Xoomba is not just committed to using organic and fair trade certified cotton, but also to grow it and develop an infrastructure in Burkina with cotton plantations. There, small teams of dyers, weavers, designers and tailors are making these garments that will make you want to dance! Xoomba’s research has found about a non-toxic pre-treatment of the cotton to achieve optimal dye exhaustion. Challenges and also many successes around this brand of organic cotton garments to make organic fashion happening in West Africa.
We interview Heather MacKenzie-Chaplet, the founder of Xoomba who changed her job as a costumes creator for theatre art productions to spend full time on her fashion brand of organic cotton garments. Its vision goes way broader: “a future where all companies work towards a planetary harmony.” For this, find out about her learning curve to make organic cotton accessible in the West African region. Enjoy!
Heather, what is your background and what made you start Xoomba?
Before the existence of Xoomba, I was a theatre creator with a love of creating visually dramatic and expressive costumes for a variety of live art productions. However, I was also very familiar with product design as my parents are designers who had a high-end home furnishings company with pieces made all over the world: the USA, Asia and Europe. I worked extensively for their company in a variety of functions from production to marketing and retail and through that work, travelled worldwide to different production sites. But my real love was for the living arts until I came to the realisation that I was really concerned about the state of affairs. I could not continue to float around in my creative bubble while the world as we know it crashes down around us as we approach the sixth extinction. I decided I would use my creative talents and work experience to explore viable alternatives to the way things are made and demonstrate we can make fashion harmless.
Why Burkina Faso, what made this country be the home for your brand?
I tried to find fabric that adhered to values of ethical responsibility but 15 years ago, I wasn’t satisfied with my choices. I thought, if I had to make the fabric, it would have to be in a part of the word where I wouldn’t mind spending time. I’ve always had an attraction to West African culture so in 2009 I made a research trip to visit organic cotton producing regions, the only sustainable fibre readily available there. I decided to settle in Burkina Faso because I liked the people I met and the textile capacity that was already there. Moreover, I liked the political ambience born of a courageous history of resistance to an imperialist extractivist economy. “Quote sankara” he understood that real independence is not only political but economic and that getting the most out of local resources while respecting people and nature is the path to liberty and prosperity. I try to continue his mission and enjoy working with people that have seen these ideas in action and support them.
Really curious about the name of the brand, what does it mean?
The word is inspired by a word I found in the Wolof dictionary, in Senegal where I started my research. It means vivacious. I wanted a name that sounds upbeat, without referring to our mission because I imagine a future when all companies work towards a planetary harmony.
What are the ethical standards for the fashion pieces produced for Xoomba? Any certification you may have earned?
The only certifications are with the cotton we use which is organic and fair trade certified. Our commitment is to not only to use sustainably grown materials but also to use them in proximity to where they come from. Burkina only processes less than 3% of its cotton into textiles and finished goods and has a very little infrastructure to do so, but I am committed to developing that infrastructure so the people can profit more and more from their own resources. The idea is to do the maximum good, creating dignified jobs and working towards providing benefits and healthy work conditions through those jobs. Our dye team has Health Insurance but I hope to extend that benefit to all who work in the Xoomba supply chain.
How does the production and creative process look like?
We use the locally grown organic cotton. We have a small team of dyers to dye the skeins and then we work with the weavers to produce our fabrics which we supply to other designers as well as making our own garments with a small team of local tailors. We also use kapok which grows naturally near our production. We had gin and card the kapok and use it for stuffing cushions and now for cosy and extravagant coats and jackets.
For the creative process, I love to make clothes that make you want to dance. I use simple lines, lots of bias and in general, I try to reduce the need for extra elements like fasteners, buttons and what not.
We believe you make strong efforts to manage zero waste, how do you make this work?
We never waste a scrap of fabric. Every inch of my fabric has been made with many hours of love and care so we use the scraps to make patchwork pieces both clothing and accessories like bags and cushions.
Another way we are achieving zero waste is by improvements to our dye process. I’m a sucker for loud artificial looking colours so I use fibre reactive dies as the least toxic option for creating colourfast full spectrum colours. While I strive to be respectful to the environment, I also believe that in order to be successful and therefore have the most impact, we can’t sacrifice aesthetics, and for me, my sense of colour is too important to give up. I also think it is important to show that organic cotton can completely replace conventional cotton and be used with existing processing techniques because if we demand that organic cotton only be used with natural dye it will limit its use of and it is crucial to reduce our dependence conventional cotton which is lethal for farmers and the ecosystem on which they depend. That said, I am always researching and looking for ways to improve. I’m pleased to report, after much research, I have found a new process which is really exciting. With a special and non-toxic pre-treatment of the cotton, we are able to achieve optimal dye exhaustion which means practically all the dye in the bath adheres to the fibre leaving the water practically clear. We rinse the cotton only once and we don’t need to use salt or fixative. Usually, with the darker colours, the washout of the unfixed dye at the end of the process demands up to 10 washes, some with hot soapy water, so this new process saves a huge amount of water and we avoid dumping a lot of salt out with the water. The next step is to put in place a closed loop water filtration system to achieve real zero waste and a solar after heater. Finally, we cut out waste because making our clothing to order. Like that we don’t make sizes and pieces that nobody wants.
