An Interview with Charlotte Davies of SAHEL

Charlotte grew up in England as horse lover on the English countryside. She has always loved fashion and earned a BA (Hons) in fashion Design at Nottingham trent University. She has worked in public relations and fashion then founded SAHEL. Here is her story.

Tell us about your story – education, prior work, and so on?

I grew up in England, loving horses and the countryside. As well as horses, I have always loved fashion and did a BA (Hons) degree in Fashion Design at Nottingham Trent University. I loved the creativity, frivolity and escapism of fashion. I went on to work in PR and then as a Fashion Assistant for Karl Plewka at The Observer, before becoming Fashion Editor at The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. I loved it at first but after 6 years I found the superficiality of fashion ground me down. This co-incided with my becoming a Christian. I ended up leaving my job in search of something more meaningful than simply promoting consumption. I swapped my Manolos for flip flops and moved to Cambodia, where I started a magazine for women at the other end of the fashion industry – in the garment factories around Phnom Penh. ‘Precious Girl Magazine’ was an affirming publication for these women who had low literacy levels. It was fun, helpful and inspiring for workers who were not respected much by local society at the time.  I handed the magazine to a Khmer team and left to get married after nearly 3 years in Cambodia.

My husband lived among the Fulani people in a small town in the north of Burkina Faso. These are among the world’s poorest, and when I joined him I thought I could do some sort of poverty relief. I explored endangered traditional crafts and my passion for horses, fashion and poverty relief came together when I met a family of reinsmakers, who had all but lost their livelihood due to horses being replaced by motorbikes. In 2012 I launched www.saheldesign.com, blogging about traditional craft techniques, fashion and home accessories. Due to the increased security threat to foreigners in our region, we had to leave our home in the north of Burkina Faso. We returned to London where I am continuing to develop the SAHEL brand.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

My global journey has given me perspective on all sides of the industry, from the couture houses of Paris to the huts of Cambodian garment workers. I understand the allure of new clothes as well as the ugliness of the industry behind some of them. My faith inspires me to strive for social justice and fairness, and to do what I can to inspire others.

Charlie Davies with Artisans

What seems like the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

It seems to me that the current system is not working. The demand for cheap clothes and fast fashion is unsustainable and damaging to people and the environment. We need radical change in the way we shop. We need people who care about these factors, as much as they do about profit, to offer a compelling alternative and lead the way for a better future.

Why is fair trade important?

The 10 principles of fair trade mark out the definition of fair trade, and we need that map as a guide if we are claiming any business as fair. Traders in developed countries should be paying a fair wage to producers in developing countries. Anything less than fair is exploitation.

What seems like the importance of a (relative to the country) living wage?

Understanding the living wage of a country is essential, in order to know what is a fair trade. Paying too little is exploitative and damaging. Paying too much can also skew the local economy and cause problems.

SAHEL bags all incorporate hand-woven leather straps, made by traditional Fulani horse reins makers in Burkina Faso.

What makes slow fashion better than fast fashion?

Fast fashion is unsustainable and damaging. Slow fashion encourages us to be more considerate in our spending, so we will consume less and take better care of what we have, which is better for the environment. Slowing down to consider the source of the environment and the people who made it will increase our pleasure in the product, if we have chosen wisely.

How can ethical and sustainable fashion contribute to the long-term sustainable future for the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the environment?

We need to provide a wholesome yet captivating alternative to fast fashion. We need to shake off fusty clichés and produce cutting edge brands that are intelligent and glamorous. We need consumers to desire sustainability and longevity from their clothes, and to value the source and story behind them. I believe a global shift towards this attitude would be the demise of the fast fashion industry and the manufacturing that currently uses up massive amounts of water, energy and land.

What is SAHEL?

SAHEL is a luxury craft label, working with traditional horse reins makers in Burkina Faso. It is a social enterprise that exists to help alleviate poverty and preserve endangered skills in West Africa. We make fashion and homes accessories and invest profits back into their community. We are a UK registered Community Interest Company.

What inspired the title of the organization?

The Sahel is the region of Burkina Faso in which the reinsmakers live. It means ‘shore’ in Arabic, pertaining to the shore of the desert.

What are some of its feature products?

We sell bags, belts and tassles that incorporate the reins makers’ hand woven leather straps.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

Goat leather, ox leather, hand-woven cotton mudcloth.

Who grows, harvests, designs, and manufactures the products of SAHEL?

All of our natural tan straps are made by the reinsmakers in Burkina Faso. They produce the leather, using their own or locally reared free range goats. It is tanned using the pods of their own trees. For weave coloured leather straps, from UK tanned goat leather.

The bags are assembled in England using sustainably sourced leather that is tanned in the UK.

Buckle belts are finished by a bridlemaker in England.

I (Charlie Davies) design the products.

Water use in production is an issue. What is the importance of reducing excess water use in the production of fashion?

Of course we must respect this precious resource. In the Sahel, it is especially precious as there is typically only rainfall for 4 months of the year. Even though SAHEL is a small producer, to ensure the reinsmakers work for us did not affect the local water supply, we installed an additional water pump in the vicinity. Now there is more water available for the whole community than before we started working with them.

Will the fibres and fabrics for the products from the company biodegrade?

Leather does not biodegrade easily. Our leather is a bi-product of meat consumption, so using it for making purposeful accessories is a way of dealing with what otherwise would be toxic waste.

What is the customer base – the demographics?

Our customers tend to be UK based, or with links to West Africa. We sell mainly to women over 30 who have an interest in ethical and sustainable fashion, horses or Africa.

What topics most interest you?

Sustainable fashion and development work.

Did someone mentor you?

This year I had a business coach, Annegret Affolderbach.

 

What seems like the importance of mentors in the fashion world for professional and personal development?

Finding a business coach was critical for me. Being connected to a likeminded professional enabled me to see the way forward. All visionaries need support.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). How do tragedies shed light on work conditions in garment factories?

They show that the dangers of unbridled, mindless consumption are real and fatal.

Any women’s rights activist or campaigner hero for you?

Carry Sommers.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

Every time I place an order for straps from the reinsmakers, I know they will be pleased to get it. Each order represents food, medicines and security for these women and their children for a little while longer. I am also satisfied to see that the skill of weaving horse reins is preserved for another generation.

Any other work at this time?

I am proud of the Cambodian garment workers who have fought and won an increase for a minimum wage. I don’t know if Precious Girl Magazine played any part in empowering them to stand up for their rights, but I am glad that I did it.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

Magnifeco by Kate Black.

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, you?

Please contact me through my website www.saheldesign.com

What seems like the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?

To keep going through discouragement and rejection.

What seems like the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?

To know what is good but only do what is best.

What philosophy makes most sense of life to you?

Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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