Ethical fashion? These women offer a new pattern
The daughter of Iranian American immigrants has been a fixture – an extremely stylish one – on the community organizing and protest circuit. An often-outspoken social media darling as well, she bills her JooJoo Azad website as an unapologetic “political fashion platform.” She jets around the world to meet with garment workers and union leaders fighting what they see as exploitative practices by companies including H&M and Nike.
The fast-fashion industry, she argues, exploits poor and immigrant women to make cheap clothing meant to be worn a few times and discarded. In that, she is part of a growing movement that criticizes the industry’s frequently abusive working conditions and environmental degradation. Textile production creates more greenhouse gases than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and emissions are projected to increase by 60% in the next decade, according to the United Nations Climate Change initiative.
But the acerbic critic has decided that the best way to change the industry is to become a part of it. Ms. Katebi’s latest project is an immigrant and refugee-run fashion production cooperative on Chicago’s North Side. Blue Tin Production, named for the ubiquitous Danish cookie tin that kept sewing materials safe for generations of immigrant women, grew out of Ms. Katebi’s search for a company to make her own line of ethically produced and gender-neutral “slow fashion,” inspired by Persian architecture and culture.
It’s a start, and Ms. Katebi freely admits that she has an awful lot to learn. “I cry maybe once a week,” she says. “I have a lot of meltdowns.”
Still in her mid-20s, however, she is savvy enough to have found a few key women with more than 50 years of combined experience in the business. One, an expert in Nigerian evening wear, is a survivor of domestic abuse. Another is a former garment factory owner and manager from Aleppo, Syria, whose husband, son, and many other family members were killed in her country’s civil war.
Blue Tin was launched with a $35,000 grant from Chicago’s Field Foundation, $44,000 in online crowdfunding, the remainder of Ms. Katebi’s college savings fund, and in-kind donations. Ms. Katebi found a sunlit workspace near Lake Michigan and bought industrial sewing machines and irons, drafting tables, and steaming boards. Vogue magazine has taken notice.
Ms. Katebi isn’t producing her own designs. But cooperative members gather now to sew clothing for Chicago and international labels including Almvghty Clothing and Milk Private Label. Ms. Katebi is in the process of bringing two more members into the cooperative, fundraising to buy her own commercial building, and offering free sewing classes in the hope of finding more co-op members to serve a waiting list of designers. She also has a contract pending with a major department store.
Instead of a sweatshop, Ms. Katebi aims to envelop skilled women – who have lived through war, loss, and abuse – in a safe place. “There is a lot of trauma in that space,” she says.
Blue Tin is “reimagining fashion production through labor rights and worker rights, while flipping how we understand who should have the power of decision-making in fashion production,” says Tempestt Hazel, an art program officer at the Field Foundation.
That was enough to sell Hallie Borden, owner of the Milk Handmade shop, who recently ordered 200 pieces for the fall-winter line of her Milk Private Label. “It’s a small studio that ensures everyone has fun and is paid,” she says.
Creating what you seek
Blue Tin started coming together a couple of years ago when Ms. Katebi met Jamie Hayes, a designer who runs the Chicago-based slow-fashion company Production Mode. Ms. Katebi asked her to recommend a small-scale manufacturer for an ethically produced fashion line and she couldn’t think of anyone. So Ms. Katebi organized a tryout, recruiting prospective members through refugee resettlement organizations, domestic violence shelters, and community centers. More than 100 women showed up.
The first to arrive was Mercy, who moved to Chicago in 2003 from Lagos, Nigeria, where she had designed and sewed evening wear. In Chicago, her husband controlled every aspect of her life. She eventually walked away from a 30-year relationship.
Mercy, who spoke on condition her family name not be used, is Christian. She says Ms. Katebi, who is Muslim, was divinely inspired to launch Blue Tin. “We all have a calling, and you don’t have to be on the pulpit preaching to do your service,” she says. “For Hoda, helping women make a way for themselves was divinely put in her heart, and she ran with it.”
At the tryout, Mercy put together a “quick little thing,” a short-sleeved crop top, writing her name in blue ink on the gray silk fabric. “Her work was perfect, but what really impressed me was that she wanted to stay and help everyone else,” says Ms. Hayes, who was helping Ms. Katebi that day.
Another applicant came via the Karam Foundation, a nonprofit based in Lake Forest, Illinois, that works with Syrian refugees. In Aleppo, which for years was on the front line of Syria’s civil war, she had run a factory with 35 employees. But much of her family – siblings, mother, husband, and her oldest son, who was 13 – was killed in the war, leaving her to care for four other children.
She spoke about her journey on condition her name not be used. “No work, no food, no light, no water, nothing in Aleppo,” she recalls while steaming a piece of fabric. “So I took the four kids and I went to Jordan.” She tried to open a sewing factory there, but authorities shut it down, she says. In June 2016, she was accepted as a refugee and moved to Chicago.
Blue Tin is her third job, on top of working at a McDonald’s and doing formal wear alterations for Middle Eastern weddings. Her workday starts at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week. But her children are in school and doing well, and she proudly pulls out her phone to share videos of them.
Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, a designer and assistant fashion professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says workers at other sewing factories are often contractors without health insurance and other benefits. Blue Tin’s workers are co-owners of the cooperative who had a hand in writing its bylaws. “You don’t see that anywhere, and even less so in manufacturing, when everything is about the bottom line,” says Ms. Glaum-Lathbury, who joins weekly meetings to go over designs and helps evaluate them for production technique and cost.
“Blue Tin helps demystify the product,” she says. “If you go to Forever 21 and see a shirt for $1.99, you’d think that a robot made this. How else could it be made? But it is primarily women who are behind the machines and making these shirts.”
Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy in the fall of 2019 and will close hundreds of stores as it reorganizes, joining other struggling brick-and-mortar retailers. But online, fast fashion is continuing to grow. In a tough business, Ms. Katebi’s smarts, work ethic, and politics are giving her “a fighting start,” says Ms. Hayes. “If anyone could pull this off, it would be Hoda.”
Ms. Katebi says she is learning more than the fashion business. Partners like Mercy are teaching her about life. “Everything from patience to trust in God, and this sort of internal fire and self-determination,” she says. “There is this beautiful way that Mercy holds herself and sees the world that I think is just so inspiring. And she’s so kind.”
Their model upends traditional generational roles and production models. The goal really isn’t to end the fashion industry as it currently exists, Ms. Katebi says. “But we are really, from the ground up, creating a world that we want to see.”