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Veronica D’Souza is on her way to prison – and she’s just returned from another.
“It’s a maximum security prison in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with more than 2000 women inside,” the 34-year-old entrepreneur tells me from her offices in Copenhagen. “Their sentences are between 15 years and life.”
And the one she’s just visited in Cusco, Peru? “That one is full of contrasts. It’s surrounded by beautiful mountains and is peaceful. I take my kids there, actually. But at the same time, it’s a prison. There are these tragic stories that aren’t immediately obvious.”
Such is D’Souza’s working life. In 2016, she and her business partner Louise van Hauen founded Carcel, a Danish online fashion brand made by female prisoners in Peru. Crafted from the finest baby alpaca wool, Carcel’s streamlined collection epitomises Danish design values with its enduring ribbed funnel-neck sweaters and knitted jogging bottoms. There’s no seasonal wheel and no sales, just quality cuts that showcase the all-natural wool, which is strong, silky and thermal-regulating.
Like so many of the Cusco’s female prisoners, Carcel’s employees are mostly young mothers jailed for non-violent, poverty-related crimes. Many became drug mules to secure their children or buy medicine. For these women, the opportunity to earn a fair wage, gain new skills and provide for their families offers a means of breaking the cycle of poverty encircling them. Inside each piece of Carcel clothing, a label reveals the name of its maker. It’s a simple feature, but deeply powerful.
“We’re proud of our producers and know them personally,” says D’Souza. “In the push towards transparency, there’s something strong in having a signature that shows who made what you’re wearing.”
This month, Carcel drops its second range at Copenhagen Fashion Week, a silk collection crafted by female prisoners in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Featuring dress-down shapes with refined detailing alongside feminine skirts and dresses, it’s the next step in D’Souza’s long-term plan for “a global initiative featuring five or six types of fine materials, made in different prisons around the world.”
It’s an impressive vision, and one that couldn’t feel timelier in the wake of 2018, which brought us Stacey Dooley’s documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets and news stories of luxury brands including Burberry burning millions of pounds worth stock. D’Souza, who has a background in social entrepreneurship, first thought of the idea while working in Nirobi on her business Ruby Cup, which educates women and girls living in poverty about menstrual hygiene. On her travels, she visited a women’s prison.
“I was curious about why these women were incarcerated – I had no images of what the prisons would be like,” she says. “The first thing that struck me when I entered was the fact that it felt like a village. These were ordinary women who had to provide for their families and ended up committing crimes such as drug trafficking or theft.”
The entrepreneurial side of D’Souza also saw business potential. Every day, the women would partake in craftwork. “The worst thing that can happen to you in prison is to do nothing. Prisoners are encouraged to engage in activities, but these women didn’t have anywhere to sell their products, and when they got out, they were further impoverished, which felt wasteful. The idea of turning forgotten resources into dignifying jobs was born.”
D’Souza went back to Denmark, but the thought stayed with her. She began cross-referencing locations with the finest materials in the world and the highest rates of poverty-related crime – a process that landed her on Cusco, Peru, home to alpaca wool (known as ‘fabric of the Gods’) and high-level cocaine trafficking.
Her next step was to telephone the President of the Peruvian prison system. To D’Souza’s surprise, a visit was arranged immediately. She was granted access to a Cusco prison for one month, working on the ground and meeting inmates. The process of setting up production presented major challenges.
“It’s vital to understand that we’re a different eco-system,” explains D’Souza. “This is a prison, not a factory. The women can be under a lot of stress emotionally. Sometimes a religious institution visits or activities are organised and there’s no production.”
To work around such issues, Carcel’s employees work between four and five hours per day, five days a week. Each woman receives a fair salary in accordance with the ILO national living wage. The brand sells predominantly online using pre-orders and small batches, which minimises waste and allows a buffer to ensure commercial delivery.
There’s also the small matter of working with a production site that’s completely offline, which means Carcel’s onsite managers play a vital role. “We speak to our production managers most days and visit our employees several times a year,” says D’Souza. “It’s challenging – communication is key. But then, we don’t have any experience of how a fashion label is supposed to work, so it doesn’t seem like an issue.”
A lack of industry experience has helped Carcel to think radically in terms of its supply chain – and that means doing away with the trends inherent to the traditional seasonal wheel, which D’Souza sees as the fashion industry’s biggest flaw. “Believing that we need a new wardrobe each season creates this misalignment between supply and demand which results in tremendous amounts of waste,” she says. “If you are going to put things out into the world, it’s important to use quality materials and to only produce what you sell.”
Carcel’s Chiang Mai site has been operating since May 2018 with a team of ten seamstresses. D’Souza likes to start small and scale up responsibly. “Every site is different, so we have to be hands on. Working with a maximum security prison means that the women have long sentences, so it’s important to focus on skills training and how this job can enable them to support their families financially from the inside.”
Looking ahead, D’Souza is excited about the new-gen innovators in her industry. “Where social entrepreneurship meets fashion, there’s room for pioneers. It’s a dream for us to create a model that’s impactful socially and can be an example. Hopefully big corporations will see that there’s a market for fashion that solves social problems.”
“I’m hoping for more conversation about how we buy and sell,” she continues. “There’s a focus on materials and wages, but we lack talk about the future of retail. If we are to eliminate waste and the seasonal wheel, how is the industry going to make money? It’s easy to point your finger at whoever burns their inventory, but what does the alternative look like? There needs to be a constructive conversation about the business model for the future of mainstream fashion.”
It’s brands like Carcel, which not only replenish but also reimagine the ways in which the fashion world can push towards a more ethically and ecologically sound business model, that will help to transform the industry – and the sooner the better.
January 28, 2019 at 07:10AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs