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State of the artisan: how fashion rediscovered its human side

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Dechen Yeshi has the kind of commute most city dwellers would give their right arm for: from her house atop a valley on the Tibetan Plateau, she strolls down a grassy slope, taking in the crisp mountain air and verdant surrounds, to arrive at a workshop five minutes away. The 38-year-old moved to the lofty prefecture from Connecticut 13 years ago, not necessarily in search of tranquillity but to set up a textiles business that she and her mother, Kim Yeshi, hoped would create work for the people who live there. “We wanted to do something that was poverty-alleviating, but at the same time uses people’s skills and the local raw materials to create something amazing,” says Kim, who lives in India with her husband, a Tibetan academic. After establishing a base in Amdo, which lies to the east, the duo launched Norlha, a clothing company and white-label producer for some of the world’s biggest luxury names. 

Norlha is one of a growing number of contemporary brands whose main priority is to create work for communities, rather than make fashion for fashion’s sake. In doing so, these independents are actively challenging one of the biggest criticisms of the industry – that it predominantly serves the people high up, while too often exploiting those who actually make the clothes. These brands and the communities they support occupy all corners of the globe: the likes of Varana, which hones ancient craft in India; Lemlem, which works with weavers in Ethiopia; Sindiso Khumalo, which collaborates with artisans in Burkina Faso and Cape Town; and Philip Huang, which utilises traditional dyeing techniques in Thailand.

Varana khadi smocked blouse, £3,600
Varana khadi smocked blouse, £3,600
Varana khadi Quilted Victoria skirt, £3,850
Varana khadi Quilted Victoria skirt, £3,850

“I believe that fashion can create jobs,” says LVMH prize finalist Kenneth Ize, who works with weavers in Nigeria to create vibrantly striped textiles for his collections. “I want to create value around the craft, and I believe that through showing this culture to the world, it could mean significant growth for the country. It’s not only going to be about making fashion, it’s going to grow the economy in general.”

One UK-based proponent of community-led fashion is Patrick Grant, the creative director of menswear brand E Tautz and founder of Community Clothing, a social enterprise designed to create work for Britain’s dwindling textile industry. Grant has partnered with 28 factories, each specialising in a core part of the chain – including spinners, weavers, embroiderers, textile printers and garment makers – to create perennial basics for men and women. “I want to help restore economic prosperity to our textile regions,” says Grant, who estimates to have created more than 140,000 hours of skilled manufacturing work since launching the brand in 2016. “We design products that play directly to their strengths, utilising their existing skills and machinery, and taking their advice on fabric and yarn types and on garment construction.”

Community Clothing is designed to create work for Britain’s dwindling textile industry. On right: Chore jacket, £89, Breton top, £35, and Work trousers, £59
Community Clothing is designed to create work for Britain’s dwindling textile industry. On right: Chore jacket, £89, Breton top, £35, and Work trousers, £59 © Thomas Cooksey

Community Clothing Chore jacket, £89
Community Clothing Chore jacket, £89
Community Clothing Breton top, £35
Community Clothing Breton top, £35

Part of the endeavour of these brands is to use the resources that have traditionally been present in each area – from wool or linen in the UK to cotton in India or Ethiopia. In Tibet, an abundant raw material is the fibre from yaks, of which there are around 14 million across the plateau. The wool, which can be coarse and unruly, has traditionally been used for insulation; Norhla, however, uses the soft underdown (known as khullu) that the yaks naturally shed – and which has not previously been widely utilised – to make luxury accessories and ready-to-wear for men and women. “The reason that this project was so attractive to the nomads is because we were giving the yak a new and modern context,” says Dechen. “These are people who for generations and centuries have seen the yak as central to their way of life.” 

For others, it’s about preserving skills and techniques that have fallen out of favour with modern industrialisation. Varana, which has its flagship store on Dover Street in London, employs artisans in India whose craft has existed for centuries but is no longer in as much demand. “We started because the skills were dying out, because the children of these craftspeople aren’t really doing what generations of their families have done,” says founder Sujata Keshavan. “The tragedy is that, because of a lack of work, a lot of the weavers are actually breaking stones on the road and doing unskilled labour, because they can’t get orders. They have these amazing skills, but they don’t use them.” Keshavan is counteracting that by taking the techniques and applying them to designs that are more attuned with the high-end fashion market. “They’ve been doing this specific craft for years and years, but the market has changed,” Keshavan adds. “If we want to shine a light on these crafts, and hope that they continue, it’s very important that the design is a bridge between what would be desired today by people all over the world and their capabilities.”

