Carcel: From Scars to Scarves

It’s almost surreal when you pick some couture thoughts out of the shelves of some of the most stylish minds of this world.

Ralph Lauren says:  “Fashion is not necessarily about labels. It’s not about brands. It’s about something else that comes from within you.”

Buy less, choose well.” Is what Vivienne Westwood believed in.shutterstock_93902407

As for Yves Saint Laurent, what mattered was this: “Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.

What is more surreal is when you find these philosophies being hemmed in the most unusual way by a lady slouched over a floor in some prison cell in a far-off country.

No labels, buying with responsibility, fashion that makes sustainability trendy, and choosing one’s own individual energy as the actual logo that should stand out in a dress or any of the accoutrements out there. Yes, there are women, actual incarcerated women, who are turning to fashion as the new window of escapism, both for themselves as well as for those responsible buyers who want to make a style statement that speaks about who they are instead of who they are wearing.

What’s important in a dress perhaps, is the woman who is making it!

Prison cells are the last imaginable place to find this escape from the runway-assembly-line. Specially, when it’s a cell in a developing country where most women are incarcerated due to poverty-related crimes. A young, poor, single mother with a low level of education is the most expected face to find here.

When a lady visited one such Peruvian prison, what she saw however were hands that were already sewing and knitting, albeit with no access to a market. They were not able sell their products and made no money. Someone thought – what if we turn this wasted time into skills and paid jobs so women in prison can support themselves, send their children to school, save up for a crime-free beginning and ultimately, break the cycle of poverty?

Yes, all of that. Accompanied by an actual designer!

Louise van Hauen

Louise van Hauen

Louise van Hauen, not just any designer but a stylistic consultant for Dirk Bikkembergs in Italy, who has been a design assistant for Louis Vuitton in Paris and freelance accessories consultant in London.

To top that – Each product would carry the name of the woman who made it – a label iconoclastic in an ironical way in the fashion world that is invariably frazzled with labels.

This may have seemed and sounded a bit ridiculous and pie-in-the-sky talk in 2014 but Veronica D’Souza has darned the so-called hopeless jute into an espadrille by 2016. When she was living in Nairobi, Kenya, she went to visit a women’s prison because she was curious about why the women were there, and what they were doing while inside. There she found ordinary women from poor backgrounds, incar­cerated for non-violent crimes due to a lack of opportunities and not rough criminals that one would anticipate. These women were sitting 8 hours and knitting and sewing- every day.

She wondered – so the time is there, the women are there, the machines too, but without access to good materials, designs and a market; so they are struggling to sell their products and make no money. A factory in full production but with a useless output. Plus, most of them had children living inside and outside of the prison. Now it goes without explaining how in many countries, it’s a great stigma to go to prison as a woman, and it’s a hard-to-fathom battle to get reaccepted into society or find a job when released.

The story has been the same in prisons of many countries – be it Kenya or Peru.

But one can either sigh over the fate that most women resign themselves to or have a sparkle in the eye at the discovery that most women are already skilled and knowledgeable about the handcraft of Alpaca manufacturing on manual knitting machines.

There strikes a partnership with the National Prison System of Peru, and a local production manager inside the women’s prison in Cuzco, and the idea starts getting embroidered into reality.

That’s not it. All these brave women are now finding the perfectly-timed co-incidence of fashion-enthusiasts all over the world turning to a new aisle- that of responsibility, hunger for originality and individualism of a new shade altogether.

In October, 2016 for instance, almost one-third of the handbags purchased in the U.S. in the 12 months ending June 2016 did not have a visible logo and when The NPD Group dissected the trend it found that the sales of handbags without a visible logo increased their share of the market in the past year. What’s more, this is a style trend that is crossing generations – Boomers, Gen Zs, Older Millennials, Gen Xers, younger Millennials etc. Turns out that consumers are becoming less focused on image and more focused on individuality – especially the younger generations as Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group, Inc. had remarked.

So think of the undercurrent out there and think of fashion inventory that women in prisons are rolling out – items that are handmade in 100% pure materials; items made with responsibility because someone ensures that they invest in good wages and the premium materials and sell exclusively online.

