21 May, 2018

108 dresses: the label of love empowering women in India


Imagine if you could use your talent to create something beautiful and at the same time empower other women to lead more fulfilling lives. Andi Vendy is doing just that with her ethical fashion label 108 Dresses, which provides employment and upskilling opportunities for women and single mothers in India. Andi took time out from her label of love to share her story with Living Smart.

LS: Please tell us the story of how you connected your passion for design and clothing with women in need in India?

AV: I’ve been involved in fashion and clothing for many years and love the process of creating and designing.

I had an epiphany travelling through India after become a single mother. When I saw so many other single mothers, all of a sudden that separateness of self and other fell away. Here were women who wanted the same for their children that I wanted for mine but they were living on the streets with no home, no income, no food for their children. The poverty, illness and danger that these mothers and children experience on a daily basis was overwhelming. I thought perhaps I could use my love of clothing to help these women.

Before returning, I raised $3000 through crowdfunding to buy enough supplies to start a small workshop. I took my two children, then aged 7 and 10, several industrial sewing machines and some patterns I had, and set up a label with some gorgeous single mums.

There was no big business plan, other than to provide the women with a source of income and sell enough dresses to fund the next round. Once the dresses were complete, I needed to find an outlet for sales so set up a pop-up shop at the Sunspace Café in Doonan on the Sunshine Coast. That first batch of dresses has now sold out.

LS: How does the 108 dresses project empower the women involved?

AV: India offers very few opportunities for women. Both poverty and cultural beliefs are working against them and this is especially the case for single mothers.

Our program teaches women new skills and provides a source of income which gives them independence. It’s an opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty, look after themselves better, and be able to feed and care for their children.

Women garment workers are generally paid terrible wages. If you think of the price of clothing, the women are paid something like 2% of the ticket price. It’s not even a living wage so workers can’t live on what they earn. Our community of workers are paid a living wage and have the opportunity to learn new skills which they can use to source other work.

LS: India is a massive and overwhelming place. How did you navigate your way through the immense need to find the right people for your project?

AV: I’ve worked with an Indian charity called Embracing the World for about 25 years and have seen their programs that support women and children. They helped me connect with some communities that might be interested.

I was introduced to an experienced tailor and single mother from Mysore named Anaradha. We met at an hilarious café in an ashram, with a dirt floor and elephants walking through the middle. She couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Hindi. I explained the project through a translator and she knew women in Mysore who would be keen to learn.

I had only known Anuradha for about half an hour but we just connected. When her husband died leaving her and their two young children with nothing, she had reached out to one of the Embracing the World charities for help. They offered her work and now she is facilitating programs to help other women in the community so this idea really resonated.

LS: What is the meaning behind the name 108 dresses?

AV: After the crowdfunding campaign finished, I did some quick maths on the back of an envelope to work out how many dresses we could make with the funds available and it came to 108. It was a beautiful auspicious name, a feminine number and mala beads that are used for meditation have 108 beads so it just felt right. I used it as my Instagram handle and it stuck.

LS: With such different clothing styles between here and India, how have your designs been received by the women making the dresses?

AV: Before we got started, I didn’t even think about western tailoring being different to Indian tailoring. Anaradha and I looked at the patterns I had together. I always thought my clothing was modest and conservative. The women were like: “you wear pants under them, right?” It was really cute, we had a good laugh over the differences between here and India.

In the west, clothing is more fitted and we have darts, elastic and zips so we spent time demonstrating those techniques as well as how garments need to be finished to meet western quality standards.

In India, learning is such an honour, a privilege which is taken seriously. We in the west try to make it entertaining and fun to keep people interested but they have such reverence for teachers and learning anything that teaching was easy. Oddly, no one was laughing at my jokes!

LS: How would you describe the style of the dresses?

AV: Our dresses are intended to be feminine. The entire project has been created to nurture the feminine, from the women making the clothes to those who wear them. They are very flattering for the female body, with some unique and quirky details that make them fun to wear.

LS: Where do you source your fabrics?

AV: Initially, I went to a big fabric wholesaler and purchased cotton block print fabric. On the journey, I have learnt so much about the production of fabric and dyes poisoning waterways and food supplies that I’m trying to source organic dyed fabric for future production.

My knowledge is evolving just as our collective knowledge is evolving. It is really the beginning of this conversation around where our clothing comes from and what we do with it. There’s a lot of education around what we eat and not putting rubbish into our bodies but the conversation around fashion is only just emerging.

Kids seem to get it. I teach children’s sewing classes and in my last class, they were asking me if I made all the clothes I was wearing. One child said “wow they look like something you buy in the shops”. They all leave wearing a dress they have made which teaches them about the time and energy that goes into making an item of clothing.

In our society, clothes are seen as throw-away items. I want to embrace the concept of mending again, where things can be fixed, recycled or repurposed. I see this collective learning as the beginning of a wave of change around clothing.

LS: What’s next for 108 dresses?

AV: The workshop in Mysore is now in production for the next run of dresses which should be available for sale sometime in June 2018. I’d love to build on the concept and set up more studios and workspaces for single women, hoping they can take on more work and become self-sustaining.

As the journey unfolds, I find new opportunities to learn and share about sustainable fashion and why we need to be accountable for what we are doing in the world. I’ve started a mending service so people can have their clothing fixed instead of it being discarded when something is too small, too big or has a hole in it.

I’ll be doing more sewing workshops too, where people can learn to make their own bespoke pieces. The workshops really are lovely and embrace that head, heart and hands philosophy of everyone getting together, talking and connecting. It’s easy to forget the importance of human interaction in this digital world.

You can follow the 108 Dresses journey in Instagram.

Dip your toes in or immerse yourself into the world of design and sustainable fashion through the fabric - Slow Fashion, Artful Living program - a six-month program of workshops, events and talks held across the Sunshine Coast through to November 2018.

Andi and her daughters Mimi and Tiiu pictured with Anuradha and her 2 daughters Anjaali and Arrati; Andi’s first tailoring class with some of the women from nearby villages who would share their knowledge with other women back home; and the 108 dresses pop-up shop at the Sunspace Café.

A local government partnership initiative