Kenneth Ize Adora blazer, £925, brownsfashion.com
Kenneth Ize Adora blazer, £925, brownsfashion.com
Kenneth Ize Chinua Slogan coat, £1,070, brownsfashion.com
Kenneth Ize Chinua Slogan coat, £1,070, brownsfashion.com

That includes jamdani, a loom-embroidered textile traditionally used for saris that has been identified by Unesco as a craft that needs to be preserved. Instead of using the motifs that have typically been woven into the cloth – intricate, geometric patterns or neatly tiled florals – Varana creates pieces such as a bone-white, floor-length dress with a pattern that mimics soundwaves. There’s also khadi, a feather-light fabric used in a capsule collection of long skirts and dramatic, balloon-sleeve blouses. The cloth is made entirely by hand, without the use of electricity. “It’s got the lowest carbon footprint in the world of any fabric,” says Keshavan, who also notes that her khadi is made from rain-fed cotton that is 100 per cent biodegradable, and therefore highly sustainable. 

Being respectful of the environment is also a priority for many of these brands, and is something that is easily achieved by virtue of the traditional processes and techniques that they employ. The duo behind New York and Bangkok-based label Philip Huang, former model Huang and his wife, Chomwan Weeraworawit, use natural indigo dye produced by artisans in north-east Thailand to create their designs, which range from kimono-style jackets to socks and blankets. They came across the process – which is less polluting than the synthetic equivalent – while visiting Weeraworawit’s family in Thailand some years ago, and were immediately mesmerised by the technique of soaking the leaves of the indigo plant and beating the liquid to extract the vibrant hue. “The artisans we work with, the indigo grandmas, many of them are in their 70s, and have been doing this their whole lives,” says Huang. “But there aren’t many of the younger generation involved in the work, so we made it our mission to appeal to the youth, and I think it’s something that they would engage with.” 

Designer Philip Huang in north-east Thailand, wearing Philip Huang silk and cotton Antto jacket, £510, and cotton Sky Indigo shorts, £275
Designer Philip Huang in north-east Thailand, wearing Philip Huang silk and cotton Antto jacket, £510, and cotton Sky Indigo shorts, £275
Philip Huang natural tie-dyed socks, £67
Philip Huang natural tie-dyed socks, £67

The idea of building communities through clothing production is one that the Ethical Fashion Initiative too has been striving towards since 2016. Founder Simone Cipriani wanted to create a bridge between marginalised artisan groups and global lifestyle brands; the United Nations and World Trade Organisation-led initiative has since engaged communities in Mali, Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast, and has relationships with brands from Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney to United Arrows. “The networks of artisans we co-create with,” says Cipriani, “become not only an interface for trade with global brands and distributors, but also a tool to rebuild their society’s social capital – the capacity of working together for a different common future.”

Sindiso Khumalo Miss Celie dress, £550
Sindiso Khumalo Miss Celie dress, £550

That is the sentiment shared across the board – that fashion and the production of it can be a force for positive social change. “It’s a challenge, but working together makes us all have this mutual sense of responsibility for each other,” adds Dechen. “It’s not just sending your order out to a far-flung factory from a design studio. The designers come here and they work with the artisans. We are all human beings working together.” 



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Emerging Markets

Tech-heavy Taiwan stock index plunges on Covid outbreak

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Taiwan’s stock market, home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies, suffered one of the largest drops in its history as investors were rocked by a worsening Covid-19 outbreak.

The Taiex fell as much as 8.55 per cent on Wednesday, the index’s worst intraday fall since 1969, according to Bloomberg. It finished down 4.1 per cent.

Construction, rubber, automotive and financials — sectors retail investors had been shifting into from technology in recent months — were the worst hit in the sell-off.

The world’s largest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which has a 30 per cent weighting in the index, fell as much as 9.3 before recovering ground to be down 1.9, while Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, dropped 9.8 per cent before paring losses to be down 4.7 per cent.

While Taiwan’s sell-off was related to domestic Covid-19 problems, it followed recent declines in global markets as investors worried about possible inflationary pressures.

The falls came as Taiwan’s government was expected to partially close down public life to contain a worsening coronavirus outbreak — something the country had managed to avoid for more than a year.

“The reason that triggered the escalated sell-off during the trading session is the new [Covid-19] cases to be reported this afternoon, and probably the raising of the pandemic alert level,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA. “On top of that, the market before today was already at a point where the index was at an inflection point.”

Taiwan’s strict border controls and quarantine system and meticulous contact tracing measures had helped it avoid community spread of Covid-19 until recently.

That success, which allowed Taipei to forego lockdowns, helped boost the local economy, which grew about 3 per cent last year and 8.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2021.

But health authorities announced 16 locally transmitted confirmed cases on Wednesday, for three of which the infection source was unclear — a sign of widening spread in the community. Authorities had confirmed seven untraced cases on Tuesday, and domestic media reported that the government might introduce partial lockdown measures.

President Tsai Ing-wen called on the public to be vigilant but avoid panicking.

Taiwan’s stock market rose almost 80 per cent over the past year, peaking at a historical high late last month. It is now down 8.5 per cent from that mark.

Retail investors have increasingly moved out of technology stocks in recent weeks, reducing the sector’s weight in trading volume from almost 80 per cent at its height to just over 50 per cent.

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China factory gate prices climb on global commodities boom

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The price of goods leaving factories in China rose at the fastest pace in more than three years, on the back of a rally in commodities supported by the country’s economic recovery.

