Ever wonder where, how, and by whom the products we use and encounter in our daily lives are made? New Yorker Elizabeth Suda began with this question when she launched ARTICLE22, a fashion brand that partners with artisan communities around the world to design, produce, and sell accessories that tell stories and give back. Its first collection, Peacebomb, consists of jewellery created by artisans in Laos from Vietnam War bombs and scrap metal that remain scattered on their land.
Transforming the bad into the beautiful, Peacebomb helps demine unexploded bombs to make Laos safe. The simplest bracelet clears three square meters of bomb-littered land. Today, ARTICLE22 sells in 39 countries on article22.com and through a network of 150+ stores globally.
OxStu Fashion interviewed Elizabeth Suda (who studied abroad at Oxford as an undergraduate), on the story behind her brand and the challenges and rewards of working in ethical fashion.
Tell us about ARTICLE22; what is the story and concept behind the brand?
ARTICLE22 works at the nexus of local development and the global market. In partnership with artisan communities, we create authentic accessories that are modern in design but made according to traditional methods. We capacity build upon pre-existing skills, help develop sustainable local enterprises, and provide global market linkage. We pursue an inclusive and respectful globalization.
Can you tell us about your background and what led you to create ARTICLE22?
My experience working in the men’s merchandising department at Coach, Inc. was crucial to starting a retail business. The men’s team was small, which meant that I engaged in high-level meetings on all aspects of the supply chain from design and development to production, quality assurance, sales and analysis. Working with all the cross-functional teams made me realise how everything connected and how important each department is in bringing what seems like a simple product to market.
Working so closely with the product got me thinking about how the things we purchase are made. I saw what a powerful force the fashion market was and wondered whether it could be harnessed to do good. What if there was an offer of products that benefitted the people that made them? I had read about the rich natural dyeing and handloom weaving culture in Laos and decided I needed to go. I lived there for six months, working with a local women-led textile business, Nikone Handicrafts, and Swiss NGO Helvetas.
What is the brand aesthetic?
Minimalist and classic.
What inspires you?
Many things. Discovering local cultures, Muhammad Yunus, Russian constructivist art. In particular, I appreciate this moment in history when artists created art with a social mission. The style and ideas behind Constructivism extended from painting and sculpture into film, photography, and more practical design work. ARTICLE22 embraces this idea that design can be a vehicle for change. For us, fashion innovation is about both aesthetics and ethics.
You began with the question, “How and by whom are the goods we consume made?” What are some of the answers that you have found to that question?
I’ve never been to any large factories, but we’ve all read horror stories – pink rivers in China, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. It is unfair to assume that all large companies produce with such negative social and environmental impact. But, as a small company, we have direct relationships with artisans and provide our customers with documentary photos and film to bring them into direct contact with the talented people behind their products. It is our intention to help people realise their ideas through their objects. Supply chain transparency is one of the ways we do it.
Can you elaborate on the process of working with artisans in rural Laos?
Our success working thousands of miles apart is built on strong relationships within the village and with our country manager, Manivone. We started a few years ago by designing from wood and ash molds within the limits of local production. We applied light finishings in the US, including engraving and leather. Since then, we have built upon these simple designs, bringing the artisans new prototypes and tools, enabling them to make more challenging designs and thereby earn more money. Precious finishings that cannot be achieved in the village are applied in Vientiane and New York.
What are some challenges you have faced in building the brand and running the company?
Entrepreneurship is multidisciplinary. The daily mix of numbers, impact, aesthetics, and storytelling in our social fashion business is so engaging. I love that I have the opportunity to collaborate with talented artists, travel to work with our artisan partners, and hear stories from customers across the world ranging from U.S. Vietnam Veterans to Australian boutique owners passionate about contemporary design and conscious consumption. But the multidisciplinary nature of entrepreneurship is also full of the unknown and unexpected. Every time we need to order new business cards, I think about putting ‘firefighter’ as my title because I’m constantly extinguishing fires, big and small. And it’s not just like spraying water all over. When a huge holiday delivery got stopped in customs, I first had to understand why it happened and who I could ask for help before determining how to fix it and how to balance cost against time. So one of the biggest challenges is definitely executing tasks and making efficient decisions in areas where our small team lacks expertise.
Any exciting plans for the company moving forward?
We have a weaving project in Laos with the World Bank, another project in Colombia, and another in India. As we are “slow fashion” we do not have a precise timeline for product launch. In each case, we are working with an artisan community, capacity building, and developing a product that tells their story.