A chat with Artisans of Fashion (AOF) founder Caroline Poiner

A chat with Artisans of Fashion (AOF) founder Caroline Poiner
Artisans of Fashion (AOF) is a social enterprise founded by Sydney based created, Caroline Poiner. AOF aims to promote cultural sustainability, authenticity and social change for village artisans in India, with a specific focus on empowering women & marginalised communities who have little access to alternative sources of income.

A number of styles from our summer collection, Direction, are crafted from a beautiful white 100% cotton hand-loomed fabric from AOF. We spoke to Caroline over on the journal to learn a bit more about AOF, how her personal values and life experience has shaped her work, the challenges and opportunities of working in rural Indian communities, and how the fashion industry can support and elevate cultural assets and the preservation of biodiversity
Tell us about your background and your social enterprise, Artisans of Fashion.
My background was in branding and design. I launched AOF in 2012 as a way of connecting designers with Indian artisans. AOF has evolved into a strong network of artisan communities, and we now have a good understanding of the techniques used and the challenges faced by each community on a daily basis. For me now, it is about educating designers and consumers to build an appreciation for indigenous techniques and the handcraft sector in the hope of preserving these skills for future generations.
How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work?
My work with artisans started with people and a deep appreciation for their skills, as well as strong sense of responsibility and motivation to fight injustice. I’ve always had empathy for others and wanted to protect people, ever since I can remember. AOF aim to help give people the opportunity to thrive and receive the recognition they deserve.
What are some of the challenges and/or opportunities of working in rural Indian communities?
There are many challenges. Culturally we’re very different, so it has been a steady learning curve. I’m humbled by the people of India. And really, I’m just a facilitator bridging the gap between designers and the artisans. It’s a negotiation, breaking old habits on both sides of the industry for mutual success. The opportunities lie in working with highly skilled artisans and producing something that is unique and authentic. The challenges lie in the cultural differences and different priorities. Communication is essential.
How important is it to provide consistent work to build stable economic autonomy, and how do you navigate this?
Consistent work is everything. It’s a big responsibility, so my approach is to provide the resources and education they need in order to stand on their own feet. It’s empowering, and mostly they will take the opportunity and run with it. It’s just as important that they can access their own local market as continuity of work via AOF. As is recognising the value of their work, understanding the importance of consistency in quality, and having the confidence to charge accordingly.
Can you give us an example of how communities work together?
We have been involved in capacity development projects to support skills to increase income potential and independence for communities. For example, AOF initiated a block printing training project for women on the outskirts of Jaipur. We obtained funding through a government grant and corporate sponsorship to set up a training facility and pay for a full-time master printer for twelve months. Four years later it’s a thriving business producing block printed homewares and textiles for the local market.
Each region we work with has a different technique. Generally, at village level, artisan families all contribute to the work. The spinning, dyeing and weaving all tend to be done in the home or in the village, so everyone has a role to play. The beautiful fine cotton handloom check you have used in your range is from the west Bengal region famous for light and soft compact cottons.
With Climate change and bio- diversity top of mind, can you explain how indigenous knowledge systems of making textiles can be relevant to AOF?
Indigenous knowledge systems are relevant to all of us and fashion can play an important role in drawing on that knowledge and cultivating a meaningful platform for artisans in the wider community. 
As an example, I work with 7WEAVES Social in Assam, which is a group of indigenous forest villagers from the Loharghat Forest Region which is an Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. Founded on indigenous principles of reciprocity between humans and nature, 7Weaves’ model prevents exploitation of natural resources, in fact regenerating them, ensuring no negative impact on the ecosystem. With the entire process throughout the value chain developed locally the investment is going back into the communities which also contributes to sustainability. Working with and learning from artisans is a way the fashion industry can support and elevate these cultural assets and the preservation of biodiversity.
How will skills carry on to the next generations?
Through respect and appreciation of the craft and connecting artisans to the international market, younger generations are more likely to value the skills, and continue on for years to come. We have seen evidence of this already and, given the growing interest in artisanship and indigenous crafts throughout the global slow fashion movement, it’s becoming more and more appealing for young entrepreneurs to promote their family craft. I think everyone should consider incorporating hand-crafted textiles into their collections. The diversity of fabrics is extraordinary and giving meaningful employment to the artisans we work with is important. They deserve the opportunity to thrive.
What excites and/or daunts you most about the future of the fashion industry?
I find it really exciting to see so many people and organisations working towards a more sustainable future, whether by way of incredible innovations or more simple, small-scale approaches. There’s a real sense of community and positive energy amongst those finding solutions and driving change. I set out to change lives through the power of fashion, and I truly believe it’s possible. Never before have we seen so many environmentalists and human rights activists join forces with fashion designers, journalists and brands in the way it’s happening today. It’s exciting to see. My only fear is that it’s too little too late!
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