Monsoon Rags: from pipe dream to reality


by Alice McGlashan

 

How it began. I first went backpacking in Indonesia at age 5 with my mother, which no doubt began my enjoyment of being exposed to other cultures, appreciation of traditional art forms such as textiles and dance, as well as encouragement of my own artistic self-expression (via compulsory daily word and hand-drawn picture diary entries). I’ve since travelled to and lived in many countries across the world, with a particular focus on South East Asia.

After starting my first professional job after Uni, I went on search for fun, vibrant work clothes in natural fibres in Australia, without much luck. Shortly after, I moved to Laos for a year working as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, and wore traditional silk Lao skirts to work. Living and exploring the South East Asian region with a local base exposed me to the variety of hand-woven silks and cotton fabrics available. I also discovered that many traditional fabrics are only available in particular towns or regions and could not be found elsewhere in the same country or in adjacent countries. I tried! It was a constant surprise to me that there were very few clothing designers (international and local) using these gorgeous fabrics, other than for traditional dress.

All dressed up at a Guatemalan wedding on my second big solo adventure, through Central America and MexicoAll dressed up at a Guatemalan wedding on my second big solo adventure, through Central America and Mexico

With the influx of cheap imported clothes, and the relaxation of traditional-style dress restrictions for working women, the demand for culturally unique, hand-woven fabrics across the region has been declining. Weaving skills are dying out, with the children of weavers moving to the big cities in search of work, instead of carrying on the family tradition. In cases weaving villages no-longer produce fabrics, with only an elderly lady or two remaining who possess the skills and knowledge of traditional weaving techniques. Life in the city for immigrants from villages is often stressful and harsh. Such changes also destroy important family support systems important for raising children and caring for the elderly.

Supporting the practice by clothing manufacturers of using sweat shops in poor nations to make garments is also a big concern for me. While backpacking in Bangladesh during 2010, I accidentally explored the surreal world of Bangladeshi clothing sweat shops, in dilapidated high-rise buildings where hundreds of machines were packed into cell-like rooms with barred windows, and met the workers including young kids, men and women. This was a few years before the big headline accident. It was so surreal – like a modern Dickens story of people living-breathing-working in horrendous conditions, however at the time I had no idea of the scale and severity of the issues to do with the safety and unethical treatment of workers. I was also not aware that so many of the big name western clothing brands utilize the services of these workers under such conditions. It has shocked and astonished to me. Those conditions are not OK, everyone deserves to have their basic needs met, and should be supported by fair pay and ethical working conditions to achieve their dreams, no matter how poor or rich the country.

Bangladesh sweat shop in 2010Bangladesh sweat shop in 2010

A couple of years into my working life, I did an overseas trip collecting hand woven fabrics from my favourite regions, taking them to a little Vietnamese town with many tailors visited previously, and created myself an entire wardrobe of clothes for work and play in styles, fabrics and colours of my choice. This way I was also able to support small businesses owned by the very tailors who made my clothes, purchase fabrics directly from weavers, or only from middle-people whom I trusted, meeting many fabulous locals along the way. My housemates were somewhat astonished when their usually non-fashion conscious housemate (me) returned home with 40 kg of cocktail dresses, work pants, fancy tops and casual clothes in silks, cottons and wool. The trip was a total success, finally I was able to wear clothes that reflected my own sense of style and love of colour.

Hoi silk from CambodiaHoi silk from Cambodia

I received many compliments by friends and work colleagues about my earrings and scarves collected from previous international gallivants, new tailor-made clothes, also queries of where everything had been purchased. My answers were variations of ‘fabric sourced from Cambodia, tailor made in Vietnam’ – or ‘scarf purchased from a weaver in a little Nepali village’, or ‘earrings designed by a lovely metal smith in a Peruvian town’. The questions stopped after a while as people learnt that my wearables could not be purchased off the shelf from a shop in Australia. For me, each piece had a story, I often had met the villagers who wove my fabric, the tailor who turned my drawing into reality, or had chatted to the silversmith and his family who made my earrings. These experiences and memories make me so happy.

Indian dupioni silk skirt, Cambodian silk scarf, all hand woven fabricsIndian dupioni silk skirt, Cambodian silk scarf, all hand woven fabrics

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In their complements, my friends and colleagues planted a seed of an idea. To create a business designing beautiful, timeless western styles showcasing traditional, hand-woven fabrics from South East Asia. However, the concept was simply too big for a single individual, so I thought at the time. The idea was buried, and life moved on.

Then I met my partner (Geoffrey McGinley), and a couple of years later, we had a holiday in Thailand. He suggested purchasing and on-selling a local designer’s skirts online. My response was: well actually, here’s my dream, only it’s a little bigger…The name “Monsoon Rags” was chosen after the tropical region that we intended to source our fabrics from – South East Asia.

Geoff and I are now exactly 12 months out from our big decision to do this Monsoon Rags project. Our many tasks have included sourcing and collecting fabrics, building relationships, designing the garments, learning about business administration, how to use social media for promotion, discovering a fabulous dressmaker, making the samples, choosing and sourcing the linings, dying linings to match our many coloured fabrics, learning how to do makeup and pretty hair to model completed designs, photo shoots, and numerous other tasks. No doubt there will be many more things to learn, explore and discover, but it certainly has been an adventure thus far.

This is just the beginning, we hope to explore many regions with fabric weaving traditions, and creatively explore different ways to showcase these gorgeous fabrics in garments designed for everyday work and play.

Whether you like buying pretty clothes, love looking at artistic photographs, are seeking creative inspiration for your own endeavours, want to learn more about wild Australian locations, or are a small creative business seeking peer support (yes please, us too!), please follow our journey, and join in discussions via FaceBook, this blog, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter. We will be writing words and sharing images relating to all of the above topics and more. For us it is not just about making sales, this will be just one aspect of this Monsoon Rags project. We have many varied interests and are hoping to explore some of our other passions also.

A 1960’s style stripy orange dress, orange earrings, photographed in the Simpson DesertWhen I saw this Guatemalan hand woven fabric, I envisaged this photo. A 1960’s style stripy orange dress, orange earrings, photographed in the Simpson Desert in a very remote part of Australia where the sand is vibrant orange/red. And so I made it happen!

Just in closing, we have discovered that everyday people are all too eager to criticize and shoot down the ideas of dreamers. For those thinking about following a dream to do something big and courageous, my personal advice is to tell only the people who will give you support and constructive criticism during the early stages. There will be enough stress experienced through concerns over success, failure, and the enormity of tasks to be done, that unsolicited criticism will be an unnecessary additional burden. Also don’t forget to keep reminding yourself of tried and tested strengths, enjoy learning new things, develop new skills, also be aware of personal weaknesses and work hard to prevent them from tripping you up.

Welcome to Monsoon Rags!

Brought to you by Alice McGlashan & Geoffrey McGinley

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Alice McGlashan
Alice McGlashan

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