In Guangzhou, the amount of fabrics and produce to be explored in the thousands of shopfronts and markets and shopping centres is overwhelming. Compare that to Sydney where there are no textile markets and just three textile shops. It is clear why China is the centre of the world for textiles. The downside of these markets is the prevalence of ‘fast fashion’: products of low skill labour that are cheap to make, cheap to buy, and easy to throw away. Many consumers in Australia prefer to buy a $5 item than invest money in a well-crafted, expensive garment. Fast fashion has the potential to smother the slowly fading traditional crafts usually found in rural, ethnic minority communities.
It begs the question, when close to every garment label in the world reads ‘Made in China’, a phrase synonymous with mass production and fast fashion, how do a former engineer and a bartender from Australia dare to forge a fashion label that uses traditional textile making techniques from ethnic minority communities?
Jessie and Kartika tell me they want to create something greater than just clothes. They want to create garments with a story. They want to empower communities to retain their skills and their livelihoods by purchasing their fabrics and incorporating them into modern designs. Unfortunately for their label, Wolftress, there is an element that is out of their control. Their vision relies on a mentality shift in Australia to value sustainable fashion. Wolftress can bring the ethical fashion to the people but they can’t make them buy.
It is easy to see why Kartika and Jessie have chosen China as their next destination to discover traditional textile-making skills of ethnic minority communities. The People’s Republic of China officially recognises 56 ethnic groups within the nation. The Han Chinese account for roughly 91% of the 1.16 billion people; the other 55 ethnicities and 9% form the minority groups of China. One of our destinations, Yunnan province, accounts for 26 of these ethnic minorities. Our next stop, Guizhou province, is demographically one of China’s most diverse provinces. Over half of the province is designated as autonomous regions for ethnic minorities and more than 37% of the population are minority groups.
With that in mind, what we find in Guizhou may come as some surprise.