Meet Carcel, the Sustainable Fashion Brand by Women in Prison

CPHFW-calendarThe story about Carcel is both incredible and wild and raises a bunch of questions. As the ultimate outlier of Copenhagen’s fashion scene, all of the new Danish fashion brand’s products are manufactured by imprisoned women in some of the world’s poorest countries. The business is built on dogmas that ensure a responsible, sustainable production, with local, natural materials and 100% transparency of their supply and production chains. The two founders and CEO’s Veronica D’Souza and Louise Van Hauen have spent the last year designing and defining their style and developing their business model. Unexpected support has been given from the Danish island of Lolland and from a visionary Peruvian by the name of Julius Caesar, and Carcel is finally ready to launch during this week’s Copenhagen Fashion Week. We met up with D’Souza and Van Hauen in Carcel’s studio in Nørrebro to learn more.

Louise Van Hauen is a London design graduate in leather design and served as the creative director of a Kenyan bag fashion brand when she and Veronica D’Souza met in Nairobi in 2014. D’Souza has a background in business and was in Nairobi to launch her first social project Ruby Cup, she explains: “I have an interest in developing business models that can improve the world and make money at the same time.While living in Nairobi I became curious to visit a women’s prison. I contacted a maximum security facility nearby and arranged a visit. I had no idea of what to expect from it, I only knew such prisons from American movies. However, it turned out to be totally different. The inmates were women from the village and poverty was the primary reason for their imprisonment. It was extremely stigmatising, especially for women, to be looked upon as criminals — once you had been to jail, the re-accessing society became very hard. Inside the prison there was a barrack where the women knitted and sewed to keep themselves engaged with something. The atmosphere there was good, but they only had access to bad materials. They sold their products in a small visitors shop, but only earned very little. So here were these skilled women who had all the time in the world, many with kids outside prison they couldn’t support financially. I eyed a potential, and thought that we could make something good out of this while at the same time making an actual difference for the inmates. I knew from the beginning that it was important that it wasn’t a charity. That is neither lasting nor sustainable in itself. If we were to create something, the products and the quality of them needed to speak for themselves. However, I’m not a fashion designer so I bought a few of the products they produced at the time and showed them to Louise.” Veronica went back to Denmark and got preoccupied with other things, but a year after she picked up the idea again. She made what she calls a ‘weird mapping’ and marked the places on the world map where you get the best, most sustainable materials, combined with the highest poverty related crime rates for women. One of those places was Peru.

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“We found the president for the Peruvian prison system through a Google search,” D’Souza explains. “His name was Julius Caesar. We called him and had an incredible 30 seconds exchange that sounded like this: Hola, hello.. hello.. Is anyone there? We are from Denmark, we wish to visit some prisons, and maybe start some manufacturing. His only reply was: Interesting. Call me when you’re here. Shortly after we booked flight tickets and travelled to Peru with our families. We managed to set up a meeting with Julius Caesar, but honestly had no idea of what to expect from it. When we entered his office we were introduced to seven bosses from the Peruvian prison system. A television was turned on behind Caesar, with a cartoon playing at maximum volume. He gave a speech in which he stressed that he believes in a human prison system but that he didn’t have the necessary resources to meet the demand of development and jobs. He welcomed us and gave us free access to all women’s prisons in Peru. After a month of traveling in Peru, we decided to engage with Cusco women’s prison far up in the Andes mountains, home of the alpacas. Many of the inmates are from that area too and know a great deal about the wool. We didn’t worry about the remote location until later when we had to transport the enormous industrial knitting machines from Lima and up into the mountains.”

“I had no experience with knit or wool beforehand”, Louise Van Hauen explains. “With woven fabrics or leather which I am accustomed to, you can just cut something out of a pattern. Wool is different, it is very lively. That makes it beautiful but also difficult to work with. It was crucial for me to learn how to knit and use the machines myself.” “In that regard, one of the most important things that happened was that we received a call from [the Danish island of] Lolland,” D’Souza adds. “The person who called was Merethe, a woman in her seventies. She had two knitting machines that she wanted to donate to us. She had taught hand machine knitting for forty years and offered to show us how it works. We both spent a weekend in Lolland on a knitting course with Merethe and her assistant”. “Now we have a knitting machine in Copenhagen, similar to the ones we have in Peru”, says Louise Van Hauen. “We make prototypes here, and when we have a design and a knitting recipe we forward it to Peru with photos and a technical description. When making designs we ask ourselves one basic question: what is it that makes you look beautiful and make you feel good at the same time? It is often in the detail. It is very subtle. A few millimeters here and there, a neckline, you name it. At the same time, we are not afraid of trying something new. We are not conservative in any way. For us, growth equals creative development. Sometimes we are asked if our business dogmas are an obstruction. They are not, on the contrary, they provide very clean possibilities. Some things can be done, and some can’t. There is a huge amount of freedom in it.”

