Originally from Brazil, Julia Franco moved to Durban four years ago. With a qualification in fashion and marketing, she decided to use her knowledge and expertise to empower the community in the city.
Upon her arrival, Franco (32) started looking into how she could pursue her love of fashion – while uplifting the community.
She says she fell in love with shweshwe, and decided to intertwine her love for the people and the city with this popular fabric.
Franco then set out to find businesses that could make shweshwe clothing, but she struggled to find places that provided high-quality fabric as well as the service.
She then decided to teach elderly and migrant women in Durban to sew so they could earn an income. What makes the initiative special is that each garment conveys the story of the woman who made it, connecting the buyer to the maker.
“The Wearable Library aims to create employment for women, train them and also get a professionally finished product,” Franco says. “On the tag of each fashion item, is the story of the woman who made it.
“We want the person who buys the garment to know the woman behind it, their background, age, why they made it and so on.”
She’s always been passionate about community upliftment and the role that fashion can play in society. “I wanted to change people’s perception of fashion to something positive; fashion can be beautiful and inspiring – we should use that inspiration to change the whole system,” she says.
Franco says that it’s of paramount importance that the story of the women who make the clothing is shared. She says there are many entrepreneurs and workshops that exploit and abuse people’s skills. Franco wants the seamstress to be known because it encourages fair trade.
The women are not only equipped with skills but are also paid more than the average wage, although it does depend on the garment.
Once the women have been trained and are equipped with the necessary skills, they aren’t expected to stay with The Wearable Library – rather, the initiative encourages and supports entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneur says she used her savings to start the business and that it’s now maintaining itself.
Items are sold on the business’ online store, and have even been bought from customers in countries such as Brazil, Spain and America.
She says it warms her heart to better the lives of less fortunate people and enable them to provide for their families. Another highlight has been how well received the initiative has been in Brazil – so much so, it received an award at Brazil Design Week.
Getting people to understand and buy into the concept has proved to be a challenge for Franco. She adds that the cultural significance of shweshwe was also something she had to come to understand. “When we started buying shweshwe, people didn’t like that we were using it for daily and not ceremonial purposes. We then decided to use the fabric in a modern way and not interfere with the cultural designs.”
Franco says that starting this social enterprise has taught her that when people come together and work as a community, things are more likely to succeed.