The Luxury Label Made Behind Bars

Sustainable label Carcel hires incarcerated women to make its high end clothes, but what are the ethics behind the initiative

Sustainable label Carcel. Photo / Supplied

It may not be the first thing that draws the eye when you’re browsing, but a garment’s “made in” label is always loaded with meaning. Whether it’s “made in Britain”, China, or Italy, the place of origin listed will typically offer a clue as to the quality of clothes and whether they come from somewhere that values heritage, mass manufacturing, or high-end craftsmanship.

But Carcel, a new luxury brand launching on Net-a-Porter this week, proudly stamps each of its products with the rather more unique handle: “made in prison”. It’s a reference to the fact that every one of its pastel-tinted, baby alpaca knits is manufactured by inmates at the Cusco women’s correctional facility in Peru.

“That label tells you everything you need to know about a garment,” considers Louise van Hauen, who designs the collections from a Copenhagen studio, visiting Cusco around every 10 weeks. “This is an immediate indication that we’re proud of the production model we have set up; one that is sustainable, transparent, rehabilitative and pays fair wages.”

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Across the fashion industry, small labels are trying to challenge stale-looking manufacturing norms that have been established since the 1950s. There are successful initiatives like SEP Jordan, which employs Syrian refugees to create embroideries, or Community Clothing, which utilises British factory space during quiet periods to produce trend-free T-shirts and raincoats with no sell-by date.

But to manufacture luxury fashion in a prison is considered a higher-stakes operation. A scandal in the 1990s saw brands like Victoria’s Secret in disrepute after allegedly paying four cents a bikini to prison workers hired by a third party. Perhaps because of the ethical questions raised, it has all, until recently, been happening on a small scale only.

In Finland, though, Project Papillon has been providing prisoners with fairly paid design jobs since 2009. In Peru, Project Pietà has seen inmates making T-shirts since 2014. In the UK, social enterprise Fine Cell Work commissions needleworks from more than 500 prisoners at 32 facilities.

Cath Kidston and Stella McCartney are among the designers to collaborate with the latter. “Our aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not reoffend,” a spokesman from Fine Cell Work said.

Carcel’s founders intend to make a big impact on the luxury goods market. Van Hauen, a London College of Fashion graduate who previously worked on the design team at Louis Vuitton, met her business partner Veronica D’Souza in Kenya, working on community projects.

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D’Souza began visiting women’s prisons and spotted a correlation between countries with the highest rate of poverty, and those that had some of the best natural materials, and crafting traditions. “I had visited a women’s prison in Nairobi and I was shocked to learn that the main reason for female incarceration worldwide is poverty,” D’Souza explains.

“Most women were imprisoned for non-violent crimes like drug trafficking and prostitution, and most had children outside. When a woman like that is eventually released, statistics show she will usually fall further into the spiral of poverty and so will her children.”

Carcel was established in 2016, and the pair identified Cusco as the place they wanted to set up their first factory, thanks to its natural alpaca connection.

“We recruit women who are interested in having a job and willing to work,” explains D’Souza of the criteria inmates must meet. “They will have more than a year left on sentences of between five and 17 years for non-violent crimes. Each woman is paid the equivalent of the living wage in Peru, which is $425 per month, then they make more per piece on top.

A T-shirt costs the customer $290 and will take four days to knit. Nobody works full time; you have to respect that you’re in the ecosystem of a prison.”

Eleuteria, 57, has three years left of a 13-year sentence for drug trafficking; a money-motivated crime, she admits, after she separated from her violent husband.

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Most inmates send wages to children on the outside, or are saving up for when they are released. “We do not judge or investigate their cases,” Carcel says on its website underneath meet-the-maker posts. “Our mission is to give women who are motivated the opportunity to get a better life during and after prison.”

Setting up a workshop inside wasn’t easy. Carcel used crowdfunding to buy knitting machines, gained permission from the head of the Peruvian prison system, needed operational status as an NGO, and hired a production manager to go into prison every day.

Yet D’Souza and van Hauen are repeating the process in Thailand. The goal is to expand their seasonless offering organically; each time they set up in a new prison, they will launch a product utilising social skills. At Chiang Mai’s women’s facility, it will be all about woven silks.

“The woman who made the piece also puts her name on the label,” says van Hauen. “That’s very important. We’ve been working with this first group for a year now and we’ve seen a huge change in mood. The dignity has made a big difference to these women.”

— The Daily Telegraph


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