Heather Chaplet Talks Cotton, Love, and Making an Impact with Xoomba, Her Line of Organic West African made Clothing and Textiles

Heather chaplet holding  Xoomba  textiles

Heather chaplet holding Xoomba textiles

Your background is in theater, what led you to starting your own fashion line? I studied and began my career in theater because I liked how multi dimensional it could be and how it could draw from all sorts of artistic mediums. I have always had a difficult time narrowing my interests into one medium of expression. I had the fortune of going to a very inspiring school in Paris that was much more oriented toward a visual creation of theater than a text and physiology based theater I had studied at Brown University. I worked with friends to make physical theater pieces but I also started making costumes for myself and for others. I made a musical piece based on sculptural costumes which I really loved.

But I also have a more practical education in design as I grew up with two designers for parents who created the iconic American home furnishings company, MacKenzie-Childs. I worked extensively throughout the company from the production line to marketing. I traveled to production sites across the world from Spain to Indonesia. Most importantly, my parents were real makers who would teach themselves to make anything in any material including their own clothes and I grew up seeing that in action. I also saw the company go painfully bankrupt and mercilessly eject its own creators. All of that has been preparing me for what I do now.

Perhaps it was having children, perhaps it was 9/11 - I don't know somehow, I started taking an intense interest in the intricate workings of the world. I found myself more inspired by listening to and reading work by Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein. Theater is delightfully fun but it revolves around it's own little bubble receiving funding from god knows where as it is a thoroughly unprofitable affair. I got excited when I heard Naomi Klein and then Yanis Varoufakis talk about a democracy that unites the political and economic spheres rather than separating them so that the economic sphere ends up eating up the political sphere. I decided I would not be satisfied floating in my fantastic theatrical bubble. I would use my artistic background to have an impact on the real economy. And fashion, well it's so humanly expressive, like the Shakespearean world is our stage!

It is not easy to find a place where everything, from start to finish, can be made with local and organic materials and can be made in quantities that can be scaled to demand.

Why were you interested in producing in West Africa? Well really I just love West African culture and have since I can remember, the dance, the music, the pride and the attitude. But through this work I have discovered that the region offers a very uncommon production capacity that is difficult to find elsewhere. It is not easy to find a place where everything, from start to finish, can be made with local and organic materials and can be made in quantities that can be scaled to demand. The hand looming makes for 25 yard minimums which is a feasible quantity to start with. The only other place in the world that I can see a similar capacity is in India. That is why so many organic textile companies are based in India. But there are none that I know of in West Africa and certainly not in Burkina Faso which has an unemployment rate that hovers around 65%. So while I am happily inspired to work in this part of the world I also feel like I am fulfilling a vital need there.

Heather Chaplet and master weavers

Heather Chaplet and master weavers

How did you settle on Burkina Faso? What is special about that country? Burkina is landlocked, dusty and off the beaten track. The artificial borders drawn by the French group together many diverse ethnic groups and religions with no clear majority which has made for a very tolerant people who treasure their peace amidst regional turmoil. While traditional thinking is as much a presence as in the surrounding countries, the general mindset is unusual in that it has been influenced by an unusual man. The young and energetic Thomas Sankara led the country in the 80's, breaking with both traditional and colonial hierarchies to strive for independence not only politically but economically. His famous words in a speech to the UN: "imperialism is in the grains of rice in our bowls". He strove for autonomy.  Following in Gandhi's footsteps, he imported large looms from India and required all state workers wear clothes made from locally made fabric. We are still using those looms today. Sankara advanced many progressive principles: he required equality for women, he fought desertification with record plantings of trees, he vaccinated more people than the world health organization- just to list a few of his ambitious projects.

Tragically he was assassinated and succeeded by his best friend, Blaise Campaore, who took part in the assassination plot. Blaise took a less ideological route, enriching a small elite and balancing traditional power centers against each other to insure his own 27 year reign. The people finally stood in his way when he tried to change the constitution in order to run for president again two years ago. The insurrection took a few days and the lives of thirty people but the country redressed itself unusually quickly. After holding free elections, they elected someone from the same party as their former president and it is not clear how much things will really change. While occidental news hardly noticed these developments, Burkina is closely watched in the region as an example of the power of the people.

