How Colombian fashion designer Melisa Moreu Rivas uses art to keep her indigenous spirit alive while fighting sweatshop employers
By Sumit Rehal
“We should have a relation with our clothes because our body is our shell and it would be nice to tell stories with it by transferring culture and memory through that canvas.”
Last month marked four years since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where 1129 people died and over 2500 people were severely injured. The building’s owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed first thing in the morning.
Many global clothing retailers from Primark to Walmart have been linked to the sweatshops part of the building. This fact has lead the birth of the Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement with teams in over 90 countries around the world. The organisation campaigns for systemic reform of the fashion industry with a focus on the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.
This movement has caught the hearts of many from all walks of life, from local clothing brands in London to traders in USA. Highlight Nation had the opportunity to speak with Melisa Moreu Rivas, a fashion designer in Bogotá, Colombia. Just this month, Melisa lead a boycott against H&M on their opening day of a store in the capital of Bogotá, a campaign that caught local headlines.
Melisa shared with us why she chose to campaign against H&M, how she was received by locals and how she raises awareness of her indigenous community through fashion.
So why did you first want to get into fashion design?
I have always been good at DIY, my mom never made dresses for my dolls so I used to do it and be good at it. I always knew I was going to be into a creative career but then being a teenager was the perfect excuse to get into fashion – fashion being about wearing cute clothes and since I was creative then why not.
Right I see, what is it that you do that pushes you further into the industry….what can you offer and what can you change?
First of all I think about my place, my city and my country. I think quality education is so important and here it is so expensive and complicated to get into.
I have had teachers that have changed my life and have helped me to understand the world as a collective task. All I have is my knowledge, which I was privileged to get and that’s what I want to give to the industry. Knowledge sets people’s minds free and that will change the world.
So you talk about knowledge, when did you start becoming more socially aware when it came to fashion?
I first became aware of other things like the harmful chemicals involved with the beauty industry with products such as shampoo and creams and this then evolved into everything else, including the fashion industry.
Is that around the same time that you became more involved with the history of your ethnicity?
No, i have always felt identified with my history, I grew up going to Riohacha every holiday and the first time I went to Cabo de la Vela I was like 5 years old. But of course when I changed my way of understanding the world, I felt the duty to show my history in my creative process.
I therefore stopped looking for inspiration in cultures and sculptures outside and decided my inspiration was going to be always from my environment. That was going to be my identity as a designer.
How do you combine your artistry with your culture?
This semester, I developed a project about the Wayuu community. Not in the cliché way of taking their graphics and fabrics to make clothes with it but I submerged in their way of understanding the universe.
All they needed was the river and the sea and they didn’t have the want for anything. They made no garbage and had no illnesses but then the society of consumption that we live in recently dried their river and caused a lot of health problems.
So I found it interesting to make a statement about ancestral wisdom and what we should recover from that. I made my best to conceptualise that while being respectful about their lifestyle. Not identifying their “style” as a mere costume but basically trying to understand from the inside to the outside.
Tell us more about the history of the Wayuu people.
They are a “comunidad indígena” (indigenous community) from La Guajira Colombia and their language “Wayunaiki” has been traced 5000 years back so they are quite ancient.
They live their life by mythology. One myth relates their art to knit bags and is about the “Walekeru” spider, who fell in love with a Wayuu guy and his mom gave her threads to eat, then she returned it coiled and taught the Wayuu how to knit.
They don’t understand anything about money or richness, they just get the food from the sea and live their life in the desert, which is the land they were given.
That’s interesting that you mention money and richness as today the fashion industry is dominated by billionaire global corporations worldwide, I’ve seen the same high street stores from UK to Colombia. What’s your view on this system today?
That’s true, I think is kind of sad because we are moved by advertisements and not by a real desire so we live in a time where everything is disposable and we no longer have a connection to what we wear.
I don’t pretend that we should go back to basics in the way we dress because we are social beings and we express identity with appearance. However, we should have a relation with our clothes because our body is our shell and it would be nice to tell stories with it by transferring culture and memory through that canvas.
Do you ever shop on the high street to places like Zara or H&M?
No, there’s a documentary called River Blue, where an activist says “Buying clothes at ridiculously cheap prices undeniably contributes to suffering and death to people in another part of the planet”.
Sometimes the clothes are not ridiculously cheap but anyway these workers keep receiving 67 cent an hour and living the misery and deplorable working conditions, I just cannot do it, I think she or he could have been me, I didn’t do anything different, I was just born.
That’s an amazing way to think, it must require a lot of discipline! I heard there was a H&M that recently opened in Bogotá, what was your response?
That opening was my worst nightmare and the best thing that has happened to me, the only thing I regret is that I heard about it just one week before.
A couple of classmates were talking about the reward they would give to the first ones making the line, and I cannot help feeling angry when people of my career and my industry think like that, but anyway anger is useless so I just came back home and asked my brother, “Do you think it is insane to make a protest on the H&M opening since they are one of the brands making their clothes in Bangladesh and slaving people?”
He was pretty concise and said “no” and suddenly everything seemed piece of cake, so I gathered people to protest and inform people about the background of their clothes. I walked in Bogotá like never in my life to get approved the petition and on that Saturday, 6th May, I was there with my banners full of data available on the Fashion Revolution website about sweatshops. They are doing amazing things for workers’ rights and I guess they started like me, like every single change the world has had, a small group believing in something.
It sounds like you went through so much that weekend! Were H&M part of the Rana Plaza disaster 4 years ago? Is your movement to do with the Fashion Revolution?
I don’t think so, but is not like H&M is different to other brands like the Inditext group, just a month ago there was a huge dispute in Myanmar because of the working conditions and the payments. I don’t think it requires to be a genius to understand that less than 100 dollars a month for 6 days in a week work of more than 14 hours shifts is a nonsense. Just the name “sweatshop” is enough to understand humanity has lost it.
Your campaign grew some local news attention, how does it feel that you are now given the responsibility to spread your message to the general public?
It did, I was not expecting all that attention but I took some right choices like having a photographer that day and to write an article about my experience that got published so suddenly I was popular on Facebook and everyone was like “hey congrats” or “you are so brave”.
I feel happy to be able to reach as much people as possible but I don’t like being called brave because I didn’t walk in a line on top of sharks I just went out to inform people that what they are buying implies suffering and death of real people.
Now with the momentum with you, what’s next?
Well it looks like I created something, by one side I have new enemies that say I’m a rich girl making a tantrum (not sure about how they dare to say that, I definitely should stay home and do nothing I guess) and on the other side I was able to connect and be found by people into these same goals.
I would like to grow a group and get support from companies and from the government to develop bigger and smarter strategies to teach people there are other ways to live. I think that we can choose our clothes to be meaningful, it must feel amazing to wear a skirt made with the hands of a person who has a health insurance and that sleeps enough and that has drinkable water.
It has to feel amazing to be part of something that looks for the benefit of others. I’m not sure what I’m doing honestly I’m just doing it because no one else will do it for me.
To keep up to date on Melisa on her next moves, follow her on Instagram.
Photography of the Wayuu project by Luis Guillermo Ospina.
Photography of the H&M campaign day by Pico Photography.