Carcel in 1 sentence: "The best and most sustainable materials in the world meet the highest rate of poverty-related crime to create fashion manufactured by women in prison and transform lost time into fair wages, skills and hopes of a better future." Bäm. When we heard this we knew we had to meet Veronica and Louise, the power duo behind the Copenhagen based brand. Because we wanted to know: Who are they? What motivates them? we set up a Skype with Louise to discuss the cultural differences in prisons in different countries, the obstacles they have to overcome when setting up production and prison proofed payment systems, but also modern ways of approaching and interacting with customers.
Louise, when did you start working on Carcel?
It started a year and a half ago, but we launched our web store officially this August, during Copenhagen Fashion Week. The whole project really started when our founder, Veronica, went to Peru in April last year on a prison field trip to see if it’s possible with the prison system. She came back with prototypes of the yarn. And then i joined.
How did the two of you meet in first place?
We lived together in Kenia. I knew her because i was friends with her boyfriend. Then we started living together in Kenia where I worked as a creative director on a local accessories brand. She was there for a social business, menstrual cups that support girls in a slum. Back then she already visited prisons to see what’s the deal, and find out how women end up in prison in general.
How do you get into the prisons? Do you need a reason to visit?
In Kenia you just have to say you would like to visit, but this is probably different from country to country. Veronica went and bought everything that was made in there, brought it back home, showed it to me and said: okay, tell me what can we do with these things? So this is where the idea sprung from. We realized from really early on that we wanted to do beautiful proper products that are well made, from very good materials. So this was our starting point and a very important component in order to figure out where we wanted to produce. Because you can find production in prison everywhere, all over the world. That’s nothing new. What’s new is the emphasis on decent wages and also to make really good products.
When we heard that you start working with a prison in Thailand we were wondering about the conditions there. The thought of a Thai prison made us think of horror stories we saw in movies. Are there significant differences between the different countries?
There is a really big difference in culture. In Peru for instance it’s more the classic version of imprisonment. It’s punishment. You serve your time and then you are out. It’s stigmatizing for the women in general, but they can see visitors every Wednesday and sometimes on Saturdays. Whereas in Thailand it’s different, because of the culture. They are Buddhists. They don’t see it as punishing people, but as a chance to atone them in a spiritual way. You cannot take photos of the women, they sensor e.g. their eyes, because it’s a humble thing to serve a spiritual atonement rather than just serving time as we know it. We are allowed to visit, but they are not so used to it. So there is a lot more paperwork for us. We have to go to through the ministry of justice. When we are doing our trial project in Spring next year we are also collaborating with the princess of Thailand’s NGO which works with women’s rights and women in prison. So it needs a lot more governmental paperwork and applications whereas in Peru is was more easily accessible.
How do you select the women for your trials and production in general? Do they need to have previous experience e.g. in sewing?
There is a slight difference between Peru and Thailand. We opened our own entity in Peru so we no longer use the previous production. For the first year we worked with a local producer who already worked in prison and who exported to us. We trusted him and his way of working and we set up our own production through him. We bought our own machines, so we could hire more women. There are all kinds of influences in prison, it’s an eco-system. We have some ground rules we like to follow: we hire women with a long sentences, more than a year. This gives more impact and it’s more sustainable in terms of training them, so they can really get the best out of learning a new skill. And it’s better for production purposes as well. You want a business where you keep your employees. And of course it’s like any job interview. We want women that are motivated and who want to learn something new and who want to be able to safe up. So we like to hire women that have a savvy and are eager and willing to learn, but we don’t expect them to be able to produce. It’s great if they have previous experience with a sewing machine, in this case with a knitting machine, but we also bring in production and products with a standard that they haven’t tried before. This is were we come in and train. The women are actually really excited to learn and advance in skill, more than the wages it seems. Which is interesting. It says something about the situation of being in prison. Integrity is very important for us. We expect something from them and they feel that.
How do you fix the salary of the women? Is it based on national standard?
Right now we base it on the minimum wage, the wage of a school teacher for instance is minimum, in prison minimum wage is half a regular minimum wage. We want to make sure they get at least the minimum wage, so that’s already twice the amount they normally get in prison. So we based the unit prices on how many pieces you make a day and how many days you work. Not on working hours. The more experienced the women are, the more the wage goes up. In our payment system you get a better salary when you are more advanced. And then we also compare to a professional hand machine knitter in Lima to make sure it’s market price.
How do you handle the payment in prison?
