From prison to high street: when reinsertion gets the fashion fix

Meet Carcel, a Danish fashion brand with human responsibility at heart

5 min read
in brief

Shopping doesn’t necessarily need to be a superficial thing, with the rise of sustainable, transparent or socially responsible brands, we now have a real choice to make our purchases matter.

When you land on Carcel website, you can read that the main cause of female incarceration is poverty. Indeed, all around the world, women prisons are predominantly filled with young, poor, single mothers with a low level of education and income. Adding to that, the years they spend behind bars without an opportunity to earn an income makes it harder.

There come Veronica D’Souza and designer Louise van Hauen. Last year, they launched a Kickstarter campaign with a simple yet ambitious goal: breaking the cycle of poverty where incarcerated women are stuck. How? By giving them new skills and good wages so they can support themselves, send their children to school, and save up for a crime-free new beginning.

From prison to market: creating better opportunities for people in prison by turning lost hours into valuable products

On the brand website, you can learn more about some of the women manufacturing the Carcel garments.

After meeting in Kenya, where they used to work (Van Hauen as a creative manager for a leather bag company, and D’Souza heading a social startup making and distributing menstrual cups for women in the country), started mapping parts of the world where high quality materials intersects with the highest numbers of female incarcerations. That led them to Peru, where D’Souza went for the first time in 2016.

With the newborn idea of starting a social business, she visited both men’s and women’s prisons all over Peru. In every prison, the inmates were killing time making beautiful products. But without access to a market, they were earning close to nothing. This was the perfect place for a brand like Carcel to start. In a country where the number of women in prison has risen by 100% in the past 15 years, the brand offers them to voluntarily sign up to work for six to eight hours a day and a fair wage. A stylish way to help the women involved while providing consumers with an alternative to fast fashion clothes.

Haydee, Esther and Teofilia chilling and knitting outside the workshop in prison.

“People should buy the clothes because they love them, not to pity the women behind bars. To do this, we’ve looked at places in the world where the best and most exclusive materials come from that also have high rates of poverty related crime for women. Peru is such a country with its fantastic tradition for the exclusive Alpaca wool as well as high rates of female incarceration due to drug trafficking out of needs.” D’Souza told The Independent in an interview.

No seasons, no stores, no compromise

Traditional knitting by hand is a time consuming luxury in some parts of the world, but an abundant resource inside the prison. Therefore, Carcel developed its own A Mano line (hand knit traditions in Peru), where they give jobs to women in prison through limited high quality pieces.

Far from traditional fashion businesses, and with an authentic approach, the duo has come up with a model putting the human at its center (and not just claiming it). In addition to helping incarcerated women to regain dignity through the garments they manufacture, Carcel also care about its environmental impact.

“Natural, pure, and locally sourced materials. That is our dogma. Living materials are biodegradable, friendly to the environment, full of superpowers and simply pure luxury.” you can read on the brand’s website.

Using analogue knitting machines, the Carcel team believes there is greater potential to combine the Peruvian knowledge with the fine and thin quality of alpaca wool. Learn more on their fascinating blog.

With the vision to make clothes from 100% natural materials with a cultural connection to the region it’s made in, the duo found in Peru the perfect starting point for Carcel. They started with a first collection made only of the finest baby alpaca wool, also named “fibre of the Gods”, and manufactured by Peruvian incarcerated women. Alpacas are said to be roaming free in the Peruvian Andes and stand temperature swings between -20 and 30 degrees in one single day. Which explains why their fibre is wearable with both warm and cold weather. To add up to their transparent and caring approach, the brand also provides tips on how to make their clothes last longer, or document the stories behind their products on their blog.

Today, Carcel employs 15 women in the Cusco prison, who are paid in cash for each item they make. The first collection was launched this Summer in Copenhagen, and the next one will be made from 100% silk, and manufactured by women in prisons in Thailand.

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