The Fashion Memo

Where Does Consciously Crafted Fashion Go From Here?

Dress by Tongoro, designed and produced in Dakar, Senegal

From delivering fair wages and ethical supply chains to sourcing planet-friendly fabrics and championing traditional craftsmanship, these labels are using their products and platforms to drive conscious consumption. By AMANDA RANDONE

Tongoro’s Sarah Diouf

Based in Senegal’s vibrant metropolis of Dakar, clothing designer Sarah Diouf is certainly not lacking in inspiration. It is from this West African urban hub that she produces collections for her ready-to-wear label Tongoro, which counts Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Naomi Campbell among its many fans. The city’s spirit and stories seemingly materialize in Diouf’s use of billowing silhouettes, mesmerizing prints and local textiles, and Tongoro’s Instagram feed is peppered with imagery celebrating this aesthetic as part of its five-year-anniversary campaign. The photos were shot on a nearby beach that appears almost dreamy enough to rival the magic of the designs themselves. The same phrase is repeated in the accompanying captions, written in the Senegalese dialect of Wolof. It reads: ‘Sama géntu maam’, which translates as ‘My ancestor’s dream’.

“I am so inspired by our culture on a daily basis,” says Diouf – who was born in France and raised on the Ivory Coast by parents of Senegalese, Congolese and Central African descent – of her current surroundings. “But because our history as African people is rich and deep, it’s also a great place to be in order to learn more about traditional techniques, prints and general know-how.”

Working with artisans who preserve that knowledge within their craft is essential not only to Tongoro’s ethos as a fashion brand, but to Diouf’s definition of sustainability itself. “It’s the ability to create value through a commercial product without compromising, if not bettering, the wellbeing of the human resources required in the process,” she says. While Diouf acknowledges that there is no perfect model for accomplishing this in the fashion space, she believes that industry-wide conversations about how to develop one must be ongoing and centered around questions like, is what I’m making creating value? Does it benefit every actor along the supply chain? How is it impacting the environment?

It’s the ability to create value through a commercial product without compromising, if not bettering, the wellbeing of the human resources required in the process

While what’s been dubbed the ‘green fashion movement’ has been gathering pace over the past few decades, the primary focal point for brands and designers tends to be on recycling, reducing waste and curbing carbon emissions and water pollution. But in a country like Senegal, Diouf says putting more conscious business models into practice starts by ensuring that “everyone can eat and afford housing before we get to talking about anything else”. So, since Tongoro’s inception in 2016, Diouf’s mission has always been to foster the economic and social advancement of West Africa’s artisanal communities. She does this by sourcing materials on the continent and partnering with Senegalese tailors, who she trains to meet international standards of production. She even produced a 30-minute documentary entitled Made in Africa, which champions African craftsmanship and community involvement in the manufacturing of her collections.

In short, Diouf’s vision looks beyond Tongoro and towards a future where the growth of her brand contributes towards benefitting society. “If you have more artisans making a decent living, they become economic contributors; they regain a certain dignity; the perception of the craft is renewed, and the creative sector holds more value, which can attract investments and the development of more businesses,” she explains with the same optimism that’s woven into the fabric of every Tongoro garment.

According to Claire Bates, a circular and sustainable-fashion consultant, the human cost of consumerism must be treated with the same urgency as the price paid by the planet. “A responsible fashion system works in harmony with the world’s ecosystems and natural cycles; it supports and uplifts the people who contribute to it and engage with it, is regenerative, and operates in service to the systems and beings that support it,” she says. Considering the fashion industry employs one in six people in the workforce worldwide – the majority of whom are women of color – the racial and gendered implications of the industry’s often-punishing production and delivery schedules cannot be overlooked. And, as Bates points out, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this fact. They don’t just want to see that change – they’re demanding it. “Many fashion consumers now consider sustainability an imperative,” Bates asserts. “Consumers, myself included, look for authentic, transparent mentions of sustainability before making a purchase. There is also a growing subset of highly engaged customers who prioritize brands because of their responsible efforts and are willing to spend extra time searching for brands that resonate with their values.”

All pieces, Tongoro
Helen de Kluiver, founder of Caes

"The human aspect is equally as important, too. Working with the right people who share your vision and bring knowledge and experience to the table is as important as any other part of the supply chain, and ensuring these people are treated fairly is paramount for us,” says Helen de Kluiver, founder of the Amsterdam-based brand Caes, which was established in 2019. She adds that the label’s production takes place in Portugal at family-owned companies with similar values to her own. “Our suppliers are put through rigorous auditing processes to ensure that their workers are fairly treated and compensated for their time and skill.”

The brand’s name itself sounds like that of her late father, Kees, who was a scientist, and the word ‘case’. The latter is representative of her sartorial philosophy that clothing, worn so close to the skin on a daily basis, should function as a protective outer layer. Or, otherwise put, as a case. Her seasonless designs (think sleek flared slacks cut from a black scuba fabric and creamy alpaca-blend sweaters) are durable and made with materials such as Vegea – a leather alternative that uses wine-industry waste. “Grape skin, leaves and pulp,” she clarifies for me.

At its best, responsible fashion is a tangible expression of positive change
Caes focuses on a select few styles each season to ensure every design is made with meticulous attention to detail and results in a smaller carbon footprint

In order for her designs to be “proof that consciously crafted fashion can be beautiful,” de Kluiver is constantly researching how to improve her production methods. Her pattern-maker works exclusively in 3D to avoid discarding unused materials, for example, and her packaging is fully compostable. She focuses on a select few styles per season to prevent overstock and equip shoppers with everything they would need to shift to a smaller capsule wardrobe. And, like Diouf, de Kluiver’s interpretation is not limited to the garments themselves.

From Bates’ perspective, designers like Diouf and de Kluiver are reimagining how this industry could operate, and using their products and platforms to enlighten others about conscious consumption. “As the majority of a product’s environmental impact is solidified at the design stage, designers are crucial in developing products that are fit for a less resource-intensive future,” she says. For brands actively working towards that better and brighter future, their efforts breathe new life and purpose into an organization – and that comes through in what they ultimately create.

“At its best,” Bates shares, “responsible fashion is a tangible expression of positive change.”