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‘Awaken the Haus” founder, Patricia Otto struts sustainable fashion as told to Rashmii Amoah. Photos by Leqsie photography.
I’m a bit of an odd ball who has a strong connection to my Papua New Guinean heritage.
O ARISE ALL YE SONS Having worked in the fashion industry for 7 years, I’d always had in the back of my mind that if I branched out on my own, my label would reflect elements of my culture. I chose to venture into sustainable fashion design because of lessons I learnt and grew from during my adolescent years. This period was spent living in my mother’s home province, East Sepik. I was brought up well-versed in notions of minimal waste, recycling, chemical and pesticide-free consumption and so forth. But it wasn’t until I was exposed to village-life that I that I became consciously aware of the significance and beauty of practising sustainability in daily life.
TEXTILE SWAP My experiences of working in the mass-fashion industry are bittersweet. Sure I was involved in the creation of beautiful garments, but most often it was done in the name of increasing profit margins. In manufacturing and production processes, I witnessed incidents I felt were quite unethical. Workers being treated poorly, little thought being given to designs and the crucially, detrimental effects on the surrounding environment. Season after season, these actions resembled a never-ending, vicious cycle. But at the same time I was thinking to myself ‘there’s got to be a way around this’. I kept asking myself, ‘how do I stay true to my passion without exploiting people and the environment? I also started thinking of how I could be give back to my surroundings.
FAILED HIATUS I hit a wall at the end of 2013 so I quit my full-time job, and told family and friends that I would be ’employment-free’ for the next twelve months. This was short-lived. I guess my underlying passion for my craft superseded the desire for a time-out. I decided to start my own label. Two things I knew for certain: I would depart from mass-production and gravitate towards fashion with the core of sustainability and secondly; my garments would be intrinsically linked to PNG. Awaken the Haus was launched at the beginning of 2014.
NEW DAWN The name came to me during a personal and confronting time and I daresay, a good handful of women have travelled this road. The unwelcome visitor of not knowing who I had become had lingered far too long. I self reflected, questioned and evaluated. Thankfully, I woke up one morning (‘Awaken’) and sensed that through this process of retrace, I uncovered glimmers of my former self. I had come ‘home’ to me (‘the Haus’).
ORGANIC COMFORT Each concept begins with the fabric. I source only sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, bamboo, linen and hemp. I draw inspiration for my garments from a wide range of day-to-day experiences but most definitely home, PNG, is at the centre. When you think about it, these very fabrics are the most comfortable to wear in the sub-tropical climate of PNG and so the marriage of PNG artisans’ artwork on my garments is well-suited. When designing my garments, I think about how the garment can be produced with minimal waste. For each garment design, I’m driven to attain a similar level of patience, deep thought and and masterful skill of the men and women I observed in my adolescence hand-weaving baskets, mats and the like. I deisgn, cut and stitch samples on my own machine, but have a local sewer who ethically produces sizes in bulk.
GIVING BACK Awaken the Haus follows the philosophy of supporting and sustaining rural artisans to access a platform on which to showcase their artwork. I believe this has immense capacity to empowering marginalised Papua New Guineans to generate an income to sustain their livelihoods. The artisans that I work with are from communities subjected to ineffective (if any) basic service delivery including lack of healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
FOWIAD & AMBUNTI I work in partnership with the an East Sepik- based non-government organisation, Foundation of Women in Agriculture Development (FOWIAD). Active collaboration is achieved through my regular visits back into Ambunti District to speak to villagers and gauge how my label can assist the community. In my recent Collection, I worked with Aron Kamdu who created abstract stencil prints. As well as featuring on my garments, Aron’s original prints were made available for sale on my company website.
BY DEFAULT I do’t think Papua New Guineans realise just how much of advantage we’re at to live sustainably, compared to the rest of the Western world. I’m not talking about drastic changes, but small steps that we can all make an impact to reduce waste. Take a few bilums when you go food shopping and ask the cashiers to place your groceries in them. Introduce going home to the village as the big reward for your children instead of purchasing toys that come are produced from an endless list of chemicals. Emphasise the memories that will be created from spending time with family rather than a few short moments with the latest Transformer figurine or Barbie doll. Watching the way we eat is possibly the simplest way to live sustainably. Instead of reaching for a packet of biscuits when you’re hungry, buy the organic fruits that over run our markets, roadsides and for the majority, our own backyards.
RAW POTENTIAL In the same way, PNG is in the sustainable fashion market by default. Our customary traditions and practices emphasise that we only take what we need and replenish by one, if not three-fold. I think now more than ever, consumers are becoming mindful of how and what their clothes are being made from. PNG has an abundance of raw materials that we could, through investment in technology, bring to world class standards. In recent times organic bilum wear and tapa clothing have seen a surge in international runways and photoshoots. Seriously, my newsfeed on social media sites is flooded with images of bilums on shoulders, shells adorning necks and tapa cloth hats sitting securely on hats on people in overseas countries. It makes me feel so proud.
OWN ORIGINALITY It would be powerful to see a movement of aspiring PNG fashion designers and clothing retailers moving away from the dense market of mass-processed fabrics and garments to choose the organic options. Push for more investment in improving durability of natural fibres. Collaborate with talented artists skilled in unique crafting techniques and designs. Especially those living in rural and remote parts of PNG. These guys need to be embraced by labels. While the rest of the world is desperately emulating raw materials and pacific-island inspired art, PNG has an abundance of these right at its’ doorsteps. Seriously, there is a place for Papua New Guinea on the world stage of sustainable fashion.