The Newest Times Square Billboard Stars? Women Leading Conscious Fashion

Maybe you’ve seen the founders of your favorite fashion nonprofit scattered across New York City billboards without even realizing it.

The Conscious Fashion Campaign orchestrated the placement of 10 women-led honoree organizations (including the likes of Fashion Revolution, Remake, Fabscrap, Custom Collaborative and more) in a series of billboards and digital campaigns throughout the city during New York Fashion Week last month.

But their impact reverberates much longer than a fashion week moment, according to Kerry Bannigan, executive director of the Fashion Impact Fund, which put on the campaign alongside the United Nations Office for Partnerships and media-centered nonprofit the PVBLIC Foundation.

“The honorees have been celebrating with their communities, families and teams. Shock with simultaneous overwhelming happiness has been the overall reaction by many,” Bannigan said. “These honorees, just like many of their peers, are so focused on their mission at hand and rarely do they have marketing budgets; so to be able to be a part of a collective digital billboard campaign throughout NYFW amplifies the importance of this work and highlights that they are heard and seen.”

Women get just 25 percent of the news features men get, according to The Global Media Monitoring Project’s sixth research study, and as the Conscious Fashion Campaign enters March, which is Women’s History Month, the organization finds it all the more important to grab the spotlight back.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Fashion Impact Fund and Blue Cast by Tencel will collaborate to launch “Solutionist,” a five-part podcast series released weekly throughout the month, spotlighting the innovative solutions in fashion and denim led by women social entrepreneurs.

The honorees for this inaugural set, meanwhile, are building their visions.

Kenya-born fashion designer Anyango Mpinga is one such honoree. She helms her namesake label (which anticipates new collections at Shopbop and Vivobarefoot) and the Free as a Human Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for the end of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Mpinga said she started her label “out of necessity to bring my own definition of sexiness and size inclusion into sustainability,” but never imagined how one seemingly mundane task — underwear shopping — could inspire a broader giveback in the lives of women and girls elsewhere.

“With Free as a Human, I started it during a time when I had a personal service project donating new underwear to female survivors of human trafficking,” she said. “At the time, I had seen how a lot of donations of used clothing taken to shelters for underprivileged girls had always neglected underwear. From starting with buying underwear for shelters that support survivors of trafficking in Kenya, talking to [specialists] who work with survivors everyday and discussing their needs and how to make our work more meaningful, I never knew how that little step that I took one day when I went underwear shopping for shelters and subsequently founding Free as a Human, could have such a big impact on a global scale. I am forever grateful and honored for the opportunity.”

Along with her frontline activism, mindfulness meditation and gratitude are also meaningful parts of Mpinga’s daily practice, which makes sense given the calming visualizations of Lamu Island (off the coast of Kenya) and the Swahili architecture influences that inspire her work.

“We don’t often see the word ‘mindfulness’ used in conversations around sustainable fashion,” Mpinga said. “The reality is that we are occupants of this planet, and it’s the only home we’re ever going to have. When we have a conscious awareness of where we are and what we’re doing, we can steer our actions toward positive change.”

To her, this means, “We remain considerate of how we treat the people who make our clothes; we show commitment to circularity and reusing resources; we put economic equality at the forefront of our supply chain; we remain accountable for our role in promoting racial justice rather than tokenism within the fashion industry; we afford equal opportunities to members of all genders regardless of sexual orientation and make a commitment to take actions that breath life into our environment, leaving our planet better than we found it.”

Abhilasha Bahuguna, cofounder of Looms of Ladakh — a producer-owned luxury label rooted in the skilled eye and business acumen of female artisans — is helping create a new kind of sustainable future at the source area of Pashmina and Yak wool in India’s Ladakh region.

For Looms of Ladakh, this means all the rural members are owners (women like Tsering Youdol, a product officer, or Sonam Chondol, showroom and inventory manager) and wins are collectively celebrated.

“It was extremely motivating to see the vision and mission getting recognition,” Bahuguna said. “The years of incubating a fashion business with semi-skilled herder-artisans of a raw material economy has been satisfying but challenging. To build an institution with all the rural members as owners, guide them in best management practices along with striving for international market level manufacturing standards needs a team of believers, advisers, supporters and cheerleaders. So, the Conscious Fashion Campaign did boost the team’s and my morale to push for the dream.”

Looms of Ladakh is in its fifth year and has been able to secure funding grants for the next two years to realize manufacturing scale capacities, infrastructure development and strengthening of primary groups. The organization is also on the hunt for advisory board members and retail partners.

Bahuguna compares her work to gardening and a careful patchwork of handmade sarees from artisan clusters over the years. “I am most grounded and centered when I am creating together with a team of believers,” she said. “It is deeply satisfying to see a vision take shape after years of believing and tending to it.”

Mariama Camara, founder and chief executive officer of Mariama Fashion Production, feels similarly.

“Seeing my name and Mariama Fashion Production on one of the biggest billboards on Times Square is also testimony for all the young girls, immigrants and dreamers to know that anything is possible in life if you work hard, you are consistent and take chances,” she said. “Twenty years ago, I moved to New York with $100 and started my first company with $18. It is my mother’s favorite place in New York City and she always wanted her mother to see Times Square. Unfortunately, my grandmother didn’t make it, so being up there was also to honor my mother, and the memory of my grandmother, my native country of the Republic of Guinea, and Africa.”

Mariama Fashion Production is placing African textiles craftsmanship in the luxury fashion market to create a “truthful narrative” about what Made in Africa means, today, according to Camara. The aim is also to preserve textiles craftsmanship while implementing sustainable practices and creating sustainable jobs for local artisans in Africa.

“For me, sustainable fashion is also being able to empower people, sustainable job creation, economic development, knowing the origins of our products, being aware of culture appropriations, being more inclusive, diversity and fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system toward greater ecological integrity,” she said. “Fashion is the one industry that almost everyone on this earth uses, just like food, everyone [needs] to wear clothing; therefore, it is a responsibility to all of us to take conscious action and to continue creating space for conversations, educate our population, our consumers and government about the importance of sustainability in the supply chain and in our daily life.”

This is what gives her hope amid a deepening climate crisis.

“Even though I still have hope in humanity to eradicate the climate crisis, there is simply no time to waste anymore. I have hope due to the work of Mariama Fashion Production and working to eradicate the use of synthetic dye from the continent,” she said.

Focusing on the positive, Camara anticipates a collaboration with Toast London, and says Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga are on her list of brands to “convince” to use her fabrications.

Until then, Camara said: “We are also working to launch our own textiles and yarn lines and dreaming big to create an art training center in Africa to provide more opportunities, job creation and knowledge transfers for local artisans, artists and emerging designers on the continent through skills training, capacity building workshops and responsible and ethical manufacturing.”