Can fashion be used as a tool to change the lives of refugees?
Hoda Katebi, the 24-year-old Iranian-American fashion blogger and upcoming designer, seems to think so. Katebi is in the process of launching the Blue Tin Production Co-Op in Chicago — what Vogue is calling America’s first clothing cooperative run by refugee and immigrant women.
The launch is the result of Katebi’s long history of social passion; Katebi credits her motivation for the project as stemming from a desire to create a company that protects garment workers’ rights as well as to create employment for immigrant women, who, as she witnessed firsthand as the daughter of immigrants, often have a hard time finding work after arriving in the United States.
Katebi is no stranger to the immigrant experience, nor to the way that fashion intersects with cultural identity. As a hijab-wearing Muslim who grew up in Oklahoma, she faced Islamophobia in full-force throughout her childhood, even to the point of being the victim of a hate crime at the age of eleven. After beginning her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago in 2013, Katebi gained a clearer vision of her passion—she wanted to use fashion as a catalyst for social progress.
Over the next few years, Katebi began her fashion blog, JooJoo Azad, which “focuses on exploring the intersections of fashion and social justice as a means of challenging Orientalism and mainstream beauty standards.” For example, in 2016, she wrote an article about the association between fast fashion and gender-based violence, and in 2018, an article about the negative effects that multinational corporations like Nike can have on social movements.
Katebi also wrote her senior thesis on Iran’s underground fashion scene, the same topic on which she published a photography book called “Tehran Streetstyle.” Her goal was to publish the work of up-and-coming Iranian fashion designers in an effort to create cultural representation in the media.
That brings Katebi to her latest project: Blue Tin. Katebi wanted to extend her work on fashion-related social issues to clothing production itself. In her own words, “I thought if I could start a clothing line and make it successful and be completely ethical, then it would be so much easier to hold brands accountable.” Notably, she aims to do so through hiring refugee and immigrant women in the production process, many of whom come from backgrounds of domestic abuse.
Blue Tin is different from companies who hire refugees to produce what Katebi calls “charity objects.” Rather, Katebi’s goal is to recognize the existing talent that these women could potentially bring to the table and allow them to utilize it in a way that would be impossible otherwise. The women that she employs are highly skilled seamstresses who go through a selective testing process. As she told Vogue in a recent interview, “We prioritize talent. The cooperative model has been so therapeutic in that way — it’s dignified, well-paid work for women who can learn to manage themselves. One of them always says that having people believe in you is transformative in and of itself.”
The co-op, which currently employs just three women besides Katebi herself, is already gaining clients; several designers have signed on and Katebi is set to collaborate in designing a line for a currently unnamed major department store.
Katebi’s work is doing more than helping the refugee women that she employs directly. On top of providing employment to an underrepresented community, she is redefining clothing production with Blue Tin. According to Human Rights Watch, numerous popular global apparel companies are complicit in supporting foreign factories that are rife with human rights abuses. It isn’t unusual for workers to be denied maternity leave, forced to work overtime and restricted from forming unions. This, unfortunately, is the underbelly of much of the clothing industry that we support. Katebi’s co-op is thus a step toward proving that ethical garment production is possible and should be the norm.
The conception of Blue Tin is just one recent example of designers and businesses using fashion as a means of creating social change. In 2018 alone, Balenciaga partnered with the World Food Programme, several major labels went fur-free and dozens of brands, from Burberry to Gap, agreed to work with the United Nations in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the fashion industry. These changes are representative of the level of impact that fashion can have on the world and the range of issues that it can tackle. With Blue Tin, Katebi is proving the importance of fashion on a more personal scale by setting an example of ethical garment production and inclusive employment — hopefully, an example that other brands can follow.
Salem Sulaiman covers fashion. Contact him at [email protected].