Ioli Tzouka is a fashion design student at Parsons School of Fashion who joined Remake’s journey to Sri Lanka to meet the makers behind the global fashion industry. At Parsons she focuses on textile and surface research, development and sustainability. A native of Greece, she can’t help but go back to her roots to seek her next step or inspiration. 

How much do we know about our clothes? It is extremely easy for someone to get off work or school, buy a new dress or shirt to wear the same night, wear it a couple other times, and then shove it in their closet. It is so easy for someone to forget how many clothes they own, until they start their “spring-cleaning” (a term so popular in the US, next to brunches and “Netflix and chill”), put everything they don’t like anymore in bags and then donate- at best- or throw away and not think about them again. Most of us have done that.

What’s wrong with the previous paragraph? Everything.

The cost of a $15 dress or a $10 shirt is bigger than we think. It takes an average of 40 people to create a garment. Most of these makers are women age 18-25, a lot of them will eventually stop working to look after their children. The majority of these women have to move to places near the capital to find work as garment makers, leaving their families and only being able to see them once a year. Their wage is around 16,000 Sri Lankan Rupees, the equivalent of $104. The minimum wage is 10,300 ($67) and the wage that they actually need to lead a decent life is around 45,000 rupees ($292). So yeah, that t-shirt you bought for Saturday night is more trouble than you think.

Visiting Sri Lanka was not just an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It really made everyone in the group question how our world works and especially think of what doesn’t work:

The fashion system might look innocent, but a visit to a factory or makers’ boarding housing will tell you otherwise.

Factories in Sri Lanka generally have better working conditions than other countries. That does not mean that conditions are ideal, not even good at some cases. From quick conversations with makers while visiting factories, we learned that the hours are long and deadlines are strict: If they don’t complete the number of garments asked from them, they have to do overtime. Also, since the factories work 24/7, the makers work 7am-7pm one week, 7pm-7am the next. They work 6 days a week, and their day off they usually spend it with their friends from the boarding houses, since they cannot really afford other kinds of social activities.

The women we met at the boarding house were women my age, some of them were new, they had just arrived a week ago or a few months ago and they were trying to adjust to their new life. They told us about their everyday lives, and they told us what they want for their future.

They want to go school, some of them want to get married. They were kind enough to show us around and welcome us to their rooms to tell us their stories. We had lunch together, and talked about simple, everyday stuff. I remember while we were there, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the people that lived in such a small place, and while I tried talking with as many women as possible, the language barrier reduced my contact with some of them to just gestures and smiles. And maybe these are the girls I remember the most.

Before this trip, I had a few, vague expectations and ideas of how this trip would be. I was curious to see the reality behind all we hear about in the news and in reports. I was very much hoping that things would be better than I thought and than they seemed. And, on the one hand, they were better: I met people that had been through a civil war, were away from their families, working long hours, but they were still smiling, open to meeting new people, wanting to hang out with their friends and thinking about their future. However, there are changes to be made: the makers’ wage is simply not enough: It only lasts for their rent, bills and first week of the month. In case of an accident or a mishap, they need to borrow money or take out a loan, since they cannot save the remaining of their wage- there is simply none remaining.

A lot of women with debt will find the solution in prostitution in order to repay their loans. To me, that was one of the things that I found most disturbing. The idea that there might me a sudden need and no way to get through it other than becoming a sex worker.

As a woman, I simply cannot accept how feminism has neglected this reality for so long. We fight for our rights to break the glass ceiling, have control over our own bodies, be a bigger part of the government. We fight for women of color in the West, to support their rights so they can be heard, but what about the women of the rest of the world? Why are we still so ignorant when it comes to women in Sri Lanka, or China, or Cambodia?

As a designer, this trip was the proof that I need to encourage the creation of systems that fix these problems. Since the problem is multifaceted, the solution cannot come from one place or in one form.

As a Remaker, I need to share this experience and all that we learned and explain to fellow designers how urgent this matter is and lay the ground for problem-solving ideas.

Photos featured here go inside a denim factory in Sri Lanka and are courtesy of Ioli Tzouka.

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