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Your next favourite accessory, signed by the person who stitched it

Your next favourite accessory, signed by the person who stitched it

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos courtesy of Known Supply

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The fashion industry does a good job of making garment makers invisible. But one US brand prides itself on putting them right at the forefront.

The red beanie hat that Kohl Crecelius is wearing was crocheted in Peru by Maribel Merino. He knows, because she has written her name by hand on the label – and he turns the hat inside out to prove it.

Crecelius is one of the co-founders of Known Supply, a fashion company with a difference: every buyer gets to know who made their garment – because every item is signed.

It’s a bold approach in an industry where the people making the products always seem to be just out of view. If a garment has a name on it, it’s usually the designer: Gucci, Dior or Hilfiger. Models are photographed in exclusive locales, a world away from where the items they’re wearing were made. Stores celebrate luxury and style, with no hint of what it took to create it. But beyond our gaze, in places like Vietnam, China and Bangladesh, women (it is, by and large, women) sit at machines sewing and weaving. Low pay, long hours and poor conditions are common – as, sadly, are forced labour and child labour.

“Any time we sell a hat we can flip it inside out and say, this was made by Beatrice, this was made by Teddy”

Kohl Crecelius

Known Supply, headquartered in California with production facilities in Peru, Uganda and several locations in India, is among the companies doing things differently. Its hand-signed labels are a reminder of the people behind the clothes – like Maribel Merino – and an assurance that the company is proud of how it treats them.

Can fashion be a force for good?

Known Supply’s openness about who makes its products has been praised by industry advocacy groups such as Remake, which says that “transparency is the first step towards turning fashion into a force for good”.

Crecelius never planned to take on a $2.5 trillion industry over its treatment of workers. He and a couple of friends started out crocheting hats in high school – an unusual hobby for teenage boys, which won them the name the Krochet Kids. After studying business and spending time abroad, they decided to put their skills to a higher purpose. They travelled to Uganda to train local women in crocheting, with a view to creating valuable, sustainable jobs in an area scarred by conflict. As a way to make their products stand out to their customers in the US, they decided that every item would include the name of the person who made it.

“We want to be an example of another way of doing fashion”

Kohl Crecelius, photographed (left) with co-founder Travis Hartanov

“Any time we got to sell the product we flipped the hat inside out and said, this was made by Beatrice, this was made by Teddy,” explains Crecelius. “These are our friends and we want these women to take pride in what they do and we want their stories to be told.” Customers can even look the makers up on the company’s website and send them a note to say thank you.

These days, Crecelius is rarely seen without the red beanie that Maribel Merino made (and previous incarnations in the same style), ever since a day when he was caught without a sample of his company’s product, and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. “Now it’s a thing”, he says with a shrug.

For him and his colleagues, fashion was a means to make a difference. “We saw clothing as this almost universal thing,” he says, “a way to connect a customer base with people who made products”. But they came to realise that the wonderful universality of clothing – we all wear it, and every item is made by human hands – is also at the heart of fashion’s problems.

In the early days, the dark side of the fashion business – the poverty, slavery, child labour, gender inequality and environmental damage – “wasn’t on our radar”, says Crecelius. But pretty soon “we started to learn about the industry and how terrible it was”.

Known Supply’s partner factory in Chennai is one of several in India.

That’s what spurred Crecelius and co-founder Travis Hartanov to take the next step and launch Known Supply, which makes a whole range of clothing, and is on a mission to help more businesses benefit from its transparent supply chain. As well as selling directly to customers, Known Supply sells in bulk to other organisations, who can customise the products to create their own ethical fashion lines.

5 spoke to Malini Jayachandran and Lalitha Prabakaran, who work as tailors at a factory in Chennai, India that produces woven goods for Known Supply. They’ve both been making clothes for more than a decade, but nobody ever asked them to sign the items they made before. Now they’ve received personal thank yous from Known Supply customers for items they created.

Malini Jayachandran, a mother of two who works at Known Supply’s partner factory in Chennai, India.

Lalitha Prabakaran has had personal thank yous from Known Supply customers for garments she made.

Jayachandran, who has two children and began working in the industry after her father died, says she has “not worked at a company like this before” and doesn’t know how to express the difference it has made to her life. Prabakaran says it has made her “proud and thankful” for customers to recognise her work. She’s able to put money aside for her children’s education, and to hopefully one day buy land to build a home.

What about the rest of the fashion industry?

Part of Known Supplys ambition is to help other organisations raise their game. In the 14 years that Crecelius has been running fashion businesses, social and sustainability issues have certainly moved up the industry’s agenda, he says. But he remains frustrated by the vague, sweeping statements he hears many companies making about their practices, and welcomes efforts to get brands to start “speaking the same language” – like Fair Trade and B Corp certification, both of which Known Supply is signed up to.

He’s a big advocate of the ethical and environmental rankings for fashion brands produced by Remake and Good on You. Known Supply gets a four out of five score from Good on You and holds a seal of approval from Remake, scoring particularly highly for its labour practices, with some work still to do on the environmental side.

To put that in perspective, well-known players such as Forever 21, Urban Outfitters and Victoria Beckham score ones and twos on Good on You (two means “not good enough”, one means “avoid”), and fall way short of Remake’s benchmark rating of 50 out of 100. The cult streetwear brand Supreme has the special honour of a zero score from Remake.

“We want to be an example of another way of doing fashion,” says Crecelius. “One that honours people and cares for the planet in meaningful ways”. His hope is that soon, fashion that’s environmentally and socially unsustainable will become economically unsustainable.

“I believe that shift is happening.”

 

Main image: Acayo Nighty, who crochets for Known Supply in Gulu, Uganda, holds up an item with her name in.

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