What sort of clients do you have and how do they appreciate your products?
The bulk of our business is supplying our wholesale clients, mainly other designers, with our fabrics. Until now the clothing has been developing quietly as the systems for fabrication are complex to put in place. We sell the clothing directly to the client and on order so that we don’t overproduce unneeded merchandise and we keep the price as affordable as possible. The price paid by the client is actually the time they must wait to get it. We have started on a small scale with events that include live music and dance to present the line in an enriching context. Like that we have a great time whether we sell or not! – and the public gets a more profound understanding of our brand and its values. For this reason, I haven’t actively sought out wholesale distribution and our sales have been based on word-of-mouth and small events so I don’t have a perfect analysis of our customer base. So far, 40% of our customers are men and the ages of all quite evenly between 30 and 50 years old. We have sold to a fairly well-educated class of people in the US and a little in Europe as well a good amount to people in Burkina, mainly expats and well-paid individuals seeking sophisticated products made in Burkina. That’s about all I know!
Do you give back to any organisation?
Actually, I do not believe in the idea of building extra profit into the sales of the product in order to give that to a charity. I prefer to keep the margins as low as possible so the product has the potential to be sold not only to the very wealthy but to teachers and musicians and people that don’t have a lot of extra income. For the profit, we make in the future (because now it’s all investment) my priority is first to give back to the people who make this possible, the weavers, the dyers, the tailors and eventually the farmers. The first step is to generate enough work to create steady livelihoods. It would be much easier to work in other parts of the world where there are better infrastructure and more trained and experienced personnel but I have made a commitment to invest in the lives of the people here in proximity to the resources we are using so investing in training and simple infrastructure. Beyond that in a poor country like Burkina Faso, the people that work with me have many needs that are not met by the government like healthcare and education for their children etc. We count on investing our profits towards ensuring benefits such as this to them.
What are the challenges you find in the country and how are you overcoming them with your social entrepreneurial venture?
There are many challenges for sure. Working in a country that is landlocked and has very little in the way of infrastructure is not easy. But our most serious hurdle has been to secure access to the material upon which we have to build this business: the organic cotton yarn we use to make everything, the fabric and the clothing. This is a very industrial process and demands certain quantities so it’s necessary to coordinate all the original demand to order together and then negotiate with the very few mills in the region and the NGOs involved. We are at a celebratory moment because we now have access to plenty of yarn and I think we will be able to Count on this process we have put in place in the future but it has been years working to get to this point. Some years the organic yarn ran out for various reasons and our operations had to be put on pause. It is very difficult to not be able to count on the most essential material of the business because every time operations have to be halted and then restarted, it’s like starting the business all over again. It’s a major reason that Xoomba has had to develop slowly.
What do events such as Fashion Revolution mean to a social creative entrepreneur like you?
I think the larger public is finally becoming aware of the human and planetary abuse in the fashion industry through communication campaigns such as Fashion Revolution. That’s helpful because we don’t have to spend so much time explaining ourselves because people already understand some of the issues at hand and we can cut to the fun part: making beautiful pieces that make people happy to wear them.
What has been the greatest success of the brand so far?
I couldn’t point to one success. It’s just been about being persistent and soldiering on through all the challenges. Right now we are preparing for a fashion show to be presented at an international conference on cotton and I must say I’m very pleased with the collection. It’s a real celebration of the work we have done till now.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to other businesses trying to make a difference for good?
I hope that the work people like me have put into inventing the systems that make harmless fashion possible will make it easier for people to start ethical businesses now but I would say you have to be ready to put up a fight for making things right and things take longer than you thought.
If you could write a message on a big wall that the entire world could read, what would it say?
The Revolution is how things are made
Finally, where can we find you? Shops, online, worldwide…?
Our clothing is available on our website, xoomba.com. Be prepared to wait as we first make the fabric and then the clothing to be made to measure but it’s worth the wait! It’s the price to pay for zero waste, ethical garments.
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