Huaywasi: How Artisans Are Changing the Fashion Industry

Huaywasi is dedicated to changing lives through education and empowerment. Photos: Huaywasi.

We don’t always think about the journey our clothing takes to get on the racks of our favorite department stores and malls. Long before they’re shipped overseas, they’re often made by people in conditions that deny them basic human rights, as too often the fashion industry places profit over the value of people’s lives. Fortunately, however, organizations worldwide have emerged to change the inner workings of the clothing industry. One such group is called Huaywasi. The program is an extension of the Light and Leadership Initiative, a non-profit organization which seeks to empower women and children in Huaycán, a suburb of Lima, Peru. The Founder and Executive Director, Lara DeVries, is from the suburbs of Chicago, but the social justice activist has made it her organization’s mission to increase Peru’s access to quality education and empowerment programs. Huaywasi is based in both Peru and Chicago, and this global community of artisans and activists are changing lives. Here is my interview with Shelby O’Brien, Huaywasi’s Program Director.

What is Huaywasi and why is it important?

Huaywasi is a fair-trade artisan project. We currently work with seven artisans in Huaycán, each with diverse skill sets and amazing talents. Our artisans are all members of the Women’s Empowerment Program with The Light and Leadership Initiative, which offers certificate courses and educational workshops several times weekly to women in the Huaycán community. Our artisans attend at minimum one of these workshops or courses per month. In the meantime, they work from home on product orders from Huaywasi. We currently have two seamstresses, two knitters, a ceramicist and painter, a traditional hand-loomed textile producer and an accessory maker/screen printer. Each artisan has her unique line of products that she works on with Huaywasi. The artisans are paid a fair wage for their products, and work with Huaywasi staff and volunteer fashion designers to constantly improve their products and learn new skills. The profits that Huaywasi generates from product sales support the continuation of the free courses and workshops offered by LLI’s Women’s Empowerment Program. Huaywasi is therefore extremely important not only for LLI as an organization but also for each one of our artisans, as their monthly product orders allow them to financially support themselves and their families while continuing to embellish their skills and empower themselves through education.

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What led you to begin Huaywasi?

Huaywasi started as an artisan program and branch of the Women’s Empowerment Program with The Light and Leadership Initiative. LLI is a 501(3) non-profit that’s been working nearly a decade in Huaycán, providing free after-school and weekend programs. The artisan program started to really gain some momentum, and we saw great potential in our artisans and in our mission. We wanted to expand our reach with the hopes of higher income for our artisans. We decided to officially create the Huaywasi brand with our artisans and with that came the launch of the online store in August 2016. We’re very proud of how far we’ve come and looking forward to growing and expanding slowly and steadily.

Huaywasi is a name with a story. What does it mean?

Huaywasi (pronounced why-wa-si) artisans live and work in the community of Huaycán. So, that’s where we took the first half of our name (Huay). “Wasi” means “home” in Quechua, the native language of the Andes. Our name embraces our appreciation for Huaycán and sense of community that we’ve built there and as such, we combined Huaycán with Wasi to create Huaywasi!

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This program is a response to the continued rise of Fast Fashion. Can you explain what that is?

Fast Fashion is the phenomenon in the fashion industry whose goal is to produce quickly and cheaply without regards to the well-being of garment workers, the environment or the quality of the goods produced. Huaywasi embraces a Slow Fashion model, meaning that we value our artisans’ safety and health, choose quality over quantity and are mindful of the relationship between production and the environment. As a result, we have two fashion lines a year (versus 20 or more in fast fashion), putting people over profits.

Huaywasi values ethical fashion principles and human rights. 

What is the impact of Fast Fashion on people’s lives around the world and our environment?

Fast Fashion is responsible for the death and suffering of many garment workers throughout the world. These workers endure unsafe and sometimes abusive working conditions and are extremely underpaid for their work. Equally as devastating is Fast Fashion’s environmental impact. Textile waste and chemical waste have contaminated bodies of water and caused unrepairable damage to ecosystems worldwide. To learn more, check out what Fashion Revolution is up to and how to get involved.

Artisan Huaywasi
Huaywasi is a proponent of Slow Fashion and quality working conditions. Photo: Huaywasi.

Huaywasi blends art, human rights and environmentalism. How do each of these elements influence your program?

Our artisans are very talented women who have fine-tuned their skills through practice and education. Some of our artisans learned their trade with our program, and others had been practicing many years before entering our program. Our ceramicist, Saida, for example, learned ceramics in an LLI workshop a few years ago. Daría, on the other hand, learned to hand-loom her textiles many years ago and brought that skill to Huaycán from the highlands region of Ayacucho.

Huaywasi values ethical fashion principles and human rights. Our artisans work from their homes and design their own flexible schedules and working hours, and they are paid a fair wage for every product they turn in.

Huaywasi realizes the negative impact that clothing and accessory production can have on the environment. That’s why we up-cycle our fabric scraps into new products, incorporate other recycled materials like leather into our bags and we look forward to incorporating organic cotton into our spring and summer 2018 collections.

How has this program impacted the region and the artisans involved?

The project has had a very positive impact on the artisans and their families, both in regards to their financial and personal development. In a recent survey with our artisans, 100 percent agreed that the program helps them to improve the quality of lives for themselves and their families, that they have formed new friendships thanks to their participation in the program and that they feel they are paid a fair price for their products. Before working for Huaywasi, several of our artisans were either not working at all or were underpaid and mistreated in their workplaces. Huaywasi has provided them with a safe and ethical working environment, where their opinions and feedback are encouraged, their talents are valued and they are paid fairly and on time.

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How is Andean culture preserved through Huaywasi?

Huaywasi artisans use many traditional methods and designs in their products. Daría, for example, uses a large loom from Ayacucho to produce her hand-loomed textiles. You will also see “Ayacucho style” embroidery on many of her products. Saida, our ceramicist, paints her ceramic Pucará bulls using traditional Andean designs. Nélida hand-weaves belts using a technique from Huancavelica that her grandmother taught her. You will also find traditional Andean fabric incorporated in many of our clothes and accessories.

Tell us about the artisans and what their art means to them.

The artisans value their talents as a means of empowering themselves financially and personally. With their product orders, they are able to provide stable income for themselves and their families. They find pride in the quality and authenticity of their products.

What do you hope Huaywasi’s continued impact will be?

We hope that Huaywasi continues to gain recognition and support. As we grow, we are able to provide higher salaries to our existing artisans, employ more artisans and therefore empower more female artisans and their families through economic and educational support.