There are a lot of different components, but right now in Peru we pay the women directly. They don’t have a set system, but we are working on building it. You are stripped of your rights when you are in prison in Peru, so the women don’t have bank accounts or passport numbers. We are working on getting them bank accounts to pay them. For now they get cash which is not sustainable in the long run. But we only launched in August. We are still at a point where we know all the women personally, where we can pay them in cash. We have a very good production manager who goes to town and transfers the money for them and they tell him what to do with it, put it e.g. in deposit for their families. Right now in the men’s prison in Peru there is an ATM. So it’s possible to install a payment system. Whereas in Thailand they have a completely separate payment system already in place, with an accountant the inmates see once a month for every deposit that they do. It’s surprisingly well organized and technologically advanced.
What happens when the women get out of prison? Are you helping to put a system in place so they can make use of their skills outside e.g. help them find jobs, or continue working with them?
In general our business model is that when they leave prison they have a business approach with a skill and a craft that they can start using straight away. Some of the machines that we teach them and that we use for production are not very expensive. That’s the idea as well that when they leave they have the opportunity to continue. Right now in Peru the women in the prison are from all over the country and when they get out they want to go back to where their family is so we cannot really do a production site outside. The idea is that they leave in a much better situation then they came in.
Your products are quite expensive. Could you explain how you split the earnings?
We just sent out a newsletter announcing that our prices are going down, because we opened our own entity which means we don’t have the extra link. This is the point, we want to snap now the entire supply chain to holistically be a more modern production. Any wasteful link we want to cut out so right now it’s coming straight from the women. The material goes straight into prison and from there straight to us. It’s the true costs. The main component. There is the transport, the duty, and then we times 3. We do what you would do before it goes into retail. Instead of paying 6 times the price you pay 3. And 3 for s is to include taxes.
Your customers can explore via your website where your products come from, and most importantly, who made them, even see pictures of the women. Does this transparency work in both directions? Do your women get a feedback as well? Do you share reactions from the outside with them, connect them to the outer world?
Yes, this is very important. We have been in Peru a couple of times. But we also have our own production manager there, a German girl called Meike, she comes from a design background and is our link between production and design. She moved to Peru temporarily. She is really emotionally invested. She is in prison every day, working with the women both on production and quality control. She is very close with them and she brings them packages, we send them letters or we show them prints of magazines that we have been in, e.g. photos from our launch in August with posters with pictures of them. They are part of it in their own names. They have that feel of being appreciated.
You worked for big fashion houses in the past. Did this experience make you want to change something within the industry?
There’s definitely been a shift for me since I graduated. My starting point was always beautiful things, quality products, high-end brands, because i have this passion for beautiful craft and beautiful things. But it’s more about the bigger picture, a mix of getting older maybe and the world changing and also getting more and more information about the impacts on the environment, on people, that there’s definitely been a shift for me, being confronted with all these things, that i can’t live with waste for instance, that i can’t live with things that are damaging. My previous jobs actually was more a satisfaction for my love of beautiful craft for Louis Vuitton e.g. i didn’t see mass production, i saw craftsmanship. When we made a prototype it was made by a french expert of the trade, so i am not taking a step away from something i’ve done before, it’s more that i am getting more and more aware of it. I have a really difficult time now with mass production. It’s not something i have done it’s more the information and transparency about what impact the clothing industry has on the world and the awareness of that changed my mind and has made me want to be part of whatever movement we can make to change. It’s nothing modern. Interestingly the fashion industry has moved a long way and fast in terms of marketing but is build on technology which hasn’t changed more or less in 100 years since it started which is crazy. Every other industry that has really changed and developed, the technology behind it has also changed, except from this. It’s still the same way of doing mass production, pushing the prices and not maximizing the technology. There are so many things that could be done that would make at least a difference. It’s also just a matter of being current and modern to work with production the way we do.
You say: "No seasons no compromises." and you work very transparent. Are you trying to educate the consumer with your approach or are you rather satisfying a need of a modern consumer?
We think consumers want this now. They have changed as well. I think they are ready for transparency and they really respond well to it. It’s the lack of information that makes people not ask the right questions. I don’t think they consciously try not to care. Rather than educating people it’s giving the customer what is already in demand for which is transparency.
Your approach using direct sale is also very modern. But it’s also hard for young/smaller designers to get the word out. That you are not available in retail, that they cannot try on the products. How do you deal with this?
We try not to think of it as an obstacle, we more ask ourselves: what the modern way of doing it? We don’t want to cut out the retail because we don’t believe in retail, we love retail, in many other senses. We would love to be physical as well, but it is more interesting for us to do pop ups and collaborations. We want to break from the traditions of retail which is about seasons and the waste. We want to make sure that we don’t produce more than we are able to sell. That doesn’t necessarily exclude any type of retail. It just changes the approach to it. We are doing a pop up shop now here in Copenhagen. And things like this we love to do. Also globally. To be more present, meet our customers and be more accessible to more people.