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Yevu Designer Anna Robertson On Supporting Female Garment Workers

by: Courtney Sanders | 2 years ago | Features

Image: Anna Robertson in her office in the YEVU facilities in Accra, Ghana.  

Most of us in the developed world only see the shiny side of the fashion industry: the images from the ready-to-wear runway presentations in Europe and the giant billboards in Pitt Street Mall for fast fashion copies of said ready-to-wear outfits. It’s difficult, then, for us to understand that the fashion industry supply chain has huge impacts on the world's human and environmental resources, particularly in the developing world.

Enter Anna Robertson, who, while working in international development and aid in Africa, realised she could give back to the community she had learned so much from, by utilising their artisanal skills to produce a limited collection of clothing. This limited run turned into a fully-fledged fashion business, and, a few years on, Anna’s label, YEVU, has a cult following in Australia, and, perhaps more importantly, a dedicated factory in Accra, Ghana, in which a number of local tailors and seamstresses are paid fairly and work in safe, light-filled conditions to create the label's pieces. On top of this, the modus operandi of YEVU’s designs is to celebrate the wax printing process which was “imported by the Dutch via Indonesia centuries ago” and which has since become uniquely West African through prints which represent the cultural milieu of the area.

Here, we discuss the unique purpose-driven business model of YEVU, how Anna is effecting positive change through fashion, and how she thinks the rest of the fashion industry could follow suit.

Courtney Sanders: Before YEVU, you were working in international development. Can you tell us a little bit about this background please?
Anna Robertson: I'd always wanted to work in the international development and aid sector, and I probably had a bit of a romantic notion of what that meant. I got my first job in the sector at a small not for profit in Sydney, which was a hybrid business-for-purpose model. We worked on health and education programs in Nepal and Uganda, and that was where I realised that business and social impact weren't mutually exclusive. From there I had various jobs in not for profits and in 2012 took the AVID position in Ghana, which is what took me to that part of the world in the first place. From that point on, I started to develop a different understanding of the international aid sector, and realised I wanted to carve my own path. 

Courtney: And you decided to start YEVU while working overseas in international development. Tell us about the light-bulb moment when you decided YEVU was the right path for you to take?
Anna: I didn't really make a conscious decision that YEVU was the path I was going to take, I thought it would be a short term project that would allow me to give back a little to the country and people that I had gotten so much out of in that first year there. Working with women was a no brainer, they are the most vulnerable and underemployed in an informal economy and also, from what I had learnt, the most hard working. Ghana had a once-thriving textile sector, producing the coolest prints that I could see a place for in an Australian context and lifestyle. And once I saw the response from people when we set up our first pop up in 2013 in Surry Hills, I was on the next plane to Ghana, probably without even thinking strategically about it!

Image: The YEVU facilities in Accra, Ghana. 

Courtney: At the time you obviously believed fashion had the power to effect positive change. Can you tell us with regards to the industry more broadly how you think the fashion industry can have a positive impact on worker's lives in the developed world
Anna: To be totally honest with you, and at the risk of sounding quite ignorant, at the very beginning I did not necessarily believe that fashion had the power to effect positive change. I discovered that this was possible after the fact, once I started seeing the tangible difference this type of employment had on the women we worked with. Educating myself as a result of being confronted with it is perhaps something that many people don't have to experience, and hence the cyclical nature of the problem. Consumers need to make decisions with their purchasing power, and to do that they need to be educated and informed. Otherwise, there is no incentive for the big guys to stop exploiting the environment, or vulnerable and impoverished people in the developing world.

Courtney: You use traditional prints and traditional craftsmanship from West African culture. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the prints and the craftsmanship and why it appealed to you?
Anna: Wax printing was imported by the Dutch via Indonesia centuries ago, and over time, West Africa made it their own through designing prints that were relevant to the cultural context and industrialising the process through setting up locally owned factories and employing a large segment of the population. They were largely producing for local and regional consumption and as a result, the streets are adorned with these prints. That's changed a lot in the last couple of decades, with cheap imported wax prints undercutting locally made, and imported second hand clothing from the States and Europe flooding the local marketplaces and rendering local craftsmen and artisanal manufactures less relevant. Skill training and education haven't exactly kept up with the times in Ghana, and the government has turned a blind eye to this economic situation, so it's important for us to support local industry and local craftsmanship, and it's integral to the YEVU story.

Image: a YEVU seamstress working in the YEVU facilities in Accra, Ghana.

Courtney: And how do you go about choosing the unique prints you use every season?
Anna: Literally trawling the marketplaces in Accra, and more recently Togo, doing a big reccy, documenting, then going back to the wholesalers to start the process of sourcing and procuring the quantities we need for production. We have to plan ahead a little, but not too much, because chances are, by the time we go back to do the buying, our fave prints will be long gone and not repeated.

Courtney: Tell us about the workshop you have in Accra, Ghana: how did you find the tailors and seamstresses? How did you go about setting up the workshop? 
Anna: We have actually just moved into a new workshop in Greater Accra. Our old workshop was prone to flooding and we had some issues with the landowner, once they realised we were actually serious about what we do and started making enough money to upgrade the workshop, they wanted a cut, so we bailed. It's taken us a few years to have a really stable and consistent group of tailors and seamstresses that work for us full time, and that's been a result of a lot of relationship building and transparency around our business and objective. Working in-house and setting up our own workshop was part of our model and it's imperative to our social impact; we could outsource and pay a lot less in overheads but it would undermine what our intention was from the beginning. We house about 13 machinists in the workspace, and have a large balcony area for pattern cutting, I have an office, there are a few bedrooms for our makers and support staff to stay if they need to, a fully resourced kitchen and we provide food, basic needs and extra staff to look after the children of workers.

Courtney: What have been some of the greatest rewards from setting up YEVU?
Anna: A dedicated and motivated team of full time staff in Ghana who are so proud to work for YEVU, and witnessing the growth in confidence, skill and independence in each person that works for us. Seeing people in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne wearing YEVU.

Courtney: And the greatest challenges?
Anna: There's too many to list, right now my number 1 challenge is getting our cargo cleared by customs after battling for 3 weeks with logistics in Ghana!

Image: a seamstress in the YEVU facilities in Accra, Ghana.

Courtney: What do you think the biggest challenges facing the fashion industry at the moment are? 
Anna: The waste and disposability of clothes, and the reality that most cheap fast fashion isn't built to last and gets tossed and ends up in landfill in countries you would least expect, like Ghana and Benin. 

Courtney: And how do you think we can combat them?
Anna: Buy less, make it last.


You can shop our full selection from YEVU'S new collection here.  

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