Farah Malik talks to Haute Arabia’s Akeela Bhattay about ethically produced, and champion and advocate of skilled artisanal trade brand, A PEACE TREATY.
I think we all, at some point in our lives or even on a daily basis, imagine how we might change the world or at least contribute to its betterment. But not all of us take the opportunity to do something radical enough to make a substantial and long-term metamorphosis to the lives of those affected by socio-political struggle. Farah Malik and Dana Arbib’s A PEACE TREATY initiative however, does exactly this.
A PEACE TREATY was born from a shared desire for peace in the Middle East, a keen interest in design and a passion for supporting dwindling artisanal industries, in developing countries suffering the consequences of socio-political conflict.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Farah Malik of A PEACE TREATY. Here she discusses the origin of the brand, why it’s important to support ethical and sustainable fashion, the dangers of marketing veiling the essence of genuine ethical products and the importance of customer education when investing in ethical fashion.
Akeela (HA): Tell me about A Peace Treaty; from where does the brand originate and what influenced the name of the brand?
Farah: We’ve both always been interested in Fashion. I did my BSc at McGill University (Montreal) and my MSc at London School of Economics. Before starting A Peace Treaty I was working at a Human Rights organization –Breakthrough an India-based NGO – producing multimedia communications campaigns.
Taking a break from the non-profit world, I moved to Rome to train in the world’s only atelier that revives ancient Roman Gold-smithing.
Working in the development world, I had always noticed the lack of effectiveness of donor-funded projects and started researching social business models as an alternative. While in the Human Rights and social justice world I felt that donor driven projects could only enact so much change. I started believing in the “trade not aid model,” and in business more so. I also started realising that any real social change would most effectively happen through consumer industries – so what we watch, buy, and listen to should be more so connected to efforts for larger social change. It just became clear to me that a social business model was the best way to approach societal inequality.
Dana went to Parson’s School of Design and has worked on many different product design and graphic design projects for everyone from Godiva and DKNY Textiles to Sotheby’s. She grew up in a Humanitarian and global family so for her too, fashion started to make more sense if it was approached in an ethical way.
A PEACE TREATY designs symbolise how Dana and Farah are a Jew and a Muslim working together – with the tensions in the Middle East this is an arrangement that is rarely seen so this is where the name also comes from.
All of our designs are also connected to our own traditions and heritage – everyone in our families wears scarves (the men too) and jewelry and often places that we are inspired by are in our history (Central Asian motifs; Taureg desert people of Libya etc., The influence of the Silk Road on present day Pakistani textiles).
Akeela (HA): Is there a particular message or philosophy behind your designs? From where do your ideas originate? What shapes your designs?
Farah: I come from a line of social justice and humanitarian work so after working for other people we became eager to do “things on our own terms” and we had to make sure that any projects we did would initiate social change Also, it was important that any of our projects involving the employment of others would be ethically motivated and fair. We pay fair trade rates and employ artisans who have been unemployed for years because they could not keep up with the pressure of factory-based manufacturing.
A PEACE TREATY refers to building bridges to other cultures and places. A lot of the places we work in are burdened with socio-political conflict and so the beautiful traditions and artisans and art from these places go unnoticed. When we started, we realised that at that time there was a real lack of artisan made accessories in the luxury fashion industry. We also saw a big gap in the market in neck accessories. Filling that gap is really what helped us take off.
There were all these Chinatown scarves everywhere and really expensive designer scarves but no mid-priced scarves were available at the time and it was evident that in a time when everyone was wearing a lot of gray and black clothes there was need for bright coloured luxe scarves made from meaningful textiles.
We understood that everyone was still shopping (even with the economic downturn) so we wanted to conceptualize a way to make their purchasing power also create some structural change – perhaps to have people start thinking about how things are produced and think about the stories behind the pieces that they purchased. We believed in bringing products to market that have a history and a story attached to them, so people know where their clothes came from directly, and who produced them.
