When Angela Luna started studying to become a fashion designer, she was initially interested in evening wear. Then the Syrian refugee crisis hit. Noticing that people were frequently journeying with nothing but the clothes on their backs, she decided to switch gears and focus on how she could lend her expertise. Could highly functional clothes alleviate some of the hardships that come along with traveling thousands of miles?
So she launched the company Adiff (tagline: "design intervention for global issues"), which produces unisex jackets that transform into functional objects like a tent that can sleep up to six people, a sleeping bag, and a flotation device. She also designed a garment that has an integrated child carrier and one that folds to become a backpack.
Now, like many design students who want to produce and contribute their ideas to those in need, she's navigating the complex waters of humanitarian design.
Luna is not the first student to set out to use fashion design as a vehicle to help refugees; humanitarian-minded projects are now fairly common for design students. Yet good intentions alone aren't enough to make an impact; that requires funding and distribution.
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become popular ways to get similar ideas off the ground; however, these systems are fraught with problems. There is a hefty amount of skepticism about a product's claims (and rightly so), products often ship late, and amateur designers often have problems understanding difficult supply chain issues—it's a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.
One recent blunder? A campaign for a 3-D printer that earned $1.5 million but failed to deliver orders to 60% of backers. And that's if a product gets funding. Earlier this year, a group of RCA students made a Tyvek jacket that morphs into a tent aimed at refugees, but only received a small fraction of the funding it requested on Kickstarter. Moreover, "charity" projects, like refugee aid, are reliant on the goodwill of backers since they won't necessarily be using the product they pay for.
Meanwhile, grants are slow to receive and can easily dry up. So rather than rely on either mode of funding, Luna realized that she really needed to build two businesses: one direct-to-consumer brand and another that serves nonprofits in the humanitarian realm. Profits from the "fashion" line would support the fabrication and distribution costs of the donated line. "It's about reappropriating the money that's going into the fashion system to help people," she says.
Luna looked at other fashion brands with philanthropic ventures like Toms and Warby Parker. But instead of donating the same product that consumers buy at retail, Luna is working with aid organizations to understand specific needs and designing differently for each audience to avoid problems with the "one for one" model. Toms suffered backlash for its charity campaign because it didn't fix any real problems. Aid-based economies aren't sustainable in the long term, developing nations already had access to fairly inexpensive shoes, and local shopkeepers who were selling shoes lost business.
"The idea was to produce garments you saw on [my graduate] runway show as outerwear for an outdoor hiking market then have edited garments that were the same in functionality, but reducing production costs so we can donate as many as possible."
The garments for donation and for retail will have the the same construction and capabilities—like the jacket-tent and jacket-sleeping bag hybrids—but they'll differ slightly in the details. For example, the garments donated to refugee organizations might be made from more durable but less fashion-forward fabrics that are less expensive than the retail line (think different colors and textures). Instead of zippers, which are costly, there might be a different type of fastening system.
Consumer products might be outfitted with details like an opening for headphone cables, technical fabrics, and experimental materials like textiles made from coffee grounds. "The company is only as good as its global supply chain," Luna says about her hunt for eco-friendly materials. "If you're hurting [the environment], that's not good for humanitarian brands."
While Luna is structuring her business so that consumer retail is supporting the fabrication and distribution of donated goods, she was conscious about dispelling any notion that she's using a "refugee chic" aesthetic to earn a buck. "I don't want it to be insensitive in any way," she says. "[The business] is not 'inspired' by the refugee crisis, it's designed to help." With the "marketable" line, as Luna calls it, she's hoping to appeal to outerwear customers that shop for brands like Patagonia. She's aiming to hit a similar price point, too, of about $300 per jacket, while the refugee line would be donated at no cost.
After graduating this spring, she's still working with manufacturers and suppliers to price out the garments and figure out the production costs for each line. She's received interest from the UNHCR and also from the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, which Luna is in talks with to become a distribution partner for the donated line.
Since the IRC is on the ground in the countries where Luna's design would be needed, it has also provided valuable feedback on which refugees and people in need might benefit most from a specific type of garment. For example, Luna is considering integrating a fabric panel that can be worn as a headscarf for women (everything is unisex). The IRC also suggested that the tents might be more suited for refugees in Africa, while the jackets with child carriers might be more applicable for the needs of those traveling through Europe. Though Luna originally designed the line with Syrian refugees in mind, she'd like to see it have global applications for anyone in need, including homeless populations in the U.S.
Humanitarian design is a complex issue, and even big companies haven't mastered the most useful way to go about it. Sustainable design alone can't solve a problem—it's requires a complex approach to what happens after the design is finished. While Luna's project still has a long road ahead, it's a good sign that design education is taking an interest in the business and entrepreneurship challenges of getting a worthy idea off the ground.
[All Photos: courtesy Adiff]