Slow fashion with a social message

Danish fashion label Carcel has set out to make quality products that are socially responsible and environmentally friendly – made entirely by women in prison

The fashion industry has seen a shift over the past few years. Unapologetic fast fashion is being frowned upon while conscious consumption gains traction.

Danish fashion label Carcel is leading the way with an innovative business model that eschews traditional sources of labour. Founded by social business entrepreneur Veronica D’Souza, she was inspired after visiting a women’s prison in Nairobi, Kenya.

“I discovered that the majority of the women in the prison were ordinary, poor people from the local village. For most of them a lack of opportunities, poverty and desperate decisions had led to their incarceration,” says D’Souza says.

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Clothes by Carcel.

“The women were sewing and knitting every day. But without good materials and a proper market to sell their items, they cannot rely on their work to provide a steady income.”

After returning home to Denmark, D’Souza teamed up designer Louise van Hauen and together they created Carcel in 2016.

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The concept behind the aesthetics is quite simple and familiar – luxury items that have a minimalistic Scandinavian design.

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Clothes by Carcel.

Each item is handmade using only natural materials – the first collection from Peruvian inmates were made entirely using wool from baby Alpaca. 

“No chemicals are used to process the material and very little water and dye is needed. Since it is a natural fibre, it is completely biodegradable,” D’Souza says.

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The approach itself, albeit innovative, has been around for a while. The most prominent proponents are the two major American clothing brands Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, who are some of the earliest defenders of environmental ethics and fair working wages.

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Clothes by Carcel.

“Witnessing the immense waste of valuable time and skills these women represented, became a driving force for founding Carcel. We saw a possibility to create a fashion product that could help solve a problem rather than creating one. Through fair wages and a new skill set, the women are able to cover basics living costs in prison, like shampoo, clothes, sanitary pads, while saving up and having the possibility to send their children to school,” D’Souza says.

Finding partners to collaborate with has ben easier than they expect, and they are pleased with the outcome of the project in Peru.

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“We have an official partnership with the Peruvian prison system. They are extremely positive towards our work in women’s prisons and have been very helpful. We have a local manager who helps recruit the women inside the prison, and we are in daily contact with him because he helps the women and oversees daily production,” she explains.

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Clothes by Carcel.

There have been some manufacturing challenges, however, and overseeing a production across the Atlantic has not always been care free.

“Everything from getting the right machines and equipment into the prison, but also more basic hurdles such as the lack of communication over phone and internet because this is not allowed inside the prison,” D’Souza says.

Nonetheless, the fashion label has had a smooth start, winning the Creative Business Cup 2016 – the global initiative for entrepreneurship and innovation. D´Souza acknowledges that the fashion industry is undergoing a shift, and thinks Carcel has the potential to succeed outside Scandinavia too.

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Clothes by Carcel.

“We don’t think this business model is limited to only fit a Danish market. Sustainable businesses with either social or environmental aspects, radical transparency, or all three, are present all over the world. Big as well as small,” she says.

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“We are a part of an on-going wave of sustainable initiatives and companies. Because really what we are doing is going back to analogue knitting machines, using local craftsmanship while tapping into an ancient resource of natural materials. The production setup – of helping women in prison to a better daily life and future – is what has driven the work.”

In other words, sustainable, conscious fashion is not a fad – green could soon be the new black. M


By Hana Hasanbegović

Originally from the Balkans, Hana has a Master's degree in English, with a focus on literature and linguistics. @hanahasanbegovic

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