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Amanda Ryan is a designer making a difference
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Amanda Ryan is a designer making a difference
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I'm reading
Amanda Ryan is a designer making a difference
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26 March 2014

Amanda Ryan is a designer making a difference

The thread that connects shoppers here in Australia, with garment workers somewhere else.

Written by Jessica Carter

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

It’s a rainy Sydney Sunday, and Bangladesh feels very far from here. Over there, the thick smell of dust and the bells of rickshaws mesh into the red sunsets and rainbow colours of sarees and salwars. In the markets, rows and rows of bright fabrics can be bought for a few dollars and stitched into a dress or shirt for a few more. 

Perhaps Bangladesh is not so far away after all. Many of the threads that hold our own dresses and t-shirts together were stitched there—the world’s second biggest exporter of readymade clothes after China. When an eight-storey building that housed some of these clothing factories collapsed in April 2013, hundreds of people died and thousands were injured. The Rana Plaza collapse exposed the high human cost behind cheap fashion.

Amanda Ryan is a designer dedicated to changing that. She works with Bangladeshi women to create beautiful clothes stitched at fair prices under fair conditions. Her fashion label Bachhara employs mothers from a Dhaka slum who sew clothes while their children learn at school. When the dresses are bought in Australia, a portion of the profits goes into keeping the school running.

Amanda’s story is about the thread that connects shoppers here with garment workers somewhere else.

Tell me how you found yourself in Bangladesh in the first place?

It was serendipity. I was forwarded a random email from a group called The Dhaka Project. I started corresponding with the guy who was running it—he was about to pack up and leave Bangladesh. He told me about the man he was handing the project over to and said, “His name is Korvi and he wants to start a school but he needs a lot of help.”

So I quit my job, packed up my stuff, and two weeks later I was in Bangladesh helping Korvi run a school. At that point we had one tiny classroom and we were teaching two classes a day.

It was wonderful, but it was tough too. We could only take 40 students, but there were hundreds of kids lining up out front waiting to be let in. In the evenings, we’d sit on the rooftop under the moonlight, in the middle of the slum, dreaming about what we could achieve if only we had the funds to make it happen.

Starting a sewing centre is not the most obvious way to fund a school. How did Bachhara come about?

Kalca was a little boy in my art classes who I couldn’t help but notice. His mother was a child bride whose husband left her when she was just 21. She was working 15 hours a day for $30 a month. Kalca was just eight years old and he was looking after himself. It wasn’t that his mother didn’t care for him, but she just couldn’t be there for him.

At the same time we were looking for ways to keep the school afloat. Korvi and I had put everything we had into running the school, and I didn’t even have enough money to buy fuschka, which is a cheap Bengali street food.

Kalca’s mum’s situation inspired me to do something that solved both problems.

We fundraised some money, I started doing some design sketches, and we opened the sewing centre. I wanted to train the mothers of the students to sew dresses and create an income for themselves so they could work during the hours their kids were at school and be home with them in the evenings.

So what happened next?

Kalca’s mother was my one of my first employees. On the first day we ran the sewing centre she turned up for work, and then she went home at the end of the day and I never heard from her again.

Never? But did you ever hear why she left?

No, I really never heard from her again. And then, not long after this happened, I had to return to Australia to renew my visa. I had problems getting the visa so I ended up being stuck here for another six months.

It was so frustrating but in a way being in Australia helped me to establish Bachhara as a competitive business. At that time—this was over four years ago—not many people had heard of ethical fashion. It shocked me that very few people cared about who was making their clothes. People in the industry just wanted to know about sales and I had to make sure I was competitive in that sense.

How do you balance the practical side of running a business with the need to support the mothers and their children?

Most of the women we employ in the sewing centre need emotional support more than anything else. With every group of women, we do a lot of interviews before they start—I make a commitment to support them and they make a commitment to the school and me. The idea is to make the business a supportive place, to really create a community.

Once I got another visa I started going over every three months for about three years. I haven’t been back in a while because I’ve just become a mum myself. At the moment, the sewing centre is employing three mothers and older sisters of kids at the school.

These are mothers who just want the best for their kids but they can’t afford to give them that—that’s really tough. But when the mothers are working in the centre they feel they are giving something to the school and to their kids’ futures too.

The school is really such a part of the community now. For a while, we’d been giving the kids rice for coming to school – it’s a way of convincing parents to send their kids. But it was an expense we were struggling to cover, and we wanted to put that money into the school itself. One of the older students, a girl called Bithi, called a meeting with all the parents, without Korvi and I knowing, to get them to agree that they’d still send their children to school without the rice. They did that so we could afford to keep running the school.

Your sewing centre seems such a stark contrast to the conditions women were working under when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. What was the mood like among Bachhara’s staff when that happened?

It was certainly sad but I think there are many people in Bangladesh who don’t have the time to worry about things like that. There’s a saying that only rich people can afford to have problems—to some extent it’s true.

Rana Plaza is significant because we need to make sure those lives weren’t lost without purpose. There’s so much involved in a dress—dyes, buttons, threads, transport—and so many people involved at each of those steps. The first thing we can do to change this situation is to ask questions.

Ask the lady in the shop what the store’s policy is on who makes their clothes. She might not know the answer but she might have to ask someone else who does.

We have to be patient. The more times we ask for the story behind something, the more times someone else has to think about it too. Slowly, we can start to create change.

There’s clearly still a lot of room for the ethical fashion industry to grow. What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs in this space?

If you want sustainable fashion you need a sustainable business. Passion isn’t enough to make something work—the success of an enterprise like this still depends on supply and demand. So people in the fashion industry need to listen, and people buying clothes need to speak up.

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