Fashion gets a lot of flak. It is an industry based on beauty and appearance; superficiality is—not ironically—at its very core. Yet because it garners such wide interest and the act of dressing oneself is so broadly applicable, it can also be a massive mobilizer for good when the customer buys a piece of clothing and a portion of the proceeds go towards a philanthropic effort. At this point, fashion for good is a tried and true formula. What’s more, it’s a compelling way to empower the consumer. Obakki, a Vancouver-based clothing line, is still an anomaly within the philanthropic fashion world, especially since Treana Peake, the founder and creative director announced that 100% of profits from her modern and impeccably designed collection will go directly to the Obakki Foundation’s humanitarian work. In fact, the collection is the fundraising arm for what has become an impressively far-reaching foundation.
Currently focusing on South Sudan—Peake has been working in Africa for over 20 years—the foundation typically contributes to projects dealing with education and water. This spring, proceeds from Obakki’s collection will go towards building wells in embattled South Sudan where pastoralist tribes fight over water. “We have tons of credibility in the field—we’ve done over 450 wells,” says Peake. “We’ve been partnering with the UN. It’s been years of research and working alongside different partners on the ground. The UN actually approached us to do [this well project]. Because of the conflict that’s been happening, there’s been repeated clashing going on almost entirely due to the lack of water. Entire communities come together and battle.
“[The UN] approached us—there needs to be some sort of conflict reduction program happening and nobody was prepared to take them on at the time. We decided to launch that pilot project in some conflict hot zones identified by the UN and go in and give livestock water and people water. They’re an animist, pastoralist society and if their cattle don’t have water—even if their people do—they’ll still leave the well and it’s really why they’re battling.”
Talking to Peake on the phone from her studio in Vancouver, it quickly becomes evident that designing and her work in Africa are intricately linked. “I just wanted to find a way to merge fashion and philanthropy,” she reasons of her choice to use fashion to fundraise for the Obakki Foundation. “To give my fashion a purpose and attach some creativity to my development work.”
Obakki’s spring collection is desirable even discounting the hugely significant humanitarian factor. A cleanly cut t-shirt dress digitally printed with a black and white photograph caught my eye, along with some supremely luxurious looking leather sweatpants. A graphic black and white grid print shows up on a skater skirt as well as a neatly tailored shirtdress. As it turns out, however, it’s more than the indigenous cultures and beauty where Peake works that inspires the collection. The story of the campaign—in this instance, the Sudanese tribes’ water shortages—are woven into the very construction of the collection.
“If conflict doesn’t get reduced, than the government is looking at disbanding this culture,” explain Peake. “There’s a chance that, a few decades from now, this culture won’t exist, so this collection was really about representing that. It’s about, first of all, showcasing this culture that’s been unchanged by [passing] centuries, but then the actual patterns are showing the loss that could come if there isn’t change. I’ve put sheer paneling—an organza fabric—over a very traditional African grid print to show the modern world over top, [but] you can still see the old culture there. I’ve also layered old prints—there was a photograph taken in the 1950s and I’ve put it beside my own photo to show that nothing has really changed.”
Obakki’s designs literally allow you to wear your heart—and buying power—on your sleeve. Profits from the spring collection will go towards the Preserved in Time campaign—three wells have already been built before the start of the current rainy season.
Good Love is another ongoing campaign. Originally initiated at holiday time and relaunching now, for every 500 signature red scarves sold, a South Sudan village will be provided with a well. “We bring everything full circle,” says Peake. “We’re always trying to connect our customers to a direct cause. They get this beautiful modal scarf, they wear it, and then they get updates from the village that they helped.” Looking for consumer power in a world mass retailers and fast fashion? Obakki represents the ultimate in ethical-activist fashion.