One of the main benefits of globalisation and the world becoming ever smaller is finding out about initiatives that happen in a quiet corner halfway across the world and shining a light on them. One such initiative is the Swat Valley Guild – a social impact organisation founded by Zufi Deo and Wali Khan. Two passionate entrepreneurs whose dream of rebuilding a war-torn region, preserving its traditions, skills and heritage, all the while bringing in work and modern improvements to the locals has taken them on a path of knocking on Fashion’s door.
Fashion Insiders got to meet with Zufi Deo and find out more about this noble initiative and spread the world of the hidden skills and talent awaiting the conscientious and adventurous fashionistas at heart.
Tell us a little about your background prior to founding the Swat Valley Guild (SVG).
Wali Khan and I have been friends since school. We decided to help organise support for the handmade heritage in the Swat Valley Region by forming a Guild. We felt this would help rebuild the local identity and ensure this bespoke heritage gets a modern outlook.
Wali had just completed his MBA from the University of Liverpool, UK. He wanted to support his home region of the Swat Valley now that the troubles in the region were over. He had previously organised an emerald mining project in the region via which he had created 500 jobs locally.
Tell us about SVG and what it does?
The Swat Valley is an exceptional region of natural beauty for centuries. It has also been a centre for high-end wool based textiles and hand embroidery for centuries. It used to be part of the great silk route trading routes.
We felt a Swat Valley Guild would help support the local artisans and weavers, help them engage with the global marketplace while also protecting the heritage from the standpoint of industrialisation.
We also felt we needed to support the fashion industry in some key areas like the high rates of wastage and Quality Assurance – both from the product and ethical practice points of view.
For example, SVG ensures that all the products we make meet the international compliance standards and the people who work on the production side are fairly paid for their work. The Guild also organises Learning and Development support for the artisans and weavers they work with.
You have said that “Swat Valley Guild is a peace-building project”. Why is that?
The Swat Valley region has experienced terrorism since the late 1980’s when the Afghan/ Soviet War spilt over into the neighbouring regions in Pakistan. The Taliban took control of the region and things were so bad at one point that girls trying to get an education used to be shot dead. Mulala Yousufzai was one such example. She was fortunate to survive and share her experience with the world. The military then evacuated the entire region and placed all 2.5 million people into camps while it conducted counterinsurgency operations. They went into each and every house and cleaned the region of the Taliban there. The Taliban still have a presence in the region, but they are on their way out. The SVG as a project is designed to help the region economically recover and engage with the world in a positive way.
Climate change is another concern the region is facing right now. The warmer temperatures we have experiences of late are causing local floodings more often and thus hindering the rebuilding efforts.
What are some of the challenges you currently face?
At SVG we have taken a customer-centric approach. This demand-based focus ensures we have to learn about the needs of the fashion industry as we engage with it.
Part of this approach has been to engage with fashion houses, designers and retailers to understand their needs and their pain points.
The biggest challenge to date has been the actual engagement with the fashion industry. As an up and coming brand, this means we have to earn the trust of the sector and educate them on who we are and what we do.
At the end of the day, we are still a startup. While we feel the need to educate the marketplace on the high standards we deliver to, this can be challenging, because we spend most of our resources on revenue-generating activities. For a self-funded startup, this is demanding.
What are the SVGs core values and mission as an organisation?
We feel you can run a profitable organisation and support society at the same time. There is no contradiction between these two concepts.
Each product we make is handmade. We process the wool from its raw form into yarn, then weave it into the fabric with hand embroidery to give each product, a unique flavour. This takes time.
A standard product takes on average eight weeks to produce.
The products that come from our Guild are all organic.
This standard of quality and care we believe in means that we cannot meet the short cycles of fast fashion.
Our approach is an ancient one, whereby you buy less frequently with the focus on high quality.
This ensures that wastage rates are low and the actual needs of the customers are met. Fast fashion to us is like single-use plastic – it can only pollute the oceans and create more problems than it solves.