What has this got to do with establishing an organic, made in Burkina enterprise? Well I, like the people of Burkina, am inspired by Sankara (and encourage everyone to see the documentaries made about him) and am committed to realizing his noble vision of independence through economic autonomy. And the Burkinabés understand that vision. They also know how difficult it is to achieve.

The weaving cooperative is made up of both men and women though it is two women who direct and train on a daily basis. It reflects Burkinabé society in that women and men work more as equals and the members of the cooperative come from various ethnic and religious backgrounds and yet they treat each other like family. Traditionally weaving is a man’s job while hand spinning is a woman’s but in Burkina, traditional rules don’t get in the way.

What inspires your designs? I get very excited about rather abstract concepts of line and form and body movement. I love when I discover a way to place a seam at an unexpected angle or when I find a solution to be able to eliminate the need for a button or a zipper that might break the flow of the garment. I always make a prototype for myself and wear the piece until I really have an intimate relationship with it, tweaking it till it feels just right, like it makes you want to dance.

Describe the weaving cooperative that you work with. The weaving cooperative is made up of both men and women though it is two women who direct and train on a daily basis. It reflects Burkinabé society in that women and men work more as equals and the members of the cooperative come from various ethnic and religious backgrounds and yet they treat each other like family. Traditionally weaving is a man's job while hand spinning is a woman's but in Burkina, traditional rules don't get in the way. The looms are all manual. They have two of the original looms brought over by Sankara from India and the rest are wooden looms that have been built locally but modeled off of old European looms. They use a small amount of electricity to wind the bobbins. The output varies depending on weather conditions and the nature of the weave but averages about 5 yards per day per person.

How do you respond to criticism that your designs are not “African” enough? I adore the style of the people I work with and admire them for their pride and resistance to generic westernized styles. But I can't say my own designs are influenced by the local aesthetic.

People generally expect that design made in Africa should have an "african" look with motifs that we associate with that continent. But it is not generally expected that things made in China should look Chinese or things made in Honduras should look Honduran etc. I believe we shouldn't limit Africans to any particular expectations. Their own traditions are surprisingly international and have evolved across borders and oceans with fluidity.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face producing a line in Burkina Faso? Where to start? There are many challenges working in a place that has such little infrastructure. Things we take for granted cannot be counted on there like the reliability of electricity or transportation or availability of materials. The most imminent challenge for me is securing the source of organic cotton. The bottle neck is not in the availability of the fiber but in its transformation into yarn for weaving.There are only 3 mills in the region and right now, only one (in neighboring Mali) that will agree to make organic cotton which requires that they clean their machines first. In order for it to be worth the trouble, they require large quantities and that makes it that all regional demand must be coordinated into one order and this is very challenging! It is my dream to be able to start a spinning mill dedicated to spinning organic cotton to supply the regional demand.

Can you describe for us how the cotton market works in Burkina Faso? Cotton farmers are dependent on getting their cotton industrially ginned to remove the seeds before their product can access a market. There is only one state sanctioned ginning company in Burkina Faso which was established by the french colonialists and this is the same for all the neighboring countries. The distribution of seeds and everything related to growing cotton is controlled in Burkina by the Union of Cotton farmers which works closely with the gin company, Sofitex. While it was formed as a Union to represent the farmers, it has become more and more closely tied with agro-businesses like Monsanto. Sofitex gives the farmers the seeds and the required pesticides and chemical fertilizers on credit. When the farmers return with their harvest, they are paid for the cotton minus the cost of the seeds and the products as well as the interest. They end up earning very little. In order for farmers to access the cotton growing program they have to form village groups so that if any individual farmer fails to deliver, the cost is covered by the group while none of the risk is born by Sofitex. This sometimes creates unbearable tensions within the village unit.

The cotton fiber is then sold in the international market at the market dictated price. The problem has been that the American produced cotton often brings the global cotton price down due to the subsidies American farmers receive. At times this creates deficits for places like Burkina.

