- Jackie Mallon |
Peru is a neglected treasure trove of sustainable options for the fashion industry. So believes Conrado Falco, Director of OCEX, the Trade Commission of Peru in New York. In organizing last month’s Perú Moda, he told FashionUnited, his aim was not only to return Peru to pre-recession glory days when its export amounted to 2 billion dollars, but to increase it to 3 billion. And while previously Pima cotton was the big draw, Falco now hopes that 1 billion of that profit wil l come from alpaca.
“Alpaca is a special animal that doesn’t leave a footprint on the terrain where it lives,” says Falco. “Environmentally friendly, it walks slowly, as if it has Nike shoes on its feet. Alpaca doesn’t destroy the land, it eats only the tops of plants so the roots remain and grow. Sustainability and alpaca are synonyms.”
Alpaca most ethical of animal fibers?
In a period when animal fiber is losing popularity––H&M dropped cashmere, Zara mohair, 300+ brands refused to work with Angora––Falco cites the respect with which Peruvian farmers treat their animals, and believes that while some criticism is ethical and intelligent, some he considers disproportionate. “Alpaca of all the animals has the least criticism,” he says. “It is underused and should be fostered. All synthetics from oil have their problems. We are proud of our alpaca farmers. You can visit the manufacturing facilities, the alpaca farms, view the certifications.”
Peru’s diversity of landscape and climate provide both challenges and opportunity for its people. Low-lying coastal cities offer a cosmopolitan lifestyle and industry, but in its cities which lie sometimes 4000 meters above sea level, people struggle with that most essential matter, breathing. The Andes mountains cover more than 50 percent of the country and are where the alpaca lives. “Working in textiles from alpaca fiber is one of the few activities the people who live there have to prosper,” says Falco. “The business of alpaca grants a lot of Peruvians employment, an opportunity to develop and flourish.”
Peru’s tradition of female textile workers
Anyone who has visited Andean villages, or travelled within the Sacred Valley which contains top tourist attraction Machu Picchu, cannot not fail to notice that all the textile workers, those whose wares are displayed on heaped stalls at the side of mountainous roads, are female. Lively out-of-the-way markets draw visitors mesmerized as local women unload their bulky cargo of cushions, throws, hats, socks, bags from the knotted blankets they use to transport them over hilly miles. They set up shop and then continue to weave their textiles with nimble fingers, needles, other tools and even their toes. The colorful crafts, authenticity of experience, and opportunity to engage, barter, and joke with the artisans themselves make for memorable photo ops and stories to carry home. But we know the fashion industry has a nasty habit of exploiting artisans, especially female ones often dependent on a patriarchal system which doesn’t value them for the work they do. One can’t help wondering if Peru will fall prey to these types of practices.
But Falco says Peru has made advances in “integrating women into the profitable activity of textiles,” and refers to Art Atlas, a fast-growing company showing at Perù Moda, as an interesting model. “It was started by a women who used to be one of the workers in the big factories, now she has her own business and brand, with 20 percent annual growth, and has become a channel to connect the Peruvian artisan with high-end fashion, opening stores at home and in neighboring countries.” Falco adds that it is common for overseas visitors passionate about helping Peru to suggest creating NGOs. “I have nothing against NGOs but why not make a business instead which is more sustainable for the Peruvian makers?” He tells another story of a tourist who returned to Kansas from a visit to Peru with a suitcase full of sweaters for family and friends 40 years ago, and ended up starting a business. Now she owns 8 stores around the world and has 35 Peruvian suppliers. “If you are an artisan, good with your hands, you can’t always be good with marketing too,” sys Falco, “but teamwork and organization is the way forward. I have very high hopes that everyone can participate in the wealth of Peru. If you work with the people, everyone is happy.”
Peru, a manufacturing alternative in trade war times?
Current trade tariffs between China and the US can only benefit Peru’s plans for growth, but, says Falco, “We don’t have any desire for trade wars because we are competitive, serious, and ready to work for the long run. China attracted too much investment and the rest of the world suffered. We believe in equilibrium. Companies started in Peru, grew, and when they became very big, moved to China, so all our investment and attention to those clients was in vain.”
Now the reverse is occurring. Companies are contacting Falco because they want to get out of China and switch to Peru. “It’s a risk to be in only one country,” he cautions, “but people need to get responsible and say they won’t buy the cheap low-quality item but choose the sustainable option and that is made in Peru.”
As the fashion industry tours the world on its relentless quest to spot the next sourcing hub it invariably leaves destruction and pollution in its wake. But Falco is optimistic about the sustainability of Peruvian manufacture, and is encouraged by government investment in textiles as well as innovations in fiber recycling, plastic, of course, but also alpaca which has a durability that makes it perfect for multiple reincarnations. Incidentally the other major industry of the Andes is mining, perhaps the most globally criticized industry of all.
“Peru is learning just like the rest of the world. But we have a long history of living within the environment we have been gifted, and respecting it,” says Falco. “Whatever you want someone is already doing it in Peru. And if clients ask for new things, that only helps us develop the next steps.” He is keen to emphasize how alpaca production has changed in the past 20 years, how the touch and color has been embraced by the global luxury market. “Our country’s efforts have turned alpaca into something exciting. Nowadays from Loro Piana to Bergdorf Goodman, you find alpaca, but its presence is not yet recognized by the end consumer.”
To those consumers he recommends looking beyond the glossy designer tag or prestigious Made in Italy label, and most likely they’ll spot the discreet text advising that the product they are holding was made using alpaca sourced from Peru.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
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