Photos all from 1992
Probably the first Fair Trade Fashion company in the UK, Pachacuti was originally intended to be a short holiday project before I commenced my PhD.
Twenty years on, Pachacuti is recognised as a pioneering ethical brand which has consistently pushed for higher ethical and environmental standards and increased traceability within the fashion supply chain.
Presenting collections each season at London and Paris Fashion Week, undertaking private label work for top brands and supplying some of the most prestigious stores around the world, we have certainly come along way since 1992!
The current success of Pachacuti is all the more surprising considering that setting up a fashion business was really something of an accident. Whilst on a research trip to Ecuador for my MA in Native American studies, I went to buy wool with members of a small knitting co-operative.
I saw the vendors clearly taking advantage of the producers' low levels of literacy and numeracy and overcharging for the weight of wool purchased. Two of the worker co-operatives I met had also experienced arson attacks as a result of the threat they posed to the intermediaries who controlled the wool trade.
Shocked by these clear injustices in the trading system and spurred on by reading Anita Roddick's autobiography, I decided to set up a project to help the producers during my summer holiday before commencing my PhD in the autumn.
Returning to Ecuador, I provided finances to buy raw materials in bulk and, despite having no background in fashion design, produced a capsule collection of naturally-dyed knitwear which proved so popular that it sold out within six weeks. Seeing the tangible difference this made to the producers’ livelihoods encouraged me to give up my research and focus instead on building an ethical fashion brand.
However, the next six months were to prove extremely challenging to this fledgling Fair Trade fashion business: an armed robber in Ecuador stole all of my business profits and a large loan destined for purchasing the next collection; I received two death threats; a recession began in the UK and the exchange rate for sterling dropped from $2 to $1.30 on Black Wednesday. Undeterred, I lived in a van and sold at events throughout the country in order to pay back my debts, although even this wasn't easy at the time of the Criminal Justice Act as I was frequently awoken to be moved on by the police.
Twenty years later, Pachacuti is recognised as one of the foremost ethical fashion brands and is sold around the world, with sales in the Far East growing particularly rapidly. We are also expanding our private label work and in the past year have produced for companies such as Paul Smith, Brora, Johnstons of Elgin, Cath Kidston, Hiroko Koshino and Gieves & Hawkes. Recognised principally for our collections of Panama hats, we also produce ranges of felt hats and alpaca accessories.
However, after twenty years, I have no intention of sitting on my ethical laurels as I believe that it is important for us not to become complacent but to continue to push the boundaries as there is still much to be done in terms of improving accountability within the fashion industry.
My commitment to improving ethical and environmental standards has led to Pachacuti's participation in two important international pilot projects over the past four years. In 2009 Pachacuti became the first Fair Trade company to label all of our products as Certified Fair Trade after completing the pilot for the Fair Trade System, the new World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) certification process, guaranteeing social, economic and environmental responsibility.
The WFTO certification is the first which looks at an integrated supply chain, rather than how a specific commodity is produced. This is an important paradigm shift as, in the fashion and accessories industry, most of the added value is in the design and production process of the products, not in the raw material.
Within the fashion industry, it is becoming increasingly essential to trace all products from the marketplace to their origin in order to avoid anonymity and, as a consequence, human rights, labour and environmental infringements. Together with our main weaving association in Ecuador, we have been participating in the EU Geo Fair Trade Project for the past two years which will take traceability and transparency to a whole new level. We will soon be barcoding our Panama hats, enabling our customers to see the GPS co-ordinates and photograph of the weaver, together with up to 100 social, economic and environmental indicators which are updated annually - a level of traceability not easy to achieve, particularly given that only 45% of our weavers' houses are accessible by car.
Pachacuti's commitment to Fair Trade fashion has been recognised by numerous awards which in 2011 included the Observer Ethical Award, Best Performance in Sustainable Luxury in Latin America and being Highly Commended, beaten only by Marks & Spencer, in the National Awards for Excellence Responsible Supply Chain Award. Pachacuti has been setting ethical standards for the last 20 years and we will certainly do our best to keep the fashion industry on its stiletto-clad toes for many years to come.
Pachacuti's 20th Birthday will be in May 2012