“I do not do tired,” said Simone Cipriani. “No time for tired!” The Tuscan-born head of the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) was speaking to Vogue Australia this week during a brief stop over in Melbourne as part of his demanding travel schedule. “We’ve just started work in Afghanistan, I will go there next week, then back to Africa,” he explained. “And we are going to operate very soon in Tajikistan.”
The EFI is a flagship program of the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization. Founded by Cipriani in 2009, it harnesses fashion as a vehicle for development by connecting artisans from developing countries with leading fashion designers, and today it works with international brands including Stella McCartney, Karen Walker and Brother Vellies. The EFI promotes responsibility within fashion, and campaigns for an industry where workers earn a living wage, are offered dignified working conditions and which minimises its impact on the environment.
“When we started the Ethical Fashion Initiative in the slum of Korogocho in Nairobi we clarified that this was not about charity,” said Cipriani. “We are engaging with communities to provide sustainable work as an alternative to the informal sector.” Hence the tagline, Not Charity, Just Work.
After gaining experience working in the leather industry in Italy, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, China, Tunisia and Morocco, Cipriani relocated to Ethiopia to work for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) setting up service centers for the local leather industry. Meeting and working with micro-producers he saw an opportunity to connect skilled artisans with the fashion industry for mutual benefit, and this was the inspiration behind the Ethical Fashion Initiative.
Beginning with the cooperative of micro-producers in Korogocho, the project has expanded to Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Haiti, the West Bank, Ethiopia and Cambodia. The EFI is a particularly strong supporter of the African fashion industry and its potential for growth, and it actively works with the new generation of local fashion talent and encourages collaborations with international companies - New York-based Edun makes the majority of its product in Africa, and works with the EFI on prints and accessories.
“Charity is important,” said Cipriani, “It’s is one of the most noble activities that humans can do, and it’s good, for example, when you want to build a hospital or a school and there are no other means, but [this program is] totally different.” Changing lives for the better through sustainable and fulfilling creative collaborations is the EFI’s mission. “It’s a very serious thing, fashion,” said Cipriani.