Eager to unite high-end design with deeper meaning, Copenhagen-based company Carcel works with incarcerated women in areas with high rates of poverty-related crime to create contemporary, 100% natural womenswear. Founder Veronica D’Souza let SUITCASE in on her first-hand experiences of empowering women, breaking the poverty cycle and “slow fashion”.

In 2015, in search for reasons behind female incarceration, Danish entrepreneur Veronica D’Souza found herself inside a Nairobi prison; a visit that would soon change her professional life, as well as the future prospects of 15 (and counting) Peruvian inmates.

Touched by the moving stories she encountered, D’Souza quickly found answers that reflect a global phenomenon: non-violent crimes, such as drug trafficking, theft and prostitution, are the main forces behind decades-long convictions, served predominantly by young, impoverished, single mothers with a low level of education. Inspired by training endeavours inside the Kenyan institutions, D’Souza founded Carcel, a sustainable business that transforms lost time into regained dignity.

D’Souza believes in business as a driver for social change. Hearing the founder enthuse over her initiative, I find her dedication to empower marginalised women almost infectious. Yet, in partnership with creative director Louise van Hauen, she hasn’t just built a company that gives hope to individuals, but has developed a desirable brand with global appeal.

In Peru, 70% of the sentences given to women relate to drugs. About a year and a half ago and five visited prisons later, D’Souza couldn’t think of a better destination to set up Carcel’s first production site than Cusco in the Andes Mountains, and the homeland of alpaca wool.

My preconceptions of prison life in Latin America are dominated by images of gangs. Is that the reality, I ask? “It’s actually quite peaceful and not very tough; there are no gangs where we work, and the guards are friendly”, D’Souza says. “Instead”, she adds, “everyone wants to learn and participate”. She further describes her experience as one that proves how inmates, who pursue a guilt-free life, are trying to make the best out of it. For Carcel’s employees, this often means working for their families.

The founder tells me that local drug cartels predominantly target young women from poor backgrounds – the more beautiful they are, the higher their chances of passing through customs – who, when convicted, are given sentences of up to 15 years. D’Souza names 37-year-old Edith as an example, who is just one out of many. “Inexperienced and vulnerable, she trusted a man who let her believe they would settle down, but he turned her into a drug mule. When they were caught transporting drugs, she didn’t even know their destination, which was Cusco.”

Another inmate, Gloria, was so desperate to make an income that she started trafficking drugs to provide for her three daughters. Having spent the past six years behind bars, the upbringing of her offspring now lies in the hands of relatives. “Gloria was extremely worried when she first arrived at the prison, and could only think about her daughters. Today, she thinks about making up for the lost time with her family.” D’Souza continues with Rosa’s tale, who dreams about affording her eight-year-old daughter’s higher education. While the young girl lives in a children’s home in Cusco, her mother has eight out of 12 years left to serve.

As a part of D’Souza’s team, these women hope to help break their families’ poverty cycle. “Traditionally, men are seen as breadwinners and more of them are incarcerated. However, by giving jobs to women I believe that we have an impact on not just them but also their families. Nobody else is investing in them and setting up production sites where we are”, D’Souza explains.

Besides their roles as providers, the prisoners have learnt valuable skills. That someone relies on their commitments to making exceptional garments motivates them to get up in the morning. “It’s not enough to make every effort, it actually has to be good enough because we need clients to be satisfied with the clothes. That kind of expectation makes you grow as a person.”

Do they understand how far their products travel? “Of course”, says D’Souza, “they’re so proud that people from all over the world wear the pieces they’ve made. It’s unthinkable, right? They’re completely removed from society, yet are creating stylish apparel for people across the globe”. Varying from fine jersey knits to chunky jackets in colours from camel to azure, the Nordic-style pieces unite contemporary, minimalist design with high-quality materials.

With a seven-hour schedule a day (including a lunch break) Carcel is committed to cooperating with prison rules, introducing a flexible salary system and paying their employees by item. “After all, it’s a prison and not only a production facility, so they may have events, visits or therapy sessions to attend. If somebody can’t work for three days they can still be part of it. We’re trying to create the best environment for the women to contribute at their best possible capacity”.

Incorporating Peruvian traditions, the group of 15 – supervised by a local design manager – only utilises 100% locally sourced and sustainable alpaca wool, which is thermos-regulating, as well as hypoallergenic, lightweight and self-cleansing. “As for the production itself, of which we oversee every step, we use up-scaled industrial handling machines that we’ve bought from second-hand garages in Lima, as well as making a few pieces by hand. Aiming to bring out its high quality, we then look at how types of thread come out in different machines, which also defines the design”, D’Souza says.

While Carcel undeniably demonstrates how fashion and feeling are not mutually exclusive, it also emphasises a direct connection between producer and client – inside every piece you’ll find the name of the woman who made it. “That is so important when it comes to dignity”, D’Souza points out, “yet it’s also a very important statement in today’s fashion world – that you know who made your clothes and where they came from.”

At the same time, to avoid waste in their supply chain, the team only produce small batches and have cut the traditional retail link by only selling online. “It’s about maintaining the garments’ value; our ambition is to make clothes that solve problems instead of creating them.”

Confident that customers buy more consciously these days, D’Souza sees this as her company’s opportunity to design the perfect jumper. What does that mean for their long-term goals, I wonder? “We’re in it for the long run. It’s about the years the women are incarcerated, so we aim to reach countries with that overlap between luxurious materials and poverty-related crime while creating better lives for women prisoners.”

Carcel’s next destination? Having followed a local silk trail to learn about the country’s tradition of making it, D’Souza has pinpointed Chiang Mai in Thailand, where 90% of women live in correctional facilities due to drug-related crimes. “It’s one of the top four countries in the world for female incarceration and their sentences can be up to 50 years, which is what we’re looking at.” A partnership with the ministry of justice, who are extremely welcoming of the initiative, and a workspace set in stone, the future employees will be working with 100% of the soft, lustrous material to create a new range of garments.

The fashion industry doesn’t often allow us to know where our clothes come from, but it’s initiatives like Carcel that have introduced a new chapter to fashion history; an era that turns consumers into change-makers.

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