CARCEL is here. It’s not just a Copenhagen-based fashion label, manufactured by women in prison, but a sign of things to come, and things on their way. Fashion can come from the unlikeliest of places, with the same passion and sense of design and yet, made with the best and most sustainable materials in the world that can meet the highest rate of poverty-related incarceration.

A handbag, a scarf, an accessory can be something that is made from lost time, skills and hope that is now a form of fair wages and a better future.

CARCEL team members claim that they give customers high quality designs that last, speaking highly of the first collection that is made from 100 per cent Baby Alpaca and produced in Cusco’s women’s prison in Peru.

Let’s sit across Veronica D’Souza, founder and CEO of Carcel and unfold what is happening ‘out’ there in this new ‘fassion’ corner. After all, Iris Apfel has advised well: “When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else.”veronica-1

Veronica has been recognized as a ‘Global Shaper’ under Word Economic Forum, has co-founded the award-winning social business Ruby Cup and is the co-author of ‘The Road Map for Sustainable Leadership’ among many things up and down her sleeve. With a Master in International Business and Politics from Copenhagen Business School, and a specialisation in Sustainable Business Operations and Strategies from Columbia Business School; she chose to look for a needle in an orphaned, forgotten haystack.

By the way, their next collection will be made from 100 per cent organic silk, manufactured in Prisons in India.

It’s time we got to know them better. So, here’s entrepreneur Veronica’s response to the queries put up by Shashwat DC, the editor. Read on:

How can livelihood projects like Carcel aid in reduction of crime? And ideally, should this intervention not be done before a person turns into a criminal?

With regards to fighting poverty-related crime for women, there is a need to intervene at all points – before, during and after prison. At Carcel, we have chosen to focus on the women who’ve already committed a crime and are now sentenced to be in prison for the next 10-15 years, because this is where we believe we can make a measurable difference. We’ve chosen to focus on these years and turn otherwise-lost years into something of value. The women have given us letters explaining the monotone of daily life inside prison where they miss their families and children. By providing these women with a job and a fair wage, not only do we hope that they have a better chance at recuperating after prison and a chance to help themselves and their family despite incarceration, we also hope to give them a reason to get up in the morning and help them sustain a normal mental health. This is what we mean by value.

How did the project Carcel come into being? What was the inspiration? What has been the impact so far?

I  was living in Nairobi for three years, prior to founding Carcel. Here I visited a prison in Nairobi and saw how the women here were ordinary people from the local villages. Much like Peru, the majority had committed crimes due to poverty. The fact that they were sewing and knitting every day, but without access to a market and thus made no money seemed to me like a factory in full production, but with a useless output. Thinking of women in prison all over the world, I imagined that the situation might be similar. That’s why I came up with the idea for Carcel – to create beautiful products in the world’s best materials that could give these women a market and thus transform their lost time into fair wages and new skills.

carcel_2As to progress and impact; we are in the start-up phase, and setting up our first production in Peru’s women’s prison in Cusco. We have just invested in new machines, thanks to our kick-starter supporters, and will engage in capacity building and training over the next weeks. Then, we start production. As a start-up trying to set up production in a prison, there are multiple challenges that we need to overcome. But the most important part is that the prison system in Peru is with us, the women are ready and they are eager to get started.

How did the name come into being? Where are products available?

The word “carcél”, means prison in Spanish. It is a simple, powerful but also a beautiful word.

We have pre-launched our first products from our first collection through our kickstarter campaign. People can preorder today and until the 25th of October, to be the first to get Carcel items, and this way help us employ more women.
Later we will also launch an online shop, but this will not be until early spring 2017.

What is the business model? How well is the person paid? How has the response been from the governments or local authorities on this?
The women are paid per item that they make. This way we can include women who have small children and who might not be able to work on a full time basis. A woman would be able to knit 2-3 sweaters a day. We pay the women 15 dollars per item, which corresponds full time to 3 times the minimum wage in Peru. The women were already sewing and knitting but they didn’t have a proper market to sell their products nor things such as good quality materials. So they earned very little, if anything at all.

We have an official agreement with the Peruvian prison system and they are very supportive to the idea of providing the incarcerated women with better opportunities for work while in prison.

