#MovementMaker Jasmine Aarons talks about building an ethical business

Clothing by VOZ is breathtaking to behold. Each item exudes timeless luxury and attention to detail. But there’s a deeper beauty to VOZ as well, which lies in the story behind the brand.

VOZ’s elegant dresses, tops, knitwear and other pieces are created in collaboration with indigenous Mapuche artisans in Chile. For their masterful talents, these women receive a living wage. That helps keep a traditional artform alive while supporting the future of their community.

The world has taken notice of VOZ’s quality, originality and mission. The brand has been featured in top media outlets like Vogue and The New York Times. The #MovementMaker behind VOZ’s success is Jasmine Aarons, a Stanford-educated product design engineer. I know that so many #Firestarters have a passion for supporting ethical businesses — and even visions of starting their own. So I was excited to talk with Jasmine about how VOZ came to be. Today I’m sharing excerpts of our conversation (edited for length and clarity).

What was the spark that led to the creation of VOZ?

 The Haas Fellowship enabled me to design as a volunteer with a nonprofit in Chile, which I really enjoyed. And basically after that, I realized through my work with the weavers that design innovation was a tool that would be very helpful connecting them to more market opportunity. We thought that the best way to do that would be to develop a fashion brand that helps them access higher-paying customers that would pay their wages.

Before VOZ, how much were they getting paid for their work? And how has that changed through the impact of VOZ?

 We enable them, first and foremost, to have a very steady and reliable stream of work. We’re able to generate ongoing work for them. That’s important that they have stable, reliable work every month as opposed to piecemeal or selling in artisan markets, which can be unreliable. We also have “derisked” for them the purchase of material. And, thirdly, the actual labor pays livable wages that we decide on with the artisan director and the artisans themselves based on the complexity of each piece. As a result, the artisans in our group have been able to triple their income in comparison to before.

What was it in your background or education that enabled you to see the potential and the opportunity here?

I’m a designer, and I also am very driven to be a service. And I’m really touched by the indigenous culture from Southern Chile’s mentality toward sustainability and harmony with the Earth. And I just wanted to be in service to indigenous artisans who were preserving sustainable traditions and cultural diversity.

What kind of feedback do you hear from customers about VOZ clothing?

First of all, that it’s really unique and interesting and that they haven’t seen anything like it before. And that feels beautiful, and it feels special and significant, sentimentally important to wear the piece. They can feel the loving energy with which we’ve created each piece by hand.

That’s the opposite of fast fashion. Was that something deliberate in the creation of the brand?

Absolutely. We are working with a handmade, rustic handling process. And it’s a very slow art form in general, a very patient art form.

What do you want the future of VOZ to be?

We already sell globally through e-commerce, but I would love to expand our global reach. And I’d love to open up another location, both sanctuary shop and community center experience. And I’d love to, most importantly, generate enough sales and new designs to be able to expand to new groups around the world and provide interesting collaborations that provide sustainable work that’s paid fairly and a net positive to the communities where we interact.

What else can we all do to become more ethical in how we buy clothing?

Not buying things that are toxic or fake materials that will fall apart quickly. Even at a low price point, you can find things made with natural materials that are healthier to wear as well. Make sure that everything you buy, you really love and wear a lot, as opposed to trying to get mass amounts that you’re not that in love with. And just being conscientious of not only the materials but, as often as possible, labor practices of the brands that you choose to support. If you can’t afford expensive handmade clothes, no problem. You can get really great pieces secondhand as well from consignment stores that are gorgeous and high quality.

How can a shopper tell the difference between a company like yours that is uplifting indigenous people vs. one that is appropriating art or craftsmanship from another culture?

The easiest way to tell if something is appropriate or not is if the company just scans and digitally prints the pattern from a certain culture or scans and then industrially recreates at commercial scale the symbolism of the patterns from a community. That is the biggest red flag. So if you see products that are obviously industrially woven, or even worse, fabric prints that have been lifted off indigenous textiles — which happens a lot — you can know for a fact that that’s been appropriated from a community that originated those designs.

Besides buying a piece of clothing from you, how else can people support VOZ and the movement that you’ve built through this company?

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