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When talking to Veronica D’Souza and Louise Van Hauen it becomes clear that Carcel is designed on the necessity of and will to be present for its vulnerable workers all the way from the design development to the final product. Even having a stable supplier stands in striking contrast to an industry known for pushing the prices down and brands leaving production countries as soon as a cheaper offer is given from somewhere else. The two Directors travel to Peru often, and call their employees by their first names. Furthermore, Carcel works with a local partner in Peru, a small family owned business who works inside the prison every day with Carcel’s design associate, Meike. There is no internet or telephonic contact to the prison and having employees going in and out of prison with messages and information is crucial.

“We work under different conditions than most other brands and our business models are built around that,” D’Souza states. “Also, we can’t push through a deadline. Most of the women have been exposed to stress and high pressure. It is hard to be imprisoned away from your family and depression is a normal condition in jail. It makes no sense saying: we need 500 items of this and that. Also, the job is set in a prison. We are subject to their rules and we have to adapt to whatever happens there. Someone can be on trial, and maybe someone is placed in isolation. We need to be prepared for those things. At the same time, our ambitions are sky  high. It is more fun for everyone to produce something really good. In Peru, we work almost as if it was a French tailor. We find solutions together. What can you do on this machine that you can’t on a digital one? It takes some time to figure out, but it is also what makes it fun. One of our employees, Rosa, had no experience when she first started. It was hard for her to get a hold on the process and we started worrying if she would ever feel any success in doing it. But then all of a sudden, after two months of practising, she found the key. Now, she is one of our most efficient knitters. I don’t think you would see that patience in a regular factory. In Carcel we have time to start from scratch, because unfortunately most of the women are sentenced to more than ten years. We continuously look into each woman’s strengths and weaknesses to find out how we can work together, and to examine how we can create a collaborative culture instead of an individual one.”

The idea of employing these women is a strong gesture. But you could also object that there is a structural dilemma by having imprisoned women manufacturing garments to a wealthy western world. What are your thoughts on that?
“We have some images from Peru, with us holding the clothes and I thought about it when I saw that,” Louise Van Hauen says and continues: “but the fact is that the things exist. People with money to buy fancy clothes exists, and women without any possibilities who are imprisoned in poor countries, also exists. It does not disappear if we stop looking at it. Transparency is crucial in our company. In each of our sweaters, the name of the woman who knitted it is written in the neck. So the women are available, but we also don’t want to expose them. We don’t want to say: look what these women can do. Because of course, they can, we hire them because they are skilled. We are not hiding anything, nothing is secret or opaque.”

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What are your visions and future hopes for Carcel?
“We want to contribute to making it a part of fashion’s hygiene factor you have a production line that treats people and the planet well. One of our dreams is to make it mainstream so that we don’t need the label “sustainable fashion” anymore. It has to stop being niche. People also seem ready to break with the big contrasts. Ten years ago you either NGO or a business. Fashion or social project. It is not like that anymore. The new generations are better at navigating in something that is both. Fashion has been subject to a nervousness for a long time where people have been afraid of saying something wrong. Now they are more open and curious. Just as often as people ask if a sweater comes in a certain colour, they ask how the business is built. That is a huge gift. But at the end of the day, we would like people to buy our clothes because they think it’s cool. The business relies on it being an attractive brand. We hope for success because it would enable us to employ more women. We want to focus on the insanely good quality of the garments, that the materials are good and on the beautiful design. That the production is fair and that you treat the planet and your employees respectfully is an absolute minimum.”

Carcel is planning to expand to five countries working with five different materials within the next five years. Cusco women prison is their first project but a silk start-up in Thailand is alreadytaking its form. Carcel does not show seasons but launches small drops from fall this year. The items are available online from the 8. of August, but pop by Carcel’s three days pop-up shop in Kinfolk gallery during Copenhagen Fashion Week August 8.-10.

Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak
All images courtesy of Carcel

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