Three weeks ago, a hopeful, creative Ugandan woman sat in a chair rolling paper into beads. One after another she rolled beads, hung them to dry of their wet varnish, and then strung them into a necklace. But today, those beads are halfway around the world in L.A., hanging on a model’s neck. Lights are flashing, people are bustling, and the crowd is humming in anticipation to see this new statement piece all the way from Africa. A synchronized gasp quickly followed by a round of applause erupted as those beads reached the top of the runway.
“Every product has a story of where it’s been and where it’s going.”
Nakate has these words branding their website. Their African products are made deep in the heart of Uganda by women working their way out of poverty; and they are making their way to American runways. We learned how fair trade products are designed for the runway, but how do they get there?
Nakate founder, Shanley Knox, talks about Nakate’s partnership with L.A. celebrity stylist Antonio Esteban, “I get to focus on the causes I care about, and he does the work with producing amazing visual branding.” This is the beauty of fair trade, the collision of our desire for fashion and our heart for ending poverty.
Knox describes the high-fashion partnership, “He’s amazing, down to earth, one of my favorite people. Some nights that looks like wine on his couch laughing our faces off about something stupid I did that day, and other times it looks like shipping out pieces priority for him to do a shoot and then detailing the vision we’re driving for. Good partnerships are seamless, I think, and that’s us.” This “seamless” partnership produced the Knox-Esteban collection, a statement piece bib-shaped necklace made of up-cycled paper beads. Their work advances past the original paper bead jewelry which came out several years ago. The Knox-Esteban collected mimics the stunning structure of America’s high-fashion jewelry, but replaces our Chinese, sweatshop-made beads with the up-cycled beads offering opportunity for Ugandan women to turn their lives around.
Knox shares how the artisans in Uganda respond to these high-fashion partnerships, “The girls are really cute about seeing their work published or on the runway… Sometimes they say ‘I can’t believe that’s my work!’ Other times they want to print it out and get it up on the wall.” These women transformed their circumstances of poverty into the lives of accomplished business women, giddy over seeing their pieces on a platform. How many of us can say we’ve reached such a feat?Knox explained how getting Nakate’s pieces in the hands of stylists and on the runways is about networking; “Most the people that I’ve ended up working with, such as Antonio, I’ve met through others and its been an authentic partnership that came out of mutual love for Nakate’s mission.” She lists authenticity, quality, and relentless drive as necessities when bringing in partners. Nakate even has new partnerships “in the works” to be revealed in the future.
“I see vision coming together…” Knox expressed. Women are receiving a dignified opportunity to provide for themselves and receive a steady income for their families. Charitable donations fade. Money is spent, food is consumed, TOMS shoes wear out. But teaching a woman a trade and offering her a job creates a cycle of sustainability that will never end while she is being empowered. “[These] women are beginning to understand where good business and responsibility can get them. With that comes hope and with hope comes drive, and quality work,” reflected Knox, “I see all of these components coming together.”