Interview: Tripty Project brings Bengali craftsmanship to the US
Tripty Project is a new slow fashion line produced in Dhaka, Bangladesh that specializes in jackets, backpacks, and kantha quilts. I had the chance to sit down for a phone conversation with founder, Luke Swanson, to learn more about the origin and mission behind the brand. I’m excited to share it with you now that their kickstarter has launched. Since I took notes during the phone call, I’ll do my best to reconstruct our conversation.
Why Bangladesh? Does it have anything to do with the Rana Plaza collapse?
No, actually. Luke had been involved in environmental justice work in the States for a few years before he decided to take 5 months off to visit a friend in Bangladesh. One night he met a woman in an expat bar in Dhaka. They got to talking and she suggested he apply for a position at an NGO that helped Bangladeshi citizens displaced by climate change. Though it didn’t pay a great deal, he was excited about the work, so he took the job and stayed in Dhaka for the next couple years.
Over time, he and a small team decided that they wanted to start a fashion label that highlighted both the skilled labor of the urban population in Dhaka and the artisanal textile traditions still practiced throughout Bangladesh. After Rana Plaza collapsed, the Tripty team worked with factories and organizations in Dhaka that employed survivors of the disaster, but the urban factories ultimately decided to pull out from high end, specialty crafts to pursue higher volume work for larger corporations. (Read more about the Rana Plaza tragedy here.)
Who makes your clothes?
Dhaka-based tailor, Dino, founded an NGO called Help for Poor People (or Friends of Poor People) with a mission to provide jobs and resources to people living in the slums of Dhaka. This is the main manufacturing facility for Tripty Project goods. Employees receive a living wage that is suitable to the local economy (he mentioned here as a side note that it’s very important to pay people an appropriate wage, not just one that seems good, because inflated wages can lead to animosity from neighboring businesses and can wreak havoc on local economies).
When hungry kids from outside the slums started arriving asking for food, Dino decided to find a way to feed them. This drew more and more kids to the area, so Dino and his team decided to start a school that now serves 300 students!
Who makes your textiles?
There’s an elaborate network of embroiderers, weavers, and textiles processers throughout Bangladesh and India.
In western Bangladesh, survivors of sex trafficking embroider goods on their own time in their homes for extra income. In eastern Bangladesh, indigenous populations weave traditional textiles. Tripty works with them to create processes for better quality control and finishing.
The team works with a textile mill in India to source their organic cotton and pineapple leaf fabric (used for their backpacks). The pineapple leaf textile was an original idea. Pineapple farmers in India had to pay to dispose of unwanted leaves; the Tripty team saw them piled high on a road side and decided to buy some off the farmer for a small fee and see if it could be processed down and used in their textiles. It worked! It’s made of a blend of 20% organic cotton and 80% pineapple and is durable fabric for their backpack line.
Why did you decide to brand Tripty Project as mid-range high end?
Through Luke’s interaction with NGOs scattered throughout Bangladesh, he learned a lot about how aid affects its recipients. He noted that a lot of traditional rural handicrafts sent to the Western market were low end, quick projects, and that, often, the buyer saw their purchase as an act of charity rather than as an equal exchange. Artisans in this arrangement are made to feel like charity cases rather than the true artists they are.
Tripty Project is committed to treating the artisans they work with as the artists they are. This means using higher end materials and creating better textiles. This means paying the artisans more than they’re used to receiving from standard NGO projects. There’s also the matter of differentiating Tripty Project as something new and different in the ethical fashion category. They’re truly slow fashion, and that means things will take more time and more money, but that also makes for a better quality, longer lasting product.
How do you fend off a Western/White Savior Complex?
It’s important to remember that Bengladeshis know what’s best for themselves and for their country. Tripty Project was careful to partner with systems and organizations already in place. They work on a small scale with locals at the helm of each sewing facility and organization. Luke and his team bring translators with them when they visit 2–3 times per year so that they can communicate effectively.
Luke and his team know that what they bring to the table is an ability to access a Western audience. Their role is not to fix Bangladesh; it’s to broaden the marketplace for the artisan work being done in Bangladesh. It’s impossible not to run up against weird power dynamics in an international economy; the key is to be self aware enough to re-calibrate as needed.
What do you think American consumers should know about the international garment industry?
Everyone feels helpless.
Garment works feel helpless because they don’t control their own destinies. US consumers feel helpless because they’re skeptical that their choices will improve working conditions for garment workers. Brands feel helpless because making improvements that raise prices could turn off consumers.
But the truth is that consumers have all the power. They’re in charge. If they insist on better wages, better systems, and safer facilities, it can happen. (Side note: it’s really terribly unfortunate that we, the consumers, and not the factory workers hold all the power; the goal, I think, is to give away that power to the rightful owners. That’s when things get better.).
What is the significance of the name, Tripty?
Tripty is the Bengali/Hindi word for satisfaction and is a common girl’s name in Bangladesh. It also happens to be the name of the manager of Tripty’s stitching project. It felt like the perfect way to describe a brand that seeks to satisfy people’s needs and consumers’ wants while honoring a beloved employee.
What can we do to support Tripty Project?
The Tripty Project team is the real deal. They’ve got lots of good ideas and the know-how to put them into action. Thanks for your time, Luke!
(All images belong to Tripty Project. First photo: graphic added by me.)
This post first appeared on Style Wise, a blog on fair trade and sustainable fashion.