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Designers Put Heart and Soul in Ethical Styles
Mary Frances Hill
March 18, 2004

Eva de Viveiros likes to rib her one overworked employee: her own mother, a knitter whose work is often sold at de Viveiros' boutique Barefoot Contessa at 3715 Main.

"I like to say that I'm Kathie Lee Gifford, and my sweatshop is my mother," says the outgoing de Viveiros.

The joke would have little shelf life if it weren't tinged with shameful reality. Human rights groups have placed large commercial clothing retailers under the microscope for marketing fashions made by very young women at low wages, with no benefits and in unsafe, uncomfortable conditions in under-developed countries.

Barefoot Contessa and similar boutiques featuring local designers' work (concentrated in Gastown and on Main Street) are in the good books of No Sweat SFU, a group that staged a fashion show Feb. 26 at Ginger 62. No Sweat SFU, which conducts awareness campaigns calling for ethical purchasing of products at SFU and beyond, had models strutting down a small runway in "ethically-made" clothing.

Down on Main Street, where de Viveiros' shop is a neighbour to more than a dozen edgy fashion boutiques, a pair of pants might cost twice as much than they would at the Gap. That's the price of ethics, says the designer and retailer unapologetically.

"The filter-down effect for us is we know the people that work for us are being fairly treated and they're getting a good wage," says Glenda Roach, manager at Smoking Lily, 3634 Main. There, the designs of Trish Tacoma and Julie Higginson, two Victoria designers, evoke a sense of the dark and absurd, mixed with a sense of play.

De Viveiros appreciates the benefit of 'no sweatshop' marketing to local struggling designers, but admits it's not a sexy tag.

"Basically, saying 'no sweat' is another way of saying 'locally made.'" At the same time, the term 'no sweat' or 'sweatshop-free' is "not the most glamourous way to sell fashion," says de Viveiros. Gisele da Silva, an organizer of No Sweat SFU's fashion show, is quick to acknowledge that investigating clothing tags during what should be a fun shopping trip with friends can soon turn dull and guilt-inducing.

No Sweat SFU held the show to entertain as much as to educate, she says.

"Often, you're hit over the head with these messages. So we wanted to offer people with alternatives. This was meant to be fun and engaging. Being politically aware with your choices is too infrequently associated with fun. All of us who put the show on are politically active, but we like nice clothes. We like to have fun."

At Smoking Lily, local designers have silkscreened images of paramecium onto soft chiffon and silk; on T-shirts and tea cozies, the fashion-conscious can silow off pictures of large bugs, telescopes or the table of elements. It's all about the revulsion-attraction dichotomy for these designers, says Roach. And since every piece is silkscreened by hand, no two are alike.

"A lot of people don't like looking like everyone else, and when you buy locally-made clothing that isn't manufactured in bulk, they know their outfit will more than likely be unique," says de Viveiros.

When aspiring designers approach local store owners with their pieces — a bought T-shirt, for instance, with the designer's own images, or altered vintage wear — It fall's on the store owner to source out all the materials used in the pieces. If a T-shirt hails from any of American Apparel's products, there's little to worry about, says Smoking Lily's Roach. American Apparel, based in East Los Angeles, is the de rigeur manufacturer of no-sweat shirts, and supplies Smoking Lily's owners with their products.

"Their employees are often Mexican immigrants but they all have access to medical, dental benefits," says Roach. "They're paid a fair wage, there's free day-care and English as a Second Language classes."

American Apparel markets itself with a 'Global philosophy and Political Mission', sounding as much like an earnest corporate goal as a call to revolution: "We treat our workers with dignity and are committed to paying them a living wage and beyond..." states its fashionable website. "We are part of its politics — we marched with workers to protest immigration policies....Once this inhumane inefficiency (of rampant sweatshop use) is exposed, there will be a revolution in how business is conducted..."

Though No Sweat SFU has pinpointed Mexx, Nike, Reebok, The Gap and its affiliates Old Navy and Banana Republic as sweatshop offenders, da Silva says The Gap is making some progress in changing the working conditions in its El Salvador factories. She suggests shoppers regard clothing made in any underdeveloped clothing as suspect.

"Just look our location," de Silva says. "If it's made in Canada, there's no guarantee, but things made in North America are a little safer. But there's no hard and fast "ethically approved" guarantee.

For small-scale retailers like de Viveiros and Roach, the biggest boost is in the personal contact that comes with selling the work of a known designer.

"The nice thing about shopping from the smaller stores," says de Viveiros, "is you can ask us exactly where an item is made."