In the last 6 years Sofitex has switched from conventional cotton to about 80% GMO cotton though we don't know the exact percentage as they will not make the numbers public. The farmers had all given negative feed back after field tests but they went forward with the program presumably because of pressure and payoffs from Monsanto. In 2011, farmers all over the country protested the system. The GMO cotton gives an inferior quality of fiber which sells less expensively and the farmers who are paid by weight, were paid less because the oil content was much less, making it lighter. This also affects the fabrication of cooking oil from the seeds which is used widely. Now, as a result of an emboldened population after the popular insurrection that pushed Blaise Campaore out of power, the Burkinabé people have now firmly rejected GMO cotton. But they have just turned back to conventional cotton which requires huge amounts of poisonous products and is probably the primary source of health problems in the country. We don't know this for sure because not enough money is spent to research the problem but it is the general consensus opinion of health workers there.

You work with organic cotton, how does the organic cotton market differ from the non-organic cotton market? It was at one of these times when the Burkinabe cotton market was in deficit that the NGO Helvetas convinced the Union to allow organic cotton to be cultivated because while they would not make money from selling the chemical products to the farmers on credit, they would get more money from the thirty percent increase in the price of organic cotton. Helvetas chose farmers all across Burkina to produce the organic cotton and invested in training them and providing some support. It was especially attractive to the poorest of farmers because while the output was less, they did not have to spend money on the pesticides and fertilizers. There is also the added benefit that there are no health hazards due to organic farming and this can be even economically precious in Burkina where healthcare is expensive. But Helvetas only allows enough farmers as can be paid by their market demand so it only accounts for one percent of the Burkina's cotton.

Ideally the organic cotton demand and production should expand and the very harmful conventional cotton should be not be produced at all.

In 2012 you were not able to get any organic cotton. Can you describe what happened that year? That year the cotton Union was approached by a new customer with high demands for organic, fair trade certified cotton: Victoria's Secret. In typical African style, always bowing to the biggest power in the room, they gave the whole year's output of organic cotton to Victoria, disregarding all of their former longtime loyal customers that Helvetas had attracted including myself. This coincided with a bad year for organic cotton as many farmers had been ousted from the program as their crops were too close and could be contaminated by new GMO cotton crops. Then there was an article about a story of child labor producing this fairtrade, organic cotton for Victoria, which it turns out was completely false but the bad publicity was enough for Victoria to subsequently pull out of the deal.

Your business is 2 fold: In addition to your own line you also work with other designers. Describe the service you offer other designers. I would love for other designers to use this infrastructure to create their own fabrics and use them for their designs so I can create more jobs and increase the production of organic cotton. We have begun working with a few designers and hope to continue. It is an excellent resource for designers looking for a completely organic and transparent production line and a wonderful story to tell about their product. It is also interesting for emerging designers because we can start with such small quantities.

What are your thoughts on business? What drives you to have your own business? I think an ethical business model is a highly underused and effective tool to fight poverty and environmental degradation especially on the African continent which is overrun with charitable organizations and yet poverty is still a big problem there. We all have to make a living right? So why can't we transform the way we make a living to be a positive force solving both poverty and environmental problems. Burkina is going through a delicate shifting of power, rejecting power abuse as much as possible while trying to establish a political system that is more fair and allows for more opportunity. I think Xoomba can contribute to moving the country towards its ideals by providing healthy, dignified jobs. People who are not completely destitute can participate more fully in their political structure. I hope it provides an example that will encourage other similar enterprises.

You had an exciting launch on Nov 18th. Tell us about the launch and what is next for XoombaYes we're excited to gather enough orders together in order to establish the manufacture of finished clothing, again creating more dignified and meaningful jobs and I think, making really beautiful pieces. I like the idea of supplying customers directly in order to give them the discount from the lack of retail overhead and producing to order to eliminate waste. I realize it's difficult as people like to see their clothing in person so we'll see if it can work that way.

In further developments, we are in the middle of securing a permanent space for our operations in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. This will be wonderful in that we can install a permanent water treatment system to make the dying process to the highest standards possible. It is also exciting because we can eventually make a showroom/boutique and cafe there and more fully connect with the community. The space will use only the most ecologically appropriate solutions and will provide examples of affordable ways to make life easier in that climate. I envision the space becoming a hub for the sharing of ideas.

Click to view Xoomba's Kickstarter Campaign!