The producer price index rose 6.8 per cent in April year-on-year, beating economists’ expectations and surpassing March’s increase of 4.4 per cent.

The rate was driven in part by comparison with a low base last year in the early stages of the pandemic. But it also reflects a global surge in the prices of raw materials that was first stoked by China and now incorporates expectations of recovering global demand.

While PPI prices in China have leapt, economists suggested there was limited spillover into consumer prices and that the central bank was unlikely to react. China’s consumer price index added just 0.9 per cent in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday, although it touched a seven-month high.

“It tells us that demand at this moment is super strong,” said Larry Hu, head of greater China economics at Macquarie, of the PPI data, although he suggested policymakers would see the increase as “transitory” and “look through it”.

“We’re going to see some reflation trends,” he added.

Signs of tightening in China’s credit conditions have drawn scrutiny from global investors eyeing the prospect of higher inflation as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, especially in the US, which releases consumer price data on Wednesday.

China’s PPI index remained mired in negative territory for most of 2020 following the outbreak of coronavirus, but has started to gather momentum this year. Gross domestic product growth in China returned to pre-pandemic levels in the final quarter of 2020.

An industrial frenzy in China has stoked demand for commodities such as oil, copper and iron ore that make up a significant portion of the index and have helped to push it higher. 

Policymakers in China have moved to tighten credit conditions, as well as attempted to rein in the steel sector. Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said the relevant question now was “whether the rapid rise of raw materials prices will dent real demand, given pre-determined credit growth”.

Retail sales in China have lagged behind the growth rate of industrial production, putting downward pressure on CPI, which has also been weakened by lower pork prices that rose sharply on the back of African swine fever. Core CPI, which strips out food and energy, rose 0.7 per cent in April 

Julian Pritchard-Evans, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said that producer prices were feeding through into the rebound in consumer prices, but also suggested that pressures on the former were “likely to be mostly transient”.

He added that output prices for durable consumer goods were rising at their fastest level on record.

China’s rapid recovery has been driven by its industrial sector, which has churned out record quantities of steel and fed into a construction boom that policymakers are now trying to constrain. On Monday, iron ore prices hit their highest level on record, while copper prices also surged.



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Iron ore hits record high as commodities continue to boom

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The price of iron ore hit a record high on Monday in the latest sign of booming commodity markets, which have gone into overdrive in recent weeks as large economies recover from the pandemic.

The steelmaking ingredient, an important source of income for the mining industry, rose 8.5 per cent to a record high of almost $230 a tonne fuelled by strong demand from China where mills have cranked up production.

Other commodities also rose sharply, including copper, which hit a record high of $10,747 a tonne before paring gains. The increases are part of a broad surge in the cost of raw materials that has lasted more than a year and which is fanning talk of another supercycle — a prolonged period where prices remain significantly above their long term trend.

The price of timber has also hit a record high as US sawmills struggle to keep pace with demand in the run-up to peak homebuilding season in the summer.

“Commodity demand signals are firing on all cylinders amid a synchronised recovery across the world’s economic powerhouses,” said Bart Melek, head of commodity strategy at TD Securities.

Strong demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer of commodities, international spending on post-pandemic recovery programmes, supply disruptions and big bets on the green energy transition explain the surge in commodity prices.

Commodities have also been boosted by a weaker US dollar and moves by investors to stock up on assets that can act as a hedge against inflation.

The S&P GSCI spot index, which tracks price movements for 24 raw materials, is up 26 per cent this year.

Strong investor demand pushed commodity assets held by fund managers to a new record of $648bn in April, according to Citigroup. All sectors saw monthly gains with agriculture and precious metals leading the way, the bank said.

Agricultural commodities have had an especially strong run owing to rising Chinese demand and concerns of a drought in Brazil. Dryness in the US, where planting for this year is under way, is also adding to the upward rise in prices. Corn, which is trading at $7.60 a bushel and soyabeans at $16.22, are at levels not seen since 2013.

“From a macro economic environment to strong demand and production concerns, the ingredients are all there for the supercycle,” said Dave Whitcomb of commodity specialist Peak Trading Research.

Rising copper and iron ore prices are a boon for big miners, which are on course to record earnings that will surpass records set during the China-driven commodity boom of the early 2000s.

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JPMorgan reckons Rio Tinto and BHP will be the largest corporate dividend payers in Europe this year, paying out almost $40bn to shareholders. Shares in Rio, the world’s biggest iron ore producer, hit a record high above £67 on Monday.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, has crept back up
towards $70 a barrel, which it surpassed in March for the first time in
more than a year, recovering ground lost as the pandemic
slashed demand for crude and roiled markets.

Supply cuts by leading oil producers have helped to bolster the market
as consumption has begun to recover around the world.

While some Wall Street banks have hailed the start of a new supercycle, with some traders talking of a return to $100 a barrel oil, others are less convinced. The International Energy Agency said oil supplies still remain plentiful meaning any talk of a supercycle is premature.



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