The Locally Made, Refugee Supporting, Upcycling, Vegan, Brand You Need To Know
As a kid, I was an idealist. I thought that with enough will power I could have everything I wanted all at the same time. I could be a professional full-time ballerina AND find the cure for cancer as the nation’s leading researcher. In college I really thought I could stay up till dawn, do 7 am yoga, a full day of classes and rehearsals, and NOT have dark circles under my eyes and a crappy mood. Ah the naivety of youth. While most people would still call me an idealist or at least a dreamer, I’ve learned the lesson that life is not perfect and you can’t get everything you want all the time. You have to make choices and prioritize. It sucks, but thems the breaks.
This realization has never pained me more then when I’m shopping for ethical fashion. There are so many incredible ways to shop ethically, but some of them are mutually exclusive. You can’t buy something made in the USA and have it also made by indigenous women in Guatemala to preserve their artisanal techniques. Vegan shoes can’t be made by leather workers in Uganda the purchase of which send those same women to college. And so you sacrifice perfect in the name of good try to check as many of your ethical boxes as you can.
Adult me is happy I to do some good, but my inner kid is super bummed out I can’t do ALL the good.
Or so I thought. Y’all I found a brand that is pretty damn near close to perfect. It checks so many of my ethical boxes I want to cry. Meet the locally made, refugee supporting, vintage material using, vegan, slow-fashion brand, The Refugee Maker’s Project. To truly understand the awesomeness here I have to back up for a sec.
When I moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania I thought I understood the culture I was moving into, after all I’ve visited here twice a year for the last four years to hang with my in-laws. I understood the love of family, connection to the land, and slower pace of life. What I didn’t count on was Lancaster’s commitment to refugees. Did you know Lancaster has the largest refugee population per capita in the country? Yeah, me neither. Since its founding Pennsylvania has welcomed those looking for the safe harbor. That’s why the Amish were welcomed here, and this tradition has continued throughout the centuries taking in refugees of all kinds with open arms. And I do mean open arms. Walking around the city of Lancaster you see lawn signs everywhere that say “Wherever you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic. It’s an amazing sight and one that makes me proud to call Lancaster my new home.
This long history brought together two unlikely collaborators. Bryan Norris an established premium hand-crafted clothing designer and Remmy Kosongo a tailor and Congolese refugee. While Remmy had been a tailor for 15 years, his talents were completely going to waste in the US. Instead of creating beautiful clothes, he worked late nights with harsh chemicals cleaning equipment in a poultry factory. Unfortunately this scenario is all too common. Due to language barriers, long recertification processes and just plain not understanding what the heck credentials from other countries even mean nearly 2 million college educated refugees and immigrants are stuck in low-paying low-skilled work. This kind of brain waste hurts everyone.
When Bryan met Remmy he saw the value of Remmy’s skill and life experience and wanted to do something about it. So they got to work and from their disparate styles created something bold yet sophisticated. By using African wax prints over old-issue camo they’ve found a seamless blend of their two styles; Bryan’s neat and orderly Remmy’s bold and random. Not only is their stuff dope as hell, it’s everything I want in my ethical fashion.
It solves a real problem by providing Remmy with a job that utilizes his skill-set. He’s able to provide for his family. learns the English, and becomes more integrated in the community. It’s made locally using old materials so little to no resources are consumed during production. Also it uses African wax prints and actually benefits an African family directly in a lovely example of cultural respect.
Maybe my favorite thing about the Refugee Maker’s Project though is the symbolism within its design. Remmy was displaced during the Second Congo War which killed 5.4 million people and displaced another 2 million. This war has shattered and shaped his life in ways I will never be able to comprehend. And yet the RMP takes the most obvious symbol of war, camouflage, and reimagines it into a physical representation of Remmy’s hope and transformation. When I look at the camo jackets I see a once hated and feared pattern gently peppered with beautiful butterflies and birds. It’s a reminder that all things change and that with time even the oldest wounds can be healed through love and art.
If that’s not perfect, I don’t know what is.
The Refugee Maker’s Project recently launched their Etsy shop which you can find here. Each piece is made by hand and totally unique so make sure to pick one up before they sell out!