It is mentioned that “100% natural materials that are locally sourced”, how do you ensure the same considering the operations are in diverse countries and locations?
We are planning on working in countries where the intersection of high female incarceration rates meets the craftsmanship and production of world-class materials from the area.

The next place where we want to go is India. India is, of course, known for producing the world’s greatest silk, and so we hope to hereby implement the same idea as in Peru, where we source the materials within the country to create quality products while helping women in prison. We are currently looking into 100 per cent organic silks.

Do you intend to also go for certifications like Fair Value or Ethical Fashion?

Right now we are focusing on setting up production in prison – A process with many challenges.carcel_4

We would like to look into certifications later, but as there as multiple ways to go about it and authorities associated with different certifications depending on what part of  the world you’re from, this a process that still lies ahead of us.

You are planning to work with female prisoners in India? Where will that be and what is the project about? How did it start?

To Carcel it’s about finding places where we can make a difference, so it is where female incarceration is high and where some of the best materials in the world are to be found. We all have a relation to a noble material like silk, but we also feel that we could have an impact on some of the imprisoned women in this country. We are planning on going to India around January 2017.
We are still looking for partnerships in India in terms of materials and have not yet settled on a certain prison – we are looking into the area in and around Delhi and have had a local out to speak with the prison authorities of one of the prisons.

India is one of the first countries to have a mandatory CSR (2% of net profit) for corporates, how do you react to it? How can it be leveraged?

It is fantastic that a country like India decides that corporations need to give back to society. We believe in a world of social business, where each item solves problems rather than creates them. Hopefully, we get to meet and partner with like-minded social companies that aim to make a difference through integrated business activities.

Have you visited India, and what has been your experience like?

To your surprise, I have Indian roots and family there. It is a country much different than Denmark where Carcel is based. Carcel can hopefully have a positive impact on the prison system and the women in prison as well as learn from the amazing craftsmanship and production of silk. Hereby we hope to put emphasis on one of the great things in Indian culture and try to help where society has a hard time succeeding in helping this stigmatised segment of women.

Does Carcel make a difference between the prisoners, namely, will it work with females incarcerated for serious crimes like murder? Is there an ethical or moral angle to it?

At Carcel we’ve taken a conscious standpoint where we say that the women have already been judged and sentenced by the existing court system in their respective country. We don’t need to judge them again. We seek out places in the world where women are incarcerated due to poverty and thus where desperate measures and decisions made by these women were what got them in prison. Carcel focuses on re-socialization in the sense that if the women are willing to work, we hope to be able to provide them with a job. If you are motivated to create a better future, we believe you deserve the opportunity to build it.

What’s your take on social entrepreneurship and its relevance in our times?

carcel-veronicaThere is a fantastic increase is social enterprises. It’s one of the great movements of our times. I believe that if we really want to fix some of the globe’s big problems, we need to find sustainable, scalable and investable business models that have a profit incentive to do so. Today, socents (social entrepreneur) are still new and pioneering. Hopefully, many of these business models will be taken on by big multinationals that will have the capacity to scale solutions to water, energy, health, economic inclusion, etc. Let’s hope that in the future there is no such thing as social businesses or social enterprises – but that it becomes a status quo to address societal problems through sustainable business models.

Finally, your own personal journey, as a young entrepreneur. How has the experiences shaped you, especially that of Carcel?

This is the second time that I start a social business. Once again, I am amazed by how much talent is willing to help and support in growing it from when Carcel was just an idea. In 6 months, we have managed to go from the idea phase to getting our first collection in the market and having a strong set-up in Peru’s prisons. This shows me that even though it is very challenging to do new things, you are not alone. There are people with the expertise you might not have yet, willing to give you a hand. And if you look at the world in that perspective, this means that we are ready to quickly and collaboratively pave new paths that can have a huge impact. Our generation seeks and demands work that has a societal meaning. I hope more people will find inspiration and courage to start social businesses, and that we can create a conversation where we discuss challenges and lessons learned, rather than celebrating heroes. Being a social entrepreneur is not a job for the selected few – we just need to help each other out.

(Pictures – Courtesy:  Petra Kleis)


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