Our aims were also to: elevate traditional craftsmanship to the status of high end boutique level goods; create employment opportunities for small businesses and families and artisans that have been out of work because of the political tensions and social unrest in their countries or artisans who have been unemployed for years because they could not keep up with the pressure of factory-based manufacturing; bring human rights into high fashion; work in a fair trade manner. A lot of our projects provide work for disabled or widowed women and enable them to rebuild their lives. Everything we make is like an heirloom piece that will last you a lifetime, and you’ll want to pass on to your children.
We’ve set up projects for artisans and rejuvenated at-risk businesses in many towns and villages. Our approach is very much a community empowerment one – elevating traditional handcrafting skills; valorising artisans that have been overlooked.
And finally, A PEACE TREATY was also conceptualised around our own traditions. We simply wanted to make a statement, about how we are a Jew and a Muslim, working together, transcending political differences and focusing on beautiful art!
Akeela (HA): Tell us about your design process. How much of the design process are you involved in?
Farah: We research each collection for 8 months to a year. Right now I have been researching basket-weaving traditions in Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Panama etc. etc. I find organisations; collectives; family businesses and the like, and build relationships with them – to first make a prototype and “workshop” a product development idea etc. Then we go into the sampling and production phases.
Each season we first choose a handcrafting technique such as hand-block-printing, hand weaving, embroidery or hand knitting and design a scarf collection that would be made in that technique. We are very interested in old and dying forms of textile making. This is where most of our obsession starts.
For jewelry we research ancient civilisations, amulets, talismans, old ritual emblems and matriarchal leaders who had huge jewelry collections. We then research the countries that have a history with these particular techniques. We find a region, such as Afghanistan for embroidery, and then use their very own cultural design aesthetic for inspiration.
We become focused on a type of craft that traditionally came from a particular place and then we research it’s history and analyse how it came to be at risk of dying out. The production process is collaborative and experimental to some degree, however the designs do, essentially come from us and are based on months of research – they come into being in our studio in NY.
Due to our often ambitious and arcane inspirations, we know that not all patterns we dream up can be woven on a wooden loom nor can all the motifs we sketch be carved into a wooden block. Still, we try and urge our artisans to think outside of their frames of reference and use their skills on modern designs for a luxury boutique setting. This back-and-forth dialogue almost always guides us to rather more enhanced inspired designs than our original conceptions.
Every A PEACE TREATY piece is uniquely handmade by an artisan that might have spent anywhere from eight hours to four weeks working on that one piece.
Art movements may also inspire us and we mix that inspiration with the tradition in which we are working to create a synergy of modern and traditional. The Bauhaus art movement was mixed with traditional hand knitting of alpaca textiles for one collection, for instance. And Japanese abstract art and vintage kimonos inspired our S/S 2012 which was all hand cut into stencils that were then used to print our scarves. A/W 2013 pays homage to the American Southwest and all the designs make reference to this heritage and to the handmade artifacts from these intertwining of cultures, mixed with the spiritual essence of this romanticized tenet of Americana.
Once we find the co-op or unemployed but highly skilled artisan group that we will be working with we start prototyping. It takes a few months to get the pieces to look and feel “right.” We have to encourage the artisans to think outside of the box and reinvent old patterns in new colors. We believe this is the way to have their skill become relevant beyond just the local dusty markets. By having them think in a high fashion way, we can have them use their skills to enter and compete in the global economy.
Our designs reflect our collective sensibilities. We are on a constant quest to interact with other cultures and traditions. Combining those with our personal backgrounds and sensibilities gives us a recipe for high fashion that is imbued with a wealth of historical and cultural meaning.
Akeela (HA): What is the most rewarding part of working on a new collection?
Farah: Seeing the look on the artisans’ faces (who produce the pieces) when they and their work finds its way into publications such as W Magazine, Vogue or Marie Claire!
Akeela (HA): How do you source production and why is it important to you to make things at the root of where the skill and talent is?
