women have been more upset about what is happening to our sisters? Eltahawy’s focus was the Arab male dominated institutions that oppress women (violence in many cases being a tool of oppression). Just as the focus of many articles by writers like Lucy Stone in the Women’s Journal in the 1870s would have focused on oppressive American male dominated institutions.

Acknowledging then that this problem of violence against women is universal and that at some stage in history most women were deprived of basic rights, in order to make a change we need to stop getting so bogged down in cultural rhetoric and instead work together (men and women alike) to bring about reform, fight to build equality, and ultimately work to educate people so we can bring about an end to violence against women.

The idea lives on.

As with many large undertakings, the beginning can be rocky. Kristen can attest to this far better than I, and has far more experience starting and restarting the forging of her own path. So it is with that, that I apologize for the hiatus in posting, but am excited to move on.

After such a long break, I wasn’t sure what’s the best post to start with. Do we go back to posting about our plans for the year, when it seems that our momentum has slowed? And acknowledge that perhaps our plan was a little bit too ambitious, grounded in positive intention, but lofty in it’s goals? Or do we ignore all of the above and talk about what’s new in the world as it pertains to women’s issues while discussing the business elements of Mission privately?

I’ll admit, I’ve written and re-written this post several times, changing my approach with each revision. Ultimately I decided a simple explanation is all that is truly needed. The idea of Mission is not dead. The desire to start a business with both a retail and manufacturing element that supports the precepts of sustainability, opportunity, and equality is not dead. And the partnership is not dead. All that has changed is our timeline.

It was while reading a post by Robert Mao, a Ugandian activist writing a reaction to the Kony 2012 video on Foreign Policy’s Passport Blog, that I found exactly the sentiments for which I was searching to explain the last few months of preparation work for Mission.

‘I don’t think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn’t earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced that they have the most beautiful trait on earth — compassion.’

That brings me back to Mission. After some time for reflection, Kristen and I are both aware that our goals for Mission were not devoid of gaps. We lacked a clear-cut plan of execution. This is not to say the idea should be scrapped. Our desire to have this idea realized is gounded in the deepest sense of compassion for our fellow women who have not be as fortunate to have been given the same opportunities as us, and the overwhelming desire to give all that we can to level the playing field.

Compassion is a powerful base. What is needed now is a dose of realism and some time to hash out the specific details of our plan.  The road may be long but I remain convinced, now as much as ever, that we must do whatever we can to bring about real change.

NYE Resolution #2: Establish a Job Training Program

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2. Establish a job training program that is useful, fair, and life-changing

A colleague I really admire likes to say, ‘If you don’t know where you are going than any road will take you there.’ While he likes to open meetings with this line and stress the importance of goal setting and careful planning. It’s only when you’re standing wide-eyed and panicked that you’ll end up nowhere.

I say all of this because it’s a perfect way to introduce our job training program. Kristen and I have worked out the end-plan, but it’s actually putting our ideas to action and etching out a path to get there that has been one of our greatest challenges. Ultimately we would like to create a job training program for women who have been caught-up in the human trafficking industry. Our training program will introduce women the women to all aspects of our business: manufacturing, sourcing, buying, and office management. Greater emphasis will be placed on the manufacturing side of the business as this area will provide the greatest number of employment opportunities. (However, we are still quite eager to support ambitious women who aim to take more of a leadership role within the business.)

We think that it is important to stress that we will not be responsible for housing the women, providing legal services, or counselling the women, as we readily admit that there are many organizations far more suited to these activities than us. Rather, we’ve identified a serious need in the rehabilitation process for more job placement activities. Many wonderful organizations that work with this group of women do a fantastic job providing counseling, job skills, and basic education training, but what they lack is the ability to actually provide the women with real employment opportunities. Due to a lack of relevant work experience and education, many of these women struggle to find genuine and lasting employment opportunities. That is precisely the void we would like Mission to fill. We would like to provide the women with specialized training to take on meaningful roles within our business and allow the opportunity for advancement within the business, providing a truly fresh start for women in need of new beginnings.

NYE Resolution #1: Solidify Our Concept

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1. Solidify our business concept and in turn reach out and interact with our target audience and customers

As we mentioned in our first post, the idea behind Mission has really grown since I initially pitched it to Jessie this past summer. We initially only intended it to be an extension of Silk and Cyanide – not it’s own business – but the more we discussed and planned, the reality of our ideas and dreams warranted an entirely new business structure.

We were and are excited to come to the decision to roll out a new business, but as it goes, when we fully answer one question we open the door to a whole new unanswered set. We don’t yet have all the answers – especially in terms of hiring, working with established organizations, and what our training will be comprised of. We realized and decided early on that we would leave the initial help efforts for women to the experts – so our current challenge is to find a way to establish a program that will compliment the organizations already in place – not compete.

Some of the research needs to be done on our end and with the help of lawyers and our current and future connections with non-profits that work within the sex trade. But another piece of research that will help us solidify this business best is based on feedback, ideas, thoughts – both good and bad (but not mean, please!) from YOU!

Our concept is born from an idea that fashion doesn’t have to be one dimensional – based on trends and throw away “fast” fashion. It’s obvious at this point that people are starting to increase their consumer awareness – the organic world has grown tremendously in the past few years and has expanded beyond just food into clothing and accessories. Here at Mission, we appreciate sustainable fashion and our taking our own route within the category to focus on sustainable, realistic manufacturing – that provides stable jobs and realistic livable incomes. We think it’s a great idea and that there is support out there – but we want to find you and see what you think and what can make our great idea even better, so we can get consciousness product to you sooner!

As promised in our original New Years Resolution post, we decided to dedicate separate posts to each goal. This is the first in a series of four.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

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I couldn’t be more excited for 2012; 2012 will be the year of adventures (and the undoubted challenges every great adventure brings). While it goes without saying that much of my energy will be devoted to getting Mission off the ground, I’ll also be busily training for the Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, and more immediately, I’ve just begun a three week excursion to Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.

A native Chicagoan, I can’t think of a better way to start a new year than to high-tail it out of the city (in the midst of Chicago winter) to a new and far-away land. This is unchartered territory for me- I’ve done a bit of traveling- but never outside of North America or Europe.

So aside from pure hatred of snow, what is it that brings me so far away? Work, actually. While the majority of my time will be spent representing my company at various conferences, I’ve managed to etch out some time for exploring as well. High on my list of priorities are (and I assure you that challenge of listing only three was considerable):

- finding (and befriending) koalas, kangaroos, and elephants

-checking out the Sydney Opera House

-catching some serious rays on the beach

-and meeting my Kiwi family in New Zealand!

But work and sunbathing aside, I’m excited for all of the opportunities this trip brings for Mission. While I’m in Bangkok, the plan is meet with some non-profits and NGOs working to bring an end to the notorious sex trade. Thailand is a major sex-vacation destination, and consequently a major epicenter for the human trafficking industry. Many amazing organizations have sprung up around Thailand (many based in Bangkok) to raise awareness for the issue, bring an end to it, and ultimately provide the women with a brighter future. As Kristen and I are still in the most rudimentary stages of designing our training program for women, this will be a great opportunity for us to start building relationships with more established organizations, and most importantly learn from them what initiatives they have found the most helpful and why. We’d like to apply their lessons-learned to our own program. Further, we’d like to be able to create a support network for the women we work with directly by linking them with other women from similar backgrounds abroad.

But looks like I’m starting to get ahead of myself… the first leg of my trip has just begun and the absolute first item on the agenda: Explore Sydney!!!

Kristen

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Unlike Jessie, my path towards starting Mission Fashion (and Silk and Cyanide) has been more intentional and obvious.

I’ve been sewing since the age of 5 and under the tutelage of my Grandma – a passionate and proficient sewer herself. As I got older and my passion took off, I was gifted my first sewing machine at 14 and spent most of my high school years making new pieces or altering ones I bought. As my technical skill grew, so did my eye for design and desire to create pieces and a wardrobe unique to me and my style.

I had a tough time when it came time decide what college to attend and what area to pursue – designs or business. I trusted my gut and went with the latter and ended up at Tulane University in New Orleans. Fortunately, I kept telling people I eventually wanted to design my own line, and the right person heard and pointed me in the direction of the costume shop for the Theater Department. I ended up with an education in both business and design.

After a few years both costuming and working in the local retail world I landed my first “adult” job at Macys.com in New York City as an assistant buyer, and later moved over to Lord and Taylor. In almost three years between the two stores I worked in four families of business that crossed over between mens, womens and kids.

I was burnt out, disillusioned, and dissatisfied with the corporate world, so in June of 2010 I set out for myself to start my line and fend for myself. It has been quite a ride of ups and down (mostly ups!) and I’ve been lucky to meet and work with some incredible and talented people (one wonderful example was the honor of working with the costumer designer for “Three Sisters” and personally work on Maggie Gllyenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard’s costumes which resulted in my first, albeit small, Playbook recognition).

The time and space allowed me to finally focus on getting my dream in motion – starting my own line Silk and Cyanide. But as I will explain in the next post, what started as small vintage-inspired womenswear line has grown into a partnership and second business with Mission Fashion!

New Years Resolutions

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Happy New Year! With 2012 already on it’s way, we decided a great way to continue to introduce Mission Fashion would be to outline our “New Years Resolutions” (or really, “Goals”) for the upcoming year. I’ll the list our overview here and in the next few posts we’ll dedicate an entry to each to get into more detail!

1. Solidify our business concept and in turn reach out and interact with our target audience and customers

2. Establish a training and hiring program that is useful, fair, and life changing

3. Launch a Kickstarter Project – and get fully funded!

4. Create an online shop and launch with a selection of products that meet our design and socially conscious standards

Jessica

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If you’d have asked me when I was in college, ‘what’s the one field you could just never see yourself in?’ I would have said business. (Yes, that means I’d quicker have spent a lifetime in school to master calculus, quantum mechanics, and biochem if it meant never having to have a conversation about the ‘bottom line’, ‘ROI’, or ‘profits’) So it may seem rather ironic that now not only do I find myself working in international business, but also, that I have decided to partner with one of my oldest and dearest friends to help make her dream a reality; opening a retail store featuring her own line, Silk and Cyanide.

Born and raised as a second generation American in one of the most notoriously democratic cities in the world, I grew-up constantly questioning how it was that I was so lucky to be born into so much opportunity simply by virtue of the location of my birth. Location, particularly for women, dictates nearly everything regarding a standard of living- your access to jobs, status, education, and heath care. Thus knowing that my family ended up in this country only by chance, I’ve always found it incomprehensible why I was given so much while so many will never see such fortunate circumstances. From an early age I started believing my purpose here is to play a role in helping to level the global playing field, particularly by bringing women to the table in places where for too long they have been overlooked. A future in international development, working for non-profits just seemed logical.

So having wound-up in a private sector job right out of graduate school I *incorrectly* believed myself to have been condemned to the worst of all possible fates: working for ‘the man’ in the blind pursuit of economic gain. How was I to help anyone if my energy was to be spent as just another cog in a giant machine? But not so long after the initial shock of all the profit talk wore off, I began to notice overlaps between my company’s business interests and those of the development community. My interest was irreversibly piqued. As it turns out, the private sector is actually endowed with the unique ability to solve social problems while still pursuing its own self-interest. Why? Because the very crux of an effective business is its ability to meet unmet market needs… just ask Starbucks CEO, Howard Shultz, who was tired of reduced profits as a result of the struggling global economy and decided to take action by targeting the politicians in part responsible for our fiscal policy.

So newly enlightened, I quickly jumped onboard when Kristen first mentioned her idea of coupling the production of her line, Silk and Cyanide, with a job training program for women who had been caught up in human trafficking. Several months, a cross-country flight or two, and thousands of emails later, Kristen’s initial idea flourished and we are now looking to start our socially responsible clothing manufacturing operation with a fashion retail component in 2012. With just a few hours left in the year, I am looking forward to all the challenges and opportunities 2012 will bring, anxious to get started building our *gasp!* business.

Welcome!

Welcome to the official blog of Mission Fashion! 

Jessie and I (Kristen), the co-founders of Mission, have decided to bring this blog to life to connect with our friends, future friends, and those who inspire us – to share our ideas, thoughts, and the stories behind Mission. We also hope this blog will be a platform for feedback and a larger conversation about fashion, sustainability, good design, and creating a better life for ourselves and those around us. 

While the idea for this blog only came about just a few months ago, this project of ours seems long overdue. Jessie and I have known each other most of our lives and have been close friends for more than a decade. Just about anyone who knows us can tell you that I’ve been waiting to unleash my entrepreneurial fashion ambitions for twice that long while she’s been masterminding ways to save the world. (Who said young and idealistic was a bad thing??) In any case, we thought the official launch of our blog would be the perfect way to bring to an end what has been a most busy and productive 2011. We’re excited to share our successes, passions, and challenges  and look forward to hearing yours as well.

So what is Mission Fashion? Mission is  a semi-vertically integrated business with in-house manufacturing and a soon-to-come retail shop featuring a solid assortment of new and established designers (including my own line, Silk and Cyanide! :) ) This combination will allow us to both foster burgeoning designers and train and hire socioeconomically disadvantaged women. We believe in good design, but think the fashion world could use a few tweaks… without compromising style, of course. (We cringe at the thought of throw-away fashion and sweatshop labor.)  We believe that it is through lowering the barriers to entry for new designers (particularly by developing an affordable manufacturing business) that we can bring a  more socially conscious and diverse group of people to the table. It is by doing so that we can improve design, create new opportunities for otherwise disadvantaged women, and *hopefully* make you feel good about it all in the process. We are excited for what awaits in 2012, and delighted to have you along for the ride!

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