Aurora Chiste: Weaving Threads of Equity into the Fashion Industry
Hello Earthlings, it’s Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth talking with entrepreneurs working to reduce global inequalities. Today it is my pleasure to have Aurora Chiste, founder of Maakola, here with me. Welcome Aurora!
Aurora: Thank you, Spiffy. You know, I’d love to start with a few questions for you.
Spiffy: No one’s ever done this before. Go for it Aurora!
Aurora: How can clothing be beautiful if those who make it are enslaved? How can it be beautiful if it is destroying our planet?
Spiffy: Wow, you ask some hard questions, Aurora! Is this part of what motivated you to start Maakola?
Aurora: Yes it is, Spiffy. I founded Maakola to challenge the traditional concept of beauty by offering clothing that makes women feel good about what they wear — without compromising on beautiful designs, and ethical and sustainable production. At Maakola, we use fashion as a vehicle to show the economic, environmental and cultural changes that are taking place in the world. We empower our customers with products and data that can make them actors of change — and influence social, economical and environmental change.
Spiffy: That’s an interesting concept, Aurora. Can you tell me more about why you decided to focus on fashion?
Aurora: Well Spiffy, when I launched Maakola in 2015, I had no real experience in fashion. But I had an entrepreneurial spirit, and a love of beautiful, sustainable clothes. The saleswomen of Makola market in Ghana inspired me to launch my own ethical fashion brand and bring change to a broken system. Spiffy, did you know that when wax print first arrived on the coasts of West Africa in the mid 19th century, Dutch manufacturers simply saw another profitable market? It was yet another example of exploitation!
Spiffy: I didn’t know that Aurora. Can you tell me more about this?
Aurora: Absolutely! So, when the European fabric manufacturers arrived in the region at the end of the 19th century, they didn’t find the easy market they had anticipated. The West African women traders had their own ideas about what they wanted. Women working in the fabric stores often created background stories to the prints that arrived from the Netherlands, localizing them to resonate with customers’ beliefs and traditions. Who could have imagined that these patterns and stories woven into fabric could change the trajectory of an industry and contribute to the identity of a nation? I tell you all of this to illustrate how West African saleswomen inspired me to see fabric as a device that can bring about change. So, I did the same. With Maakola, I built a brand that seeks to change and contribute to the collective evolution of the fashion industry. I thought that this was the perfect opportunity for me to bring change from within a broken system.
Spiffy: Way to take step up to the challenge, Aurora! So, how are you working to make the world more equitable?
Aurora: In the immediate future we will enhance our transparency and source-tracking by integrating blockchain certificates for each of our products. In 2021, our targets include to: 1) appoint a Chief Diversity Officer, 2) appoint an advisor to create an employee stock ownership plan, specifically for our Ghanian tailors, 3) amplify the stories of women — particularly women of color, and 4) consciously recruit people of color to our board and growing team.
Adjoa Yeboah, one of the artisans that works with Maakola. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Chiste)
Spiffy: I think you will do a stellar job, Aurora. Are there any recent milestones or initiatives that you’ve introduced?
Aurora: On October 22, 2020, we launched WearMe30Times — a new tool that helps consumers reduce their fashion footprint by encouraging them to get more wear out of their clothing. Every piece of clothing made by Maakola, and participating brands, includes a label with a QR code. Scanning the code allows consumers to keep track of how often they wear the garment, building up to a goal of wearing everything at least 30 times — a goal inspired by eco-activist Livia Firth’s #30Wears campaign.
Spiffy: That’s really exciting! There’s not much market for space suits, so I get a lot of wear out of mine! Have you ever faced failure? How did you handle it?
Aurora: As you can attest to, Spiffy, the made-to-order market can be challenging. Because we are not working with the customer in person, errors can happen and things can get lost in translation. When we first launched, the entire team would feel discouraged if this happened. We have high expectations and strive to deliver the best for our customers. However, we now realize that these things happen. As an entrepreneur, I have learned that I can fail at something, but what is important is getting back up and trying again. We learn, we adapt and we grow.
We have since become more open about our manufacturing process and have created a collaborative relationship between our artisans and customers. Our customers get a deeper understanding of how we work and see that, although there might be a margin of error, we will continue to improve until we meet their expectations. The pandemic has brought us more challenges, but we are overcoming them.
Spiffy: That’s very exciting to hear, Aurora. Before we sign off, I’d love to know if there is something inspiring that you’ve learned lately — something you can share with our audience?
Aurora: I have a story I’d love to tell, Spiffy. I was abroad recently when I saw a group of sailors come into port. When sailors dock, they always seem to have a smile and a warm attitude towards locals, no matter where they are. They know that they are guests, so if they want to make a connection with locals, they need to show kindness and respect. This exchange really touched me. And the more I observed, the more I saw it happen. However, that same attitude isn’t always seen amongst people in the local community. It is as if kindness is not a given, as they feel a sense of entitlement in their homeland. Sailors can teach us about kindness and how to treat others. Sometimes, all it takes is a kind smile to make someone feel that they are welcome and at home. Because, in the end, we are all guests of the same piece of land — Earth.
Spiffy: Smiles can warm up just about anything! If you have time for one more story, I’d love to know where you have seen the impact of your work.
Aurora: Well, Spiffy, the world-renowned artist, Drue Kataoka, wore a Maakola dress made with African prints to play the flute at MLK’s 90th birthday ceremony. By wearing that dress to remember Dr. King, Drue chose to continue the threads of freedom from the post-colonialism era that lives on through the fabric. Our actions have the power to turn threads of fear into freedom.
Aurora Chiste is a serial social entrepreneur, committed to achieving global sustainability through innovation and empowerment. She is the founder and creative director of Maakola, a sustainable fashion brand that shines the spotlight on female fortitude through a modern concept of luxury. (Nominated by ImpactHub NY)