Home / News / News archive / 2011 / November 2011 / Westwood handbags change lives for Nairobi women

Westwood handbags change lives for Nairobi women

Thousands of poor Kenyan women have a better life, sewing handbags for top British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

The women, including single mothers, widows and people affected by HIV/Aids, are from some of the capital Nairobi's most deprived areas – Kibera, Korogocho, Dagoretti, and live in extreme poverty.

Set up under the slogan, ‘not charity, just work’ The Ethical Fashion Programme supports more than 7,000 women to sew either from home, or a ‘hub workshop’ in Nairobi.

Using recycled materials from roadside advertisement banners and safari tents, they craft bags designed by Vivienne Westwood, the godmother of Punk, as well as other designers including Britain’s Stella McCartney.

Single mum of two Joyce Kamau works as a supervisor in the factory. She started at Ethical Fashion Africa two years ago and says she can now provide for her family's basic needs.

"We didn't know we could get to this," she said pointing out some vivid coloured machine embroidery. She said when they first started, some of the women found the work difficult, but "I encourage them and I inspire them.”

As well as Westwood and Stella McCartney, Fendi and other European fashion labels use the women’s work and there are plans to move into the US next year, through an online deal with the Wal-Mart chain.

But it's Westwood's name that’s attracted the most attention. In August, she launched a bag collection called "Handmade with Love", from Nairobi and also filmed her autumn advertising campaign there.

"Vivienne has a long-term commitment,” said Simone Cipriani, from the International Trade Centre, the joint UN and World Trade Organisation that set up the programme. “Now the next step is to start growing together to expand," she told the Guardian.

Vincent Oduor, 30, the hub workshop’s human resources manager, grew up in Korogocho shanty town and breathes life into the ‘not charity, just work’ motto. "It's very rare for people from Korogocho to get employment. We suffer from social labels," he said. "For these women the real joy is based on the dignity they find in working."

And it is not only the women involved that benefit, the money they earn means their children can go to school. It pays for medical costs. The goal is that with their new skills and confidence many will start their own companies and train the next generation of skilled workers, raising the standard of living in one of the world’s most fragile economies.

Hayley attribution