Farah: When we first started the company, the roadmap took shape from my first few trips to Pakistan. I had not been back to Pakistan for 8 years – I knew that Pakistan had a huge textile industry (it was one of the largest exporter of cotton textiles) but that that industry has collapsed due to: a) not being able to keep up with competition from India and China’s growth in manufacturing; b) political volatility, corruption, power shortages; and c) because of all the suspicion with which the country started being viewed after 911. The country’s industries were devastated during the Bush government’s policies and quasi-sanctions, quotas on trade and restrictions.
I had first worked in fashion after moving to NY from London and I became so sick of everyone constantly saying to me: Pakistan? Huh? You’re from that country? What do they produce other than terrorism? I would think to myself: “Wow if only you weren’t so afraid and ignorant.” There is such a huge history of textiles and craftsmanship dating back to the Buddhist era in the land that is now Pakistan – and then the Silk Road passed through there, giving birth to some of the most magnificent textile and handicraft trades in that region. I have travelled to 35 countries and I’ve never seen the indigenous wealth and array of textile making and embroideries, weavings, sewing and embellishment arts on clothing as in the villages of Pakistan.
We have worked in nine countries since our inception. Of those almost all are still active except Afghanistan (because of danger and lack of infrastructure we could not continue). Since we work with small batch producing workshops – we keep rotating back to the same producers. We ensure that the artisans can work at their pace and in a humane way. They can fit our orders into their normal lives which include a little bit of farming or other odd jobs they may want to take on or in the case of women – tending to their families etc.
For instance we have trekked to Bolivia and Peru to work with Aymarra and Quechua indigenous artisans on knitting our collections, we have worked with a widowed-women’s organisation: Afghan Hands to make exquisitely embroidered pieces, we have bought wooden looms for artisans in Pakistan who had been forced to give up the family weaving tradition because of lack of demand.
In Nepal, India and Pakistan we work with hand-weavers, silk-screeners and block-printers in villages all over in addition to bringing dip-dyeing, sewing and printing work to widowed or disabled women so they can work out of their own homes. We have also trained street-kids (above the age of 16) to work in the workshop of the last remaining block-printer in Pakistan.
In Turkey and in the Rajasthan desert we have found old tribal families to make our jewelry often using techniques and materials that have long been cast aside. We had done a lot of research on bone jewelry and horn and bone carving trades in general and what we had noticed was that the trades had pretty much started being obliterated around the 1970’s when resins and plastics took over and demand for the more arduous carving became less so. So, we resuscitated camel-bone carving for our THAR jewelry collection. Then we showed up in Rajasthan, knowing that we could locate families and have the older generations train their younger family members to reinvest interest in the family trade.
For our current collection we researched Libya before Ghadafi – in the 1960’s when the Italians were there. So Tripolitania – this is the starting point for our collections. Of course we also tried to have them produced in North Africa but with a lot of the volatility there right now that would have taken 2 years to complete!
Altogether though, we see our initiatives as a 3-4 year intervention wherein we can support and bring business skills and a market to these artisan groups but should they wish to take things on and go at growing their business independently then that is also great. For instance the block-printer in Pakistan is so in demand now that he barely has time for us! We still work with him every few seasons but he is completely self-sufficient and doing great even if we don’t bring him orders. This is because he was boosted and built capacity and confidence enough to go into the market with new and fresh ideas and designs and concepts so that people started taking note and wanting his designs again after years of struggle. It’s like rebranding these artisan workshops; refreshing them and getting them to stand on their own feet – that is the ultimate goal.
Akeela (HA): Were you always interested in ethical fashion? And do you also enjoy mainstream fashions and trends?
Farah: Yes, and we totally own that we have had a huge part in changing the attitudes of consumers and the industry and fashion media as well. We were talking about some of these ethics and human rights concepts way before the language was really there to talk about it. We were sort of unprecedented – especially in terms of working in places that were traditionally seen negatively in the media.
We totally have an ear to the ground with mainstream fashion – we are constantly researching and scouting and window-shopping. Between us – we also have a very diverse yet defined sense of style – often being on the cutting edge yet mixing that with a lot of trends.
The interview with Farah Malik does not end here. We have more waiting for our readers, so stay tuned!
Feature Editor: Akeela Bhattay
To view A Peace Treaty’s Collections, please visit: