The fashion & garments industry is one of only a handful in the world that is female-dominated. But if you’re purchasing high street fashion, workers are often subjected to less than ideal conditions to keep up with the demand of mass production. Faced with low wages, sweatshop conditions and so-called “flexible” contracts, women around the world are being exploited in the name of fashion.
Does it have to be this way? Daniela Castellanos of Castellano Ethnic Origins doesn’t think so.
We sat down with Daniela, who will be speaking to our community as part of the Leaders + Disrupters series, to talk about how her business empowers local women in Colombia to make a fair living in the fashion industry, and about being a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated startup world.
First things first, tell us the story of how Castellano came about?
When I turned 23, I felt lost and I couldn’t find happiness in anything around me. I decided to start Castellano as a way of finding a purpose in my life. I decided to travel to the north coast of my country to find out more about how items were made. This desire led me to go backpacking in Colombia, my home country. I knew of the existence of the Wayuu and Arhuaca tribes, but was always curious about their lifestyle and their weaving process. In order to gain a better understanding, I lived with the tribes for two months to explore their story, which was my inspiration for making an ethical, sustainable and handmade collection. I also wanted to incorporate luxury into the products with the use of leather and Swarovski crystals. I found joy and pure happiness while I was drawing bags and making sketches in the desert. I was exploring the life of the indigenous women while I was visualising Castellano as a brand that could represent tribes and make a change in society.
What sparked your interest in becoming an entrepreneur?
My inspiration stems from the human stories of the indigenous women, the tribal patterns and their culture. When I am taking adventures, travelling and discovering the craftsmanship process I feel inspired and free; all of my creativity comes into place. My inquisitive mind and thirst for knowledge are my best assets, which ultimately led me to create a brand that aims to make a positive impact.
You empower indigenous women by enabling them to run their own businesses – how does this work and why is it so important?
We provide direct jobs to the Wayuu women every time we have a wholesale order and custom order on our website. We have set up an ecosystem where we take online pre-orders, leaving a timeframe of 3 months. This time allows us to work remotely with the artisans by passing on the customer’s order and providing a sufficient amount of time for the products to be made. The same model is also used for large orders, but with a longer timeframe of 5 months. Our bags are woven using a fine technique which improves the quality and preserve designs that take longer to make. Because of this factor, the bags are more expensive compared to, for example, a regular bag sold in local markets. The women charge more as they only wish to create intricate high-quality products.
Quality and unique designs are the key factor in the manufacturing process. The more intricate and colourful the design, the more complex it is to make, therefore resulting in a lengthier process and higher end price. At Castellano, our focus is to maintain high quality standards and use the original technique in all products in order to reflect and maintain the culture of the Wayuu women.
In addition, we are able to impact the communities in two ways: 1) Women can provide for their families, and 2) We utilise profits from our sales to bring back water to these communities.
Do you think the fashion industry as a whole will ever be ethically sustainable?
Yes, I believe that in the near future the planet will not be able to keep up with pollution and mass production of garments. The whole consumption cycle is likely to collapse, leading us to rely on other resources such as our ethnic origins. As we will consume less, we will need less. Sustainability is becoming more relevant every day as we reach higher levels of consciousness that allow us to see our planet from another perspective. Therefore, we will continue to develop fabrics that last longer and use a unique mechanism to support our ecosystem.
What challenges does the fashion industry face to make it more ethical?
One of the biggest challenges is that some consumers appear to be more interested in how the product makes them look rather than considering other factors too, such as how the product is made and the effect it has on both our planet and our economy. Additionally, ethical products tend to be dearer in price than non-ethical products, which can be a big turn off for some. However, consumers are not aware that the cheaper products are mass produced, therefore resulting in low level quality products. I feel that if more awareness was raised on issues arising in the fashion world, we can demonstrate how ethical products can result in a better global impact both socially and economically.
In a 2015 study focusing on the United States, only 18% of all startups had at least one female founder. Why do you think this is, and how do we achieve more representation for women in the startup world?
I think this happens because some women are less confident of their capabilities, therefore lacking belief in themselves. Women also tend to be less money-driven and more family-orientated. However, we are reaching a new generation where women are becoming leaders in different industries, innovating with businesses that have a higher impact in society and our planet. We can achieve more representation of women in the startup world by creating educational programs in schools and universities that inspire and engage young women to create new business and also empower them to innovate in the tech industry.
What are the challenges faced by women in starting their own businesses?
There are so many different challenges one has to be ready to face when starting their own business. For me personally, being a female entrepreneur in England for the last two years has certainly not been easy. I had £20 a week in my pocket for food and found myself following a vegan diet. I burned out, I searched for help, I became part of the Prince’s Trust mentoring program, and I worked, worked and worked 24 hours a day on my project. In saying that, with the right mindset and determination, I would encourage any woman looking to start their own business not to give up and find to try and find ways around their obstacles.
What advice would you give to women starting out in the startup world?
I would tell them to be patient, not to run before they can walk, to ask for advice and to work as hard as they can to achieve their goals. Also to stay 100% focused and to believe in their idea, if they are not confident in their own product then no-one else will be either. I have had so many drawbacks, hard days and frustrations, but what keeps me going is that inner fire and the strength inside me. Without that determination it may be hard to succeed, no matter how much funding or how many people are in your team. It’s important to be aware that you are your best asset and best champion.
Another piece of advice I would give is to treat others as you want to be treated, and also to be humble but always know your values, your rules and that you are in control of your own life.
Interested in supporting Castellano? Back the Wayuu Backpack project on Kickstarter!