Last week, Christina, our founder, spoke about sustainable fashion, defining it via three main components: ethics, economics and the environment. Though we spend a lot of time discussing the environmental impacts of the fashion industry, we want to focus on the ethical component today.
To understand what it means to run an ethical brand, we spoke with Karenine Arraya, the founder and designer behind Ninêh, a clothing brand with impeccably detailed pieces and a beautiful array of textiles.
Founded in 2017, Ninêh seeks to empower women by investing in slow fashion and making its social impact transparent. From the romantic silk Inês blouse to a structured vegetable-tanned leather skirt, each piece bears the careful craftsmanship of its makers. Karenine wants to make it clear that sustainable clothing never needs to sacrifice style or workmanship. In fact, sustainable and ethical brands can be leaders in style, working with unique opportunities before them to create the most timeless and inspiring designs in the industry.
Karenine began her career in fast fashion, specifically in the denim industry, where she designed clothing for large brands. During the design process, she would often visit factories in China, India and Bangladesh, where she had a firsthand look at the workers who produced her designs. She was disheartened by the factory conditions and the workers’ overall quality of life, as well as the lack of transparency in the manufacturing process. As demand rose for her designs, the quality was driven lower, and she no longer felt proud of the companies she worked for.
She recounted a particularly shocking moment in China during a factory tour with an agent representative. The agent handed out masks for visitors to wear during the tour to prevent exposure to the fumes in the air, which were incredibly toxic. Karenine quickly noticed that the workers themselves were bare-faced. Small children played among the machinery and chemicals, also without masks, since their parents didn’t have access to childcare.
When asked why the workers weren’t protected from the manufacturing toxins, the agent shrugged and said, “They don’t live that long anyway.”
In that moment, Karenine knew she couldn’t keep participating in this vicious cycle of fast fashion, with its lack of regard for human life and its devastating impacts on the environment. She had an idea and traveled to India, where she visited local factories and conducted in-depth interviews with the owners.
She met with dozens of artisans across the country, seeking only those whose values aligned with hers. The factories she discovered felt more like extended homes. They were family-run, with music playing in the background. Conversation and laughter flowed from the worktables. The workers got decent breaks, were paid well and had a flexible work-life balance — something that’s important to Karenine herself, as a working mother of two children. Because the factories were small and took on limited orders, the pace of work was pleasant and did not command the level of stress and anxiety that the larger factories did.
In addition, the pieces the family-run factories created were stunning, with hand-embroidery and weaving that left her breathless. She knew she had found a better way of manufacturing her designs.
Karenine chose three factories to produce samples of her designs — designs that would later become the first Ninêh collection. The first, a silk supplier, hand-embroidered silk saris so beautifully that she knew she wanted that detailing in her own designs. Then she found a leather factory that used chrome-free leather and vegetable tanning processes to make timeless pieces. This fits with her idea of slow fashion — acquiring fewer items that last longer. In an area near Jodhpur, India, Karenine met the Sahili Women organization, which trains young women in practical skills and provides a supportive community for them to gain financial independence.
In the past two years, Karenine has educated herself widely, reaching out to the sustainable fashion community to learn more about what she can do. She places great emphasis on asking questions of everyone she meets — how is this made? Why is it made in this way? What can we do to make it better?
Even in her own factories, she tries to understand exactly how things are run. If a supplier tells her that they recycle water in their facilities, she digs deeper to learn exactly how that water is recycled and if it causes any negative environmental impact. Her fierce advocacy makes her a vibrant force in the sustainable fashion community.
What’s next for Ninêh? Never satisfied with an easy answer, Karenine wants to continue to explore factories in other countries (particularly South America, where she was born), opening doors for other workers through her designs and ethical practices. In the process, she wants to make a positive environmental impact as well. She acknowledges that it may never be possible to be fully sustainable, but that we must each strive to do as much as we can with the resources we have.
Transparency is key in creating an ethical brand and Ninêh does an excellent job educating consumers about their products and processes.
If you’re looking at other brands for their ethical impact, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this brand transparent? Do they offer information on their website about their manufacturing processes?
- How are the workers treated? Do they have fair wages?
- Are the working conditions acceptable? Are there photos of the factories on the brand’s website?
If you don’t find the answers you’re looking for, dig deeper, as Karenine does. Reach out directly to the customer service teams or on social media.
By holding brands accountable, we make room for designers who inspire us towards a more compassionate, ethical world.