Carcel: Fashion made in prison

At Carcel, fashion meets social entrepreneurship by empowering women in prison through jobs in the fashion industry.

by Julia Migné

Mixing the Danish talent for design with a strong social cause, Carcel operates in places where “the finest natural materials in the world meet the highest rate of poverty-related crime.”

After visiting a women’s prison in Kenya, Veronica D’Souza became determined to create a more ethical and sustainable future for the fashion industry. A few years later, she teamed up with Louise van Hauen to “design and produce with integrity, ambition and class.” Noticing that the main cause of female incarceration is poverty, the two women are on a mission to give women in prison new skills and good salaries to allow them to break the cycle of poverty.

Veronica talks to INKLINE about the values of slow fashion and the ethical future of the fashion industry.

INKLINE: Why did you visit a women’s prison in Kenya and how did that influence the creation of Carcel?

Veronica D’Souza: Through my work with my prior social business, Ruby Cup, I was living in Nairobi and very active in understanding issues related to women and poverty. I realised that I had no idea about why women were incarcerated there and how life was for them on the inside, so I called up a women’s prison and went to see.

Recognising that the main cause of incarceration was poverty and that there was a huge potential in creating good jobs so they could adverse the poverty spiral for themselves and their children, laid the foundation for Carcel. I mapped the world into countries where the highest rates of poverty-related crime meet the origin of the world’s most luxurious materials in order to create aspirational and desirable products with an immense social impact.

We’ve started in Cusco, Peru, working with 100 percent baby alpaca wool and are now expanding our production to Chiang Mai’s correctional facility in Thailand where we will use 100 percent locally made silk.

I: Why did you choose to support the women’s prison in Cusco? 

V: I spent a month visiting prisons in Peru and getting to know the origins of the fantastic baby alpaca wool. We chose Cusco’s women’s prison based on strong local leadership in the prison, a dedicated and very friendly atmosphere amongst the women and because this is where alpaca wool comes from, high up in the Andes mountains.

Carcel’s first collection started in Cusco, Peru, with women working with 100% baby alpaca wool. © Carcel

I: Could you tell us more about how you came to collaborate with Louise van Hauen on Carcel’s first collection?

V: Louise and I met in Nairobi, and I’ve asked her professional opinion on the idea since my first visit to the Kenyan prison.  A few years later when I decided to start Carcel, she had also moved back to Copenhagen, and with her love for quality and bold simplicity, it was a no-brainer that she should develop the designs.

Within a few weeks, she had made the first products and was on a plane to Peru to get the first samples made. Since then, a group of passionate and talented people have joined our team. I believe in an entrepreneurial approach to running an organisation, and it’s really true when I say that Carcel is the result of a strong group effort.

“Recognising that the main cause of incarceration was poverty and that there was a huge potential in creating good jobs so they could adverse the poverty spiral for themselves and their children, laid the foundation for Carcel.”

I: Your Kickstarter campaign was very successful. How do you explain this success? 

V: The Kickstarter campaign was a great chance to test our concept. We got fully funded within 12 hours, which was a clear sign for us that there was an interest in the project. It’s hard to say exactly why, but we worked hard on creating a shoot that communicated the quality and softness of the alpaca wool in a simple and contemporary way. And what we are doing is quite unique – so we quickly got featured in international fashion magazines, which was great.

I also think the timing is right. People are ready for a new generation of fashion that addresses some of the insane externalities created by the fashion industry both socially and environmentally. Making beautiful products through a sustainable production that enhances lives of female prisoners just makes sense.

Carcel is dedicated to making beautiful products through a sustainable production that enhances lives of female prisoners. © Carcel

I: Do you have any anecdotes you would like to share about the lives of the women who work for you in Peru and the impact Carcel is having on them? 

V: There are many and we’ve just begun. Edith can now send money to her mother so that she can buy cancer medicine. Rosa can support her daughter. Rocio is saving up for changing her life when she gets out. We are very attached to our team and go and work side by side inside of the prison several time a year. On a daily basis, our production manager from Germany has moved to Cusco and goes to the prison every day. Some of the key impacts she sees are also the importance of having a good job to wake up to every day — it’s motivating and helps a lot on mood and self-esteem.

We’ve created a healthy workplace where the women take care of each other and work together as a team and not as individuals or competitors. The women are dedicated and motivated by the work itself as much as by the money they earn from it.

I: Your website states that you “do not compromise on quality of design, our planet or people”, could you tell us more about why these values are important to you and what you do to apply those principles?

V: We believe in the values of slow fashion and in making products that solve problems instead of creating them. By empowering women through new skills and fair wages, we want to help them break the spiral of poverty.

We take care of our planet by only using natural and locally-sourced materials, and we are working with a non-seasonal business model where we produce what we sell in order to minimise waste. We take pride in being transparent about how we operate and we strive to constantly look at how we can not just minimise the harm but actually contribute positively to the world.

© Carcel

I: What’s coming next for Carcel?

V: I just came back from Thailand, and I am proud to announce our new partnership with the Thai Ministry of Justice and the Kamlangjai Project under HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha to start giving good jobs to women in prison in Chiang Mai’s correctional facility for women using 100 percent locally produced silk.

We are now busy with finalising the first designs and will start the training program inside the prison in May. We are the first international company to enter Thai prisons and we are very excited about the opportunity to give good wages and new skills to women in prison in Thailand.

I: What advice would you give to the millennials who are trying to start a career in the fashion industry?

V: We need every bit of talent to help steer the industry on a sustainable track without losing the desirability integral to fashion. So figure out which problem you want to solve and get to work. 

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