Fashion’s role in refugee rights: Designing for social change

By Alex Bruni

2 weeks ago

Migrants du Monde, a social enterprise based in Lecce, Southern Italy, is the brainchild of French-Moroccan philanthropist and entrepreneur Yasmina Antonia Filali. It is a fashion atelier aimed at fostering the integration of different cultures as expressed in the art of embroidery. The project offers training to refugees and asylum seekers, mostly women, coming from a range of North African and Middle Eastern countries. But it is also a fully operational professional atelier, making thoughtful couture clothing.

Migrants du Monde in Lecce has its roots in Rabat, Morocco, which began in 2010 to help out migrants, refugees and young Moroccans, through setting up educational and professional training centres.  Alongside providing training, ‘Migrants du Monde’ Rabat is also a professional atelier, employing former trainees and professionals with a knowledge of traditional sewing and embroidery techniques from North Africa and the Middle East. Migrants du Monde now provides hope and empowerment to disenfranchised migrants, at a time when the basic human rights of refugees are fiercely debated in the whole of Europe.

The first training project was launched in 2019, as soon as the atelier opened. A group of up to eight participants would attend a six month series of courses set up to foster a close dialogue between different cultures.  The participants selected to join the training, in partnership with the cultural association ARCI and the Regione Puglia, and would learn about local traditions of Salentine embroidery as well as techniques of cutting and sewing, under the artistic direction of Salentine fashion designer Bruna Pizzichini and with the input of a number of other professionals, such as Maria Sciolti, who specialises in bridal wear. Salentine embroidery, it should be noted, is a dwindling craft, which the local government is trying to revive.

Susan, 26, from Nigeria, was among the first batch of trainees under the ARCI/Regione Puglia sponsorship.  She is now an employee of the atelier, having completed her training with full marks. “Before joining the training, I was in a centre for migrants in the North of Italy, waiting for an opportunity,” she says. “I applied to ARCI to take part in the Lecce project and was selected. At first, I was really shy, I knew no one in Lecce. I had a little knowledge of sewing, which I used to do at home, but not as a professional. I found the training very challenging but highly enjoyable, I learnt so much. I now have a job which allows me to be independent and gives me a chance to do something I love”.

Daniela D’Amuri is one of the Salentine embroiderers, who worked on the project in 2019. A renowned expert in the traditional technique known as chiacchierino, Daniela says, “being with these women and men, who have had a very hard and troubled life, who have seen violence close home, was humbling and I felt privileged to work with them. We had fun sharing and learnt from each other. We spoke a mix of languages, mostly Italian, but also English, French, Arabic and occasionally, some Salentine dialect thrown in.”

The clothes made by Migrants du Monde are carefully cut and produced on a non-industrial scale, often using recycled materials, with the intention of making durable fashion with longevity, thus avoiding waste.  They are the antithesis of fast fashion, in concept and execution. From inception, the aim has been to launch collections that would further enhance the beauty of traditional embroidery

“Covid-19 has slowed us down,” says Bruna Pizzichini. “But we work in our own time and with our own resources and always on a small scale. Last year we focused on embroidered masks, now we have started working again on a collection. The atelier aims to create mini-capsule collections which are then sold in the Fiermontina Urban Resort concept store and made accessible online through social media.”

 

Following the model of the Moroccan atelier, the Lecce Migrants du Monde,  plans to invite expert embroiderers from North Africa to work with the Salentine embroiderers after Covid-19, not only providing further training to the migrants but also to expand the knowledge base of the atelier, creating collaborative designs. The atelier, however, is not solely focused on embroidery, it also pays attention to garment making techniques. “We have had Falou, from Senegal, sharing his knowledge of tailoring and introducing our trainees to moulage,” says Bruna. “We use moulage quite a lot in our work, it’s a beautiful tailoring technique made famous by couturiers such as Valentino”.

Migrants du Monde goes beyond a top-down training programme to resettle migrants. As Filali points out its objective is the activation of an innovative business with high social impact, capable of combining the enhancement of the artisanal and artistic heritage of embroidery and sewing from Salento and from other cultures of the world, whilst promoting social integration between migrants and locals. Through the sharing of a viable economic project and engaging in the making of non-exploitative fashion at grassroots level, ‘Migrants’ opens up a space in which multiple and different cultural traditions blend together, each of them affirming its uniqueness, in a tangible expression of respectful intercultural dialogue.

The hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes is significant in this project, becoming a powerful reminder of the need to think of alternative ways to render fashion more humane, less wasteful and less focussed on making large profits by exploiting the labour of vulnerable members of society. Wearing a Migrants du Monde piece – be it an embroidered dress, a tunic, a  trouser suit or even a face mask – reminds us that the people who made those clothes were empowered rather than exploited, stitching their own stories.

Find out more at @migrants_du_monde on Instagram.

This is a guest blog post by Alex Bruni (Lopez y Royo), a former university lecturer with a PhD in Art History and Archaeology from SOAS, University of London. A fashion activist committed to fashion diversity and sustainability, Alex blogs and writes and occasionally models. She is the author of Contemporary Indonesian Fashion: Through the Looking Glass, (2019) the only English language in-depth analysis of fashion from Indonesia published by Bloomsbury, as part of the prestigious series ‘Dress and Fashion Research’.  As a model she is represented by Grey Model Agency, London, whose mission to make older women and men more visible in fashion and the media is totally compatible with Alex’s desire to change the way age is perceived and represented.