The fashion designer going one step further to learn #WhoMadeYourClothes

Ali Mapletoft won't buy clothes for a year without meeting the maker

Did you see the Clothes To Die For documentary on BBC2 last night about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, the same city where our social enterprise partner Basha makes our kantha quilts?

Asking about the origins of the things we buy – from fashion, to food, to home accessories is something we should all do. More loudly, in more places and more often. Twitter recently led me to Ali Mapletoft, a British fashion designer and blogger who is taking this one step further with her ‘No Meet, No Treat’ challenge – a pledge not to buy a single item of clothing for a whole year, unless she is personally able to meet the person who made it. I caught up with her to find out why she came up with the idea, why it’s so hard, and what it was like to meet the person who made her knickers.

What is ‘no meet, no treat’?

For one year I’ll only buy clothes if I can meet the person who made them. My mission imposes very artificial restrictions in today’s world, but it forces me to think about where my clothes come from and to meet interesting people.

What triggered your mission?

In April, Fashion Revolution Day commemorated the garment factory collapse tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. The organisation started the Twitter hashtag #WhoMadeYourClothes and it got me thinking. My husband Charlie had commissioned a bespoke suit by Earl of Bedlam a few months before, and he loved knowing the person who made his clothes. I guess Fashion Revolution inspired me to pinch his idea! I do think it’s a great feeling wearing something if you’ve met the maker.

There are lots of exciting British fashion designers and brands. Meeting them will be easy, right?

Well yes and no. I think it’s easier to meet smaller brands and makers because they are keen to get their names out there. But meeting a designer is only useful to me in this project if they make their own stuff. I want to meet the people who stitched and cut things, whether they are a cool new designer or a factory worker. Meeting people who make bigger name brands is harder because most big labels don’t really want to you visualise a factory, they want you to visualise a fantasy.

Mainly I’ll buy local, but if I do decide to buy a pair of high street jeans I’ll have to travel to wherever they’re made. A lot of high-street stuff is made in India, Bangladesh, Turkey, China, Vietnam… I worked out that while a UK made pair of jeans might cost me £170, under the No Meet No Treat rules, a £20 pair of high-street jeans from India could end up costing me around £1,820 because I’d be forced to go to meet the makers. So I think I’ll keep it local for now. Unless Channel 4 decides to sponsor me to do a world tour!

Just clothes, or accessories too?

Everything. I’ve even included underwear and shoes.

What have you bought so far?

I started with underwear and bought some Ayten Gasson lingerie. A girl’s got to have underwear, no matter what Vivienne Westwood might tell you about the benefits of going commando.

Then I got a beautiful Katie Darlington silk shirt, which looks hand dyed but is actually very cleverly digitally printed. I visited Miranda Peckitt in Sussex; she makes amazing bangles which go beautifully with the shirt. I then bought a Harnet & Pope tunic dress, which is gorgeous. I haven’t had a chance to blog about that one yet.

Ali Mapletoft's no meet no treat fashion challenge

Kate Darlington fashion designer

Where would you normally shop? Have you been able to continue during your challenge?

Normally I’d shop at small independent boutiques and online at Matches Fashion or Net-a-Porter. I usually have see something before to buy it online. Sometimes I buy vintage and charity shop finds but not at the moment.

Have you had to compromise on your style?

Of course there are things I love that I can’t buy right now, but unless you’re a mega-rich celebrity with a stylist I think that’s always going to be the case. My choices have been narrowed down to things in the immediate local vicinity, so London and Brighton (where I live), the nearby South East, Northumberland where I have family. Next New York will be on the cards, as I’m going there to show Age of Reason at Coeur. So if anyone is making great stuff in New York or New Jersey, please get in touch! I want to meet you!

What would you really love to see as part of this experience?

I am itching to meet the people at Draw in Light. I think that might be happening, so watch this space. I’d love to meet someone making more mainstream British stuff like Vivienne Westwood clothing, but I believe most of it is made abroad. I’d also love a trip to Dr Martens to see where they make their British-made range. That would make my year because DM’s were the first shoes I ever fell in love with. At 15 I adored mine so much I wore them to bed!

Do you think people are ready for the shift involved in making more socially-aware choices? Are they prepared to pay more to do so?

There are pockets of people who care about provenance. But it’s still a quirky thing to care about. But change takes time. In the 1980’s my parents were considered weird for recycling and avoiding CFCs in spray cans; now it’s commonplace behaviour. We need to give it time, and educate younger people who will be the future business heads.

Who makes the silk scarves you design at Age of Reason?

My seamstress Nicola is a key person. The finish she achieves on the scarves and hand rolled pocket squares is second to none I’ve seen. She’s got an amazing way of hand-finishing the corners to a sharp point with a contrasting thread. I’m always nosing around department stores looking at the corners on other scarves, and I honestly don’t think they come close. You need people around you who are equally obsessive about these minor details.

Silk scarves Age of Reason Studios Decorator's Notebook blog

 

What’s been the hardest thing about ‘no meet no treat’ so far?

Lack of shoes! I have not found a single pair of beautiful British-made ready-to-wear women’s shoes in three months. There are plenty of brogues and men’s shoes made in London but very little for women that I’ve found. I would be really grateful for help on this one! I have realised bespoke is the way forward for No Meet No Treat shoes, but that’s very impractical and too expensive for most people. I’m having some made by Black Balloon at Parachute Collective. They will be time consuming to get hold of, expensive and completely divine.

It’s been hard not being able to buy much in London boutiques because I love them. And it’s also been difficult getting all the Matches Fashion updates and knowing I probably won’t find much that’s UK made. Matches has been my go-to store and I think they do an amazing job. I do really wish that they (and other fashion e-commerce sites) would allow us to search by country of origin, a bit like supermarkets do. Matches may have thousands of things I could buy and meet the UK makers, but it’s almost impossible to tell.

What’s surprised you?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of makers and designers who are happy to meet me. There really is a lot of talent in the UK, and I’m sure I will find the same in New York. I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by department store staff not knowing where the things they are selling are made. I’m especially disappointed with the ones who trade on their British heritage, but in store they don’t behave like they really care about it. The exception to that is Fenwick Bond Street, who are very good with provenance and brand story.

There are one or two places in London that “showcase” young British fashion talent but I’m concerned that they tend to charge young graduates to be stocked in their stores, which feels so wrong to me. I want to buy things in a normal shop selling local contemporary fashion – not a museum making money off young designers.

A year is a long time… will you stick it out?

Definitely. There are so many interesting people out there to meet.

Thanks for chatting Ali and good luck! If you’d like to follow her progress and learn more about the designers she meets, check out the Age of Reason blog and for an intro to how No Meet, No Treat came about watch her first video post.

Age of reason studios

[Photographs courtesy of Ali Mapletoft and Emma Gutteridge]

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