Aid to Artisans was front and center as the Kingdom of Lesotho launched Fashion Week in November.

An independent mountain kingdom in Southern Africa, Lesotho Fashion Week (LSFW) founder, Mahali Granier, calls LSFW “[an] artistic renaissance driven by the millennial generation.”

Few on the continent and in the world at large see the new fashion talent in Lesotho. That’s why the Government of Lesotho through the World Bank financed the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project and engaged Aid to Artisans to help Lesotho artisans to create viable businesses that showcase Lesotho’s artistic talents.

“Our recommendation was to develop strong exporters for artisans who don’t have email access or the skills to keep international buyers happy and make export ready products,” says Maud Obe, ATA’s project lead for Lesotho.

The Creativity Workshop
ATA’s first step in Lesotho was workshops to prepare artisans for small-group and one-on-one product development with designers. Lauren Barkume, ATA’s Training Manager, and Justine Watterson, Director of the Imbali Visual Literacy Project based in Johannesburg, led workshops to “…help artisans get the confidence they need to work outside their comfort zones and realize how capable they are of making beautiful things,” says Barkume. It was important, too, to make sure that the artisans saw designers as colleagues and that ideas and products developed would be the result of a collaborative effort.

The workshops included lessons to develop the artisan’s artistic eye and teach drawing. As Barkume noted, “Many artisans didn’t have the skills to draw or understand a sketch. That’s a key element to turning an idea into a product a buyer will buy.” During this creativity workshop, the artisans worked on understanding color through color wheel exercises and games to support creation of cohesive product lines in wearable fashions and home decor.

Sending in a fashion consultant
“One of the goals of the Government of Lesotho is to get young people to see craft as cool and a place for economic opportunity,” says Obe of ATA’s mission in Lesotho. Having young people get interested in artisan work is crucial for craft’s future in the country. That is one reason ATA sent Paris-based fashioned consultant, Agustina Cattaneo, to Lesotho. The internationally renowned brand influencer is a regular at the “Big Four” Fashion Weeks — New York, Paris, Milan and London — and reports on the latest international styles for Argentina’s largest newspaper, La Nación.

Cattaneo’s mission to Lesotho’s remote villages grew out of her graduate degree thesis that envisioned a way to work on fashion design with impoverished artisans. Her ambitious goal is modernizing Lesotho craft so their work can accent world fashion. “In preparation for this trip, I had to think about what I wouldn’t have access to as teaching tools.” Without access computers and printers, Cattaneo used a Polaroid camera and mood boards with hundreds of design cutouts. “They looked at the moodboards as if I were showing them magic,” Cattaneo recalls. “I also knew I had to keep myself flexible, adapt my designs, for example, to the size of a loom or the materials available.” Finally, as a teaching tool, she brought accessories from her own closet as well as items from flea markets and Parisian boutiques.

Cattaneo worked with basket weavers in rural Botha Bothe to add purses to their home decor lines, Sobo, a jeweler in Morija who works with recycled materials, and weavers at Leribe Craft Centre who make ponchos, blankets and scarves out of mohair and wool.

She visited each artisan group twice. Her first visits to the three different villages revealed the skills and the traditions behind the local crafts, and she worked with the artisans on updating their designs. On her return trip, Cattaneo discussed quality control and collaborated with the artisans on solutions to various problems — such as fixes to stubborn latches on bags or headbands that were too itchy to wear.

Fashion Week Seminar
Cattaneo was the keynote speaker at Lesotho Fashion Week. “I gave the same level of seminar as I would in New York,” says Cattaneo who conducted six different seminars. There were 21 ATA sponsored artisans at Fashion Week along with 200 fashion designers and artisans from throughout the country. Cattaneo’s presentations included a seminar on detecting fashion trends, understanding the fashion calendar, understanding consumer behavior and multi-generational marketing.

Sending a home decor consultant
Home décor consultant, Jane Taylor, also worked with the basket weavers in Botha Bothe. Taylor is Zimbabwe-based and for nearly two decades has been running The Collaborative Craft Projects, a basket exporting business. A recent graduate of Aid to Artisans’ Market Readiness Program, Taylor is on the leading edge of the home decor marketplace.

Taylor’s biggest challenge was to take the artisan’s beautiful products and extraordinary weave designs and curate them into a marketable line. According to Taylor, the artisans used colors that didn’t work well together and therefore could not be marketed or sold cohesively.

“It was hard work but rewarding to meet women with such wonderful talent and inherent skill. With little education, these women have exceptional basketry skills, and a real love of their craft. I was humbled by their… ability to transform a bundle of grass into an exceptional art piece,” noted Taylor. Taylor worked collaboratively with the artisans to create a black and white line and expanded some of the basket designs developed by Indian designer Palash Signh in a previous program.

“This is now my way of making a living, I am the father and the mother of my kids, and weaving I found the platform to fulfill all my role as a key provider for my family,” says Mmaseboka Mosoe, who participated in Taylor’s workshop. “…the baskets are my ultimate way of life.”

“I am happy when I weave, even happier when my children have food on their tables at the end of the day, its gift of life to me” – Mmamochoba Chakela, another participant in Taylor’s workshop.

The new crafts are coming to Las Vegas
One of the home decor basket lines is on its way to Las Vegas for the upcoming international trade show, Las Vegas Market. New fashions from Lesotho are also headed to the trade show including jewelry and belts and a new overlapping coat design that combines a poncho and scarf (called the Darling Poncho).

The agents, Mantai Mpesi and Mohapi Lephallo, both located in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, are now in charge of following up with the artisans and representing their products with international buyers. They will remain the eyes on the ground for Cattaneo, Taylor and the rest of the ATA team.

“Artisans and myself are working together in developing new beautiful products (for the) Las Vegas market. Its an amazing experience,” Mantai Mpesi shared.

“ATA opened a whole new wide world… it’s the knowledge of the impact I am making in (artisan) lives, their kids and their legacy that makes this project a vein of potent life and hope to this community of artists,” says Mohapi Lephallo. “We couldn’t be more hopeful… to achieve and part-take in this life transformation pilgrimage in partnership with strategic stakeholders like ATA and the Lesotho Government. Together, lives shall be permanently transformed,” Lephallo shared. He will be representing Lesotho artisans at the Las Vegas Market in January 2019.

Written by Cari Shane.

Check out Fashion and Design expert, Agustina Cattaneo‘s, video about her experience in Lesotho and at Lesotho Fashion Week 2018!