How do you work with the local community?
The Swat Valley has an ecosystem of local artisans and weavers. Each specialist artisan works independently from the other. We match this independent expertise and skills on an individual basis, dependant on the order we have and the client requirements. This ensures that the expertise is aligned to generate the best quality per order.
What is the characteristic skill for the local artisans?
The Swat Valley has its own version of embroidery called Panjra. It dates back hundreds of years.
This form of embroidery is so precise that it appears like high-end machine embroidery.
If you are not an expert then it is easy to believe the work has been done by machines.
Weaving is a traditional and well-appreciated skill in the region as well.
How many workers are you engaged with and how do you train them?
The independent artisan and weaver heritage what we are hoping and helping to preserve.
Learning and Development support is part of how we add value to the local heritage. In this way, our community stays in touch with up and coming developments.
For instance, we are currently working with them to use solar technology instead of local firewood in their production process, without losing the quality of the products that are made in this new way.
Most of the training, at present, is done informally usually through family networks. but we are putting in place processes to formalise this training and ensure skill loss is minimal because the older generation who are experts in their trade have fewer and fewer people to pass them onto.
The SVG approach is to gradually formalise this knowledge transfer between the generations.
How do you keep the local workers engaged with your organisation and support the workers?
We have strong local relationships within the artisan and weaver communities. We pay 25% above the local rate for our orders.
We also prioritise the vulnerable members of the community. For example, in one order we gave priority to a widow with two children. Part of the payment was to support her children access education.
What resources do you provide the workers with?
The artisans and weavers are skilled professionals who have their own tools. SVG provides them with the raw materials for them to work with.
For example, if an order requires angora or alpaca wool then we will source this in the open market to the specifications of the customer. This will then be processed by the locals to meet the needs of the order requirements.
Do you create collections from which you sell to clients?
We use collections as examples of our work. However, SVG is based on a demand-based network. This means the focus is on the client’s needs. We can and do offer in-house designs to clients. Our lookbooks have examples.
Do you create products to an original client’s brief or do you encourage clients to create briefs based on your artisans’ skill and abilities?
At the Swat Valley Guild, we have an experience of co-creating new and original products with our clients. However, we limit the new developments to a criterion that fits with the local heritage and specialisms. In this way, new products are created in a heritage sensitive way.
This approach is organised in a win-win manner. We ensure our customers are supported at every step of the way. For instance, the minimum buys are organised to in such a way as to meet the inventory levels. The client’s IP is protected and Quality Assurance needs are met.
Do the artisans contribute creatively to projects and developments?
This depends on the project. If it is an innovation project – yes, the artisans have a say. We cannot innovate without the input of the artisans and weavers.
But if it is standard order, then our only focus is on delivery as per the brief and no additional creative interpretation.
How do you ensure quality is maintained?
We often see a certain lack of understanding from non-European factories as to the high-quality, clients expect. Thus, QC becomes a contention point and leads to many problems and relationship breakdowns.
We take quality assurance matters so seriously that it is part of our offering to our clients.
Each item is individually inspected and verified to meet the needs of each order.
If there is variation beyond that agreed with the client, the product is not accepted by SVG and the artisan has to either redo the order or it is passed onto another artisan who can deliver the standards accepted.
This is the high standard of quality control embedded in the standard SVG process.
What would be an amazing client brief to work on?
That would be a high-end handmade wool based textile product, that would incorporate precious gems like emeralds as part of the design. This would allow us to utilise the maximum number of local resources in one order.
An example would be a wall hanging with precious gems added to the design or shawls with Panjra embroidery and embedded gems.
This is a unique service offering wherein only a few skilled artisans can create and very few regions in the world can locally source and sustainably produce.
What is your biggest lesson to date?
I would say the importance to earn the trust of the market we are targeting.
Bespoke luxury is a high-end marketplace, so building a strong reputation is essential for us and that takes time.