Italian lifestyle and fashion: Cangiari is Made in Calabria

Apr 14, 2018 154

Let’s talk history, ancient and more recent, before getting to the modern-day story of Cangiari, Italy’s first ethical high fashion brand. Cangiari’s creations are currently gracing catwalks from Milan to Paris to Dubai, but the label is so much more than its striking silhouettes and fabrics.

Cangiari is deeply rooted in its native Calabria, a region of sharp contrasts. The region spans Italy’s heel and toe, from the Tyrrhenian to the Ionian Seas, with rugged mountains in between. It’s a place of age-old cultural traditions, intense beauty, and great potential, if not yet completely realized. The region remains one of Italy’s most economically challenged: the employment rate, for example, was less than 50% in 2016 (Eurostat).

That said, creativity, artisanship, and sheer knowhow have always been in abundance in Calabria. Take textiles. A tradition of handloom weaving, rooted in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture, created a robust textile manufacturing trade.

Over time, political and social winds of change caused shifts in fortunes in Calabria and other regions of Italy’s south. The young moved to the north of the country, elsewhere in Europe, and beyond in search of jobs. By the 1990s, low-cost textiles from Asia were challenging Italian producers in Calabria and throughout Italy. Many companies lost their footing and ultimately shut their doors. Adding to Calabria’s struggles in particular was the outsize penetration of the Calabrian Mafia. The fierce 'Ndràngheta, which operated locally and increasingly globally, had a stronghold on the economy, luring jobless young people who had meager prospects for a better life, into its clutches. Entrepreneurial spirit was often quashed when the ‘Ndrangheta came calling for cuts of profits from fledgling businesses, threatening ruin if owners resisted.

A solution and vision

Enter Vincenzo Linarello, founder in 2003 of the cooperative Gruppo GOEL, and president of Cangiari, set up in 2009 as the textile/ fashion segment of the GOEL cooperative. GOEL’s other segments range from agri-food interests to cosmetics to tourism. Linarello and his collaborators had formed GOEL to help wrest Calabria from the 'Ndràngheta’s grasp, put people to work, instill renewed pride in the region, and give disadvantaged youth confidence that they could compete in Italian and international markets.

With a purpose that significant, both Cangiari and GOEL are aptly named. Cangiari, in the Calabrian dialect, means change. GOEL derives from the Old Testament word for redeemer. Cangiari had a very specific mission that traced to a group of young women who appealed to GOEL to help them maintain Calabria’s ancient tradition of handloomed textiles. Linarello had the vision to understand not only the value of sustaining the artform, but also that by entering the fashion world, Cangiari would have an amplified stage for its message. In less than a decade, Cangiari is garnering headlines in the fashion press and other media for its ecologically sustainable textiles and fashions – completely made in Italy – that also promote social justice.

Women at the helm

All Cangiari textiles are produced on traditional manual looms. Up to about 50 years ago many Calabrian families had a handloom in their homes, but interest in the craft had waned, leaving the artform in the hands of fewer and fewer older women called majistre. These master craftswomen had run handlooms, commercial and domestic, throughout the region. To say that hand looming is a highly specialized craft is an understatement: there are up to 1,800 strands of yarn to be passed through the loom, all in precise mathematical order, to arrive at the desired design. The majistre of the era were largely illiterate, but their recall of combinations was not an issue: in order to remember the complex mathematical programming, multiplied by each of the textures they incorporated, they used lullabies and chants as mnemonic devices, sharing the “code” only with their daughters. Many majistre recognized that their offspring were no longer interested in weaving, so they ultimately shared their secret chants with other young women who wanted to learn the craft. 

These young women preserved the chants in writing and also restored or rebuilt antique handlooms. They were the ones who asked GOEL to help keep the handloom tradition alive. From that request, Cangiari was soon born, as was a new generation of majistre.

Slow fashion and respect for the ecosystem

Weaving on a handloom is a slow process. One meter of cloth takes up to 6 hours to produce, ultimately making fashions costly. Cangiari recognized that well-heeled consumers would be the ones to sustain the brand. It successfully targeted and entered the high fashion sphere as Italy’s only 100% percent eco-ethical fashion producer. All Cangiari fabrics are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, showing that they not only respect the ecosystem but promote the wellbeing of the wearers.

Cangiari’s customers are interested in authentic, sustainable fashions, produced by workers who are treated with respect and dignity and valued for their craft. Ethical fashion awareness was piqued by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh that took 1,100 lives and injured thousands. Shoddy construction contributed to the deadly collapse of the building that housed multiple factories producing low-cost, anonymous “fast fashion.” Quantity output was the priority rather than quality and worker safety. An international Fashion Revolution movement sprung up in Rana Plaza’s wake; Cangiari has played an active part in the development.

Alternatives

Cangiari’s fascinating platform made it one of the designers to be showcased at the 2017 Fashion of Cultures: Systems in the Making exhibit at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), curated by Eugenia Paulicelli, Director of the Fashion Studies program at CUNY Graduate Center and Professor of Italian Language and Comparitive Literature at Queens College. Paulicelli called Cangiari’s mission one of the “alternatives that retrieve traditions and push for a project and society that embrace beauty, respect for culture, and human dignity.” 

Lianarello’s view is that ethics must be more than justice – ethics must also be efficient. In a May 2017 interview with Domus, Linarello said: “With Cangiari, we want to communicate that ethics is not for a handful of heroes who sacrifice themselves to the cause or make compromises with reality. We want to say that ethics are competitive, sustainable, and beautiful. We also want to show that the Mafia is not only unjust, but useless and counterproductive.”

Powerful words from a man who understands both history and modern-day realities.

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