Jemilla Robertson is happy taking a slow path to success. In fact, it’s a key part of the business plan for her new lingerie and loungewear label, Fellow Dreamers.
After working for 10 years in the industry for major commercial brands, the UK designer knew there had to be a better — and more meaningful — way to pursue her love of fashion.
The result of that quest is Fellow Dreamers, an ethical lingerie label that puts the emphasis on local production, environmental sustainability and social good. It debuted last month with a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.
“After a growing feeling of disconnection from the products I was creating, I began to question the process of fast fashion,” Jemilla says in her website bio. “I wanted to feel more involved in the entire process of making again. I wanted to slow down, breathe a little easier and cherish the merits of true craftsmanship by supporting the often unnoticed and unrewarded skills of the struggling artisan.”
Jemilla had traveled to India and the Far East frequently over the past decade, designing and supervising production for High Street brands. It was a “privileged” role, she admits, but one that left her with an increasingly critical view of the global fashion industry.
“I loved India — its people, its colour, its food and music,” she told Lingerie Talk this week. “But I felt like I was missing something while churning out designs for fast-fashion retailers, season after season. The process can become a little soulless and impersonal.”
Jemilla is among a new breed of conscience-driven fashion independents for whom “sustainability” means more than just using organic fabrics. And with Fellow Dreamers she aims to tackle many overlapping issues: it’s part of the Slow Fashion movement that supports artisanal craftsmanship; it’s on the side of organic farmers fighting genetically modified seed production; it promotes fair trade and fair labour practices; it provides both work and leadership roles to women; and it endeavors to help improve the domestic lives of its workers and their families.
Jemilla started planning Fellow Dreamers two years ago and searched for production facilities in India that shared her goals. She eventually found one in the Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, where an ethical fashion workshop called Appropriate Improvement Fashions employs and trains about 20 people, mostly women accustomed to living in poverty.
For Jemilla, the partnership with AIF allowed her to focus on the social and environmental goals that drive Fellow Dreamers. All FD garments are manufactured in the not-for-profit workshop (above), which provides jobs and skills training for local women, using GTO-certified organic cotton and chemical-free herbal dyes sourced from another Indian company, Aural Herbalwear.
Jemilla’s passion for humanitarian and environmental causes was triggered, in part, by viewing a documentary about the high suicide rate among Indian cotton farmers — a disturbing connect-the-dots phenomenon that is often seen as a symbol of the impact of globalized fashion on impoverished producers in developing countries. (Search YouTube for numerous accounts of this problem.)
“For me this is an issue of both people and planet — the two things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Jemilla said.
“There really are so many issues these women (at the AIF workshop) face daily that stem from a male-dominated society which views them as second-class citizens. Embroidering and sewing pretty lingerie for us doesn’t solve all of the problems for these women but it does give them some sense of empowerment that they are able to earn their own money, which in turn gives them more control of decision making and their own destiny.”
The Fellow Dreamers team includes one female seamstress, 11 female embroiderers and three male tailors. Part of the company’s mission is to teach its embroiderers to sew in order to increase their earning potential.
“This is is slow process, as traditionally this is considered men’s work in this part of the world, so it can be challenging for the women to have the confidence to rise above the gender stereotypes,” Jemilla said.
But all these serious considerations don’t mean that Fellow Dreamers sacrifices style for social values. In fact, its romantic assortment of hand-embroidered cotton and silk nightwear, layering pieces and undies are extremely pretty and will appeal to altruistic fashionistas everywhere. The debut collection has a distinct vintage vibe and includes several charming playsuits, as well as kimonos, camis, lounge pants, bralettes and knickers.
In addition, the company is offering organic, hand-screenprinted cotton pillowcases and tote bags as rewards for Kickstarter donors — the two products that are used in the training program that teaches sewing skills to embroiderers at the Indian workshop.
Jemilla earned an honours BA in fashion studies before getting her first job as a junior designer, but she seemed destined for the job since childhood. “My favourite toy was a set of fabric swatches that I used to play with for hours,” she said. “In fact I still play with fabrics the same way.”
She chose the new label’s brand name because it sounds “inclusive, positive and hopeful,” but it didn’t come from a focus group or market research. “It popped into my head while I was in bed trying to get to sleep, and it was still there when I woke up in the morning,” she said. “At that point I knew it was right.”
She also knows Fellow Dreamers has more work to do to achieve its lofty goals. Specifically, its silk collection is woven from Indian fibre but is not certified organic, so the company is working with suppliers to find a suitable, sustainable alternative.
“I can’t claim to be 100% sustainable at this point, but I do focus on sustainable practise and as business grows, more options will become available,” she said.
The Fellow Dreamers Kickstarter campaign runs until Oct. 10, with shipment of orders slated for January. There’s a long list of rewards available to donors, including good discounts on garments from the debut collection and a premium reward unlike any other — for £1,000 you can get three nights’ stay in a 5-star Indian hotel and tour of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh that includes a visit to the AIF workshop where you can see your Fellow Dreamers garments come to life.
Below are some more images from the first Fellow Dreamers lookbook, shot by Vivienne Mok (who may be familiar to our readers as the talented photographer for Felice Art Couture.)
Fellow Dreamers Kickstarter Campaign