Inside the Ethical Fashion Line Employing Hundreds of Afghan Women Refugees

Women across eight refugee camps in Pakistan are using their embroidery skills to earn an income and support their families.
(Photo: Courtesy Raven and Lily)
Dec 11, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Sara Mohazzebi is a writer and on-camera reporter covering culture, social good, innovation, and entertainment. Her work has been featured in Esquire, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and she is a contributor for The Daily Beast. She is based in Los Angeles.

When entrepreneur Kirsten Dickerson was first introduced to a collective of female Afghan artisans and their creative community back in 2013, she was immediately moved by their circumstances: The women were all refugees who had been living in camps on the border of Pakistan for decades.

The timing was fortuitous. Dickerson, the founder of ethical lifestyle brand Raven and Lily, had been looking to expand her company with an apparel line, so she decided to form a business partnership with the artisans, codesigning a clothing collection with hundreds of Afghani women.

“After our first collection, the director of the partnership contacted us to say that the income the women gained through our collection was their sole source of income for the year,” Dickerson says.

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis in recorded history, with one in every 122 humans now living as a refugee, seeking asylum, or internally displaced within their own country. In Pakistan alone, the country has seen 1.6 million Afghan refugees flee the Soviet-Afghan War and cross its borders since the 1980s. With the volatile security status and increasing human rights violations in the region, most Afghan refugees are unable to relocate elsewhere, and there’s little hope they can ever return to their home country.

Nafeesa, one of the artisans for Raven and Lily. (Photo: Courtesy Raven and Lily)

Raven and Lily, which Dickerson founded in 2008, is behind 17 partnerships focused on alleviating poverty and empowering women in nine countries that include Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Malaysia, and the United States. In Pakistan, the partnership provides steady employment, and every woman involved receives fair wages and a sustainable income that helps cover basics such as education for her children, food, and health care expenses.

Dickerson, who also blogs about ethical and slow fashion, spoke with me about the Pakistan Collection's ecofriendly and handmade apparel and why she’s in the conscious consumerism landscape for the long haul.

The Rabia Skirt. (Photo: Courtesy Raven and Lily/Instagram)

TakePart: Your background prior to running Raven and Lily was working in the nonprofit world and as a stylist. Now, you are leading Raven and Lily on a daily basis. What is Raven and Lily truly about?

Kirsten Dickerson: It comes down to the balance of protecting what’s so beautiful and unique to any cultural group that we partner with, while also providing jobs and educational opportunity for their present and future. Through our 17 partnerships, we employ more than 1,500 women in nine countries; all designs are exclusive to Raven and Lily. What very few people know or realize is that we are designing to the skill set of the women in each respective region and really thinking about what they are good at while designing something unique and exclusive. For our Pakistan collection, our Afghan artisans utilize their incredible embroidery skills, and it also gives them a chance to ensure their children have a good education and can break out of the refugee camp poverty cycle. We also want younger women to value what their mothers and grandmothers have done, while getting an education, so that their cultural and artisan skills do not disappear.

SWEEPSTAKES: Enter for your chance to win a Raven and Lily skirt

TakePart: How many Afghan refugee women do you partner with for the Pakistan collection?

Dickerson: We’re partnered with 272 women across eight refugee camps. There’s three different skill sets within those camps, because the women represent various tribal groups from Afghanistan. Each tribal group has different embroidery techniques that represent the region they originally came from. With every design that we create with them, we actually think through designs that would use each one of their embroidery techniques so that we can employ as many of the women as possible, since they’re spread out among all the refugee camps.

TakePart: Actor Shay Mitchell recently modeled for Raven and Lily, including the Pakistan Collection. What are some items she was featured in that you are really proud of?

Dickerson: The Rabia Hand-Embroidered Silk Gown Dress in red or black is a must-have holiday dress that you can also transition year-round. It’s made out of silk and embroidered with the theme of an art deco look. Our Afghan artisans are so talented at embroidering on silk, and we created a timeless silhouette with beautiful details. This dress fits our desire for slow fashion and to create designs that are high quality and can be worn for multiple seasons.

The Rabia Embroidered Skirt is another item that I’m proud of. I love that it’s actually going to be employing three sets of women: The fabric itself is hand loomed by one group, the embroidery is done by these women in the refugee camps, and then it’s sewn by the group of women we’re employing in Peshawar. It’s important to me that every stage of that skirt, there is a woman involved.

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Close-up of one of the women's embroidery. (Photo: Courtesy Raven and Lily)

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TakePart: What do you wish people knew about the work of Raven and Lily?

Dickerson: We are extremely thoughtful, all the way back to the very base source of where cotton comes from or any material we use comes from, as well as utilizing the skills of the women and making sure they have access to health care. It’s super holistic, and it’s a lot of work, but it means that we really do care. When we say we’re ethical, we are genuinely trying to think through all levels of our production practices and how people on the planet are affected. We aim to do the best job we can with our choices—how we design and what materials we use—so that we’re sustainable and eco-friendly. I think sometimes people don’t realize there are a lot of companies that can say they’re fair trade, but I would say there are companies out there [where that] speaks to the production—as in what the women or the group that’s actually putting that product together are treated. Then there’s the eco-friendly movement—that’s thinking mainly about the materials. And I think it’s important to consider both. That’s what we’re trying to do as a company.

TakePart: What are words you live by?

Dickerson: There are two sets of words that I live by: One is an African proverb, “When women move forward, the world moves forward with them.” And the other is: Live thoughtfully.

Items from the Raven and Lily Pakistan collection can be purchased here, and you can also enter our sweepstakes to win a skirt from the collection.