IOM UK: Supporting Freedom through Fashion


"Fashioned for Freedom” 2014 was the biggest ethical fashion show ever staged for Anti-Slavery Day, showcasing the work of 37 different designers. © Stuart Butcher , Fashion Shift Magazine 2014

By Chris Gaul

I have had the privilege to work for IOM UK since 2006 and I first encountered a victim of human trafficking as an AVR caseworker in 2007. But back then I didn’t understand what human trafficking was.

In 2009, I undertook a monitoring and evaluation trip to Vietnam to interview beneficiaries of one of IOM UK’s return programmes. During my conversations with the people IOM had assisted, I ascertained that many of them had been trafficked to the UK to cultivate cannabis, had then been arrested and sentenced to prison, and voluntarily returned to Vietnam via the return programme.

I soon discovered that in the UK, we were on the breaker of a wave, a movement in the fight against slavery. NGOs, charities and those with a passion for humanitarian work were getting to grips with the concept of modern-day slavery and that this wasn’t just an issue in the most poverty stricken areas of the world. This was an issue that was happening in the UK, in leafy suburbia, in my street – in my own life. I didn’t realise that some of the products I purchased with my wages were being made by slaves!

Speaking with my friends, I started to encounter a common problem. Although all those I talked to agreed that trafficking was abhorrent and needed to be stopped, none of my friends frequented brothels, had a ‘domestic slave’, knew a child soldier, got involved in street crime, or were exploited in factories, they just couldn’t really relate to the issue - let alone contemplate a change in their own lives.

So, how could I connect the public to an issue where they had few, if any, ‘touch points’?

Fashion?

Everyone I know likes to wear clothes, has to wear clothes, and indeed purchases their own clothes! We all wear clothes, but do we know where they come from?

So, back in 2011, I spoke to the IOM UK Chief of Mission, Clarissa Azkoul, and asked if I could put together an awareness-raising fashion show. We would showcase designers who were committed to a slavery-free production line. Having recently attended an event on organic farming hosted by one of the leading fashion brands, I learned that there are some incredible fashion labels out there that are creating amazing ethically produced clothes. The only problem is that no one had heard about them. Because they pay a fair wage, invest in their farmers, collectors, dyers, factory workers – the entire supply chain – they have little finance left for a marketing budget. An ethical fashion show promoting brands that are making a difference and also raising some money for survivors of human trafficking, was a perfect start to an awareness- raising movement.

Fast-forward 3 years: Anti-Slavery Day 2014. We hosted the third event of its kind, Fashioned for Freedom. This year’s event was the biggest yet. We had grown since 2011 where only five designers showed their latest collections on the catwalk. And now we have an incredible roster of 37 different designers!

The catwalk show was followed by a performance by the contemporary dance company known as the Natashas’ Project, which interpreted the struggles of modern slaves through dance. We had VIP guest DJ Joe Ray (of number one band Nero), returning presenters Angela Buttolph (Editor-at-large of Graziadaily, an e-magazine) and Hollywood actor David Gyasi (Interstellar, Cloud Atlas and The Dark Knight Rises), in addition to various special guests.

"I think the first event was the perfect balance of awesome fashion, cool bands and mind-blowing statistics highlighting a very important global issue. I have faith that some grassroots initiatives will be kicked off after Fashioned for Freedom. And I'm very proud to have been involved," said Angela Buttolph.

The commitment to the cause was astounding as presenters, dancers, musicians, technicians, models, stylists, designers, volunteers and photographers all came out to support Fashioned for Freedom 2014. And all were directly responsible for its success. As with all of the previous events, guests happily left with goody bags containing treats and clothes from Nutmeg and Divine Chocolate, who generously donated their ethical products to the show.

This begs the question, “Where do we go from here?” Well, modern-day slavery is not going to go away by itself. I am not sure what we will do next year, but one thing is for certain: with more friends, investment, and exposure, we can start to raise more money to help survivors of trafficking. We can educate the general public on how powerful they are, with what they hold in their wallets and purses. We can generate more support for brands that are committed and sacrificing profit for people and freedom. Through these actions, we can really stand up to modern-day slavery.