Domestic violence skyrocketed during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be a pervasive issue. Lockdowns, in particular, have aggravated sexual violence against women, with incidents of rape, killings and abuse spiking to new highs. This has been observed in almost all countries from Turkey, Brazil and Mexico to France, South Africa and Nigeria.
Even in pre-pandemic times, one in three women report having been in a relationship where they experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner. These statistics have grown grimmer since the whole globe went into lockdown. The Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platform (We Will Stop Femicides Platform) alone reported that 21 women were killed on March 11-31 during the first nationwide lockdown in Turkey. United Nations data released in late September also revealed that reports of domestic abuse surged 25% in Argentina and 33% in Singapore, among many other examples. But what does fashion have to do with this?
A small Turkish brand established in Istanbul is putting many major labels to shame with its principled stance on gender-based violence, women's empowerment and ethical trade.
"One of our missions as a brand is to prevent violence. So we recently came up with the idea to create a DIY rainbow kit people could use to beautify their homes and turn into a fun project to do with the kids. We partnered with the Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platform, transparently laid out all of our production costs for buyers and told them exactly how much would be donated for this cause. Even though we were a small and new brand, we saw unbelievable interest. That's probably the highlight of my career so far and my proudest moment," said Damla Özenç, wearing a soft mellow yellow shirt across my Zoom screen. I could see the way her eyes shone when she talked about her brand.
Özenç's story is not a typical one, especially in the realm of fashion. Instead of tunneling her vision on fashion from the start, she comes from a background in international trade.
"I entered this world (of fashion) through my work on and interest in sustainability. All this consumerism had really started to grind on me and got me thinking about better ways of going about this or managing a fashion business," she said, animated. She started by reading, researching and talking with others about sustainability.
"I was late to the (fashion) party but after realizing how fun and enjoyable the world of design was, I decided to stay," she said.
Of course, with no formal training, Özenç felt she needed to have a solid foundation if she ever wanted to get into a real business. She then met Senem Kula and a few other designers who recommended she enroll in courses such as Vakko EsMOD' International Fashion Academy and the Istanbul Moda (Fashion) Academy (IMA). From the coupling of these new skills and a passion for sustainability, an experimental fashion brand was born in 2018.
"We wanted it to become a brand that had fashion and design at its heart but could exist without hurting people or nature," she said.
"After having been a white-collar worker at a multinational firm for five years, you start questioning yourself. I was a tiny part of this huge company and had started feeling as if I had no impact on the world or that I could ever create the impact I wanted in that position. In the meantime, there were so many (upsetting) incidents going on: sexual harassment against women, rape, murders ... And just like that my job lost all of its appeal in my eyes," she said.
This is Mana was borne from a search for meaning, if another, better life could be possible for humankind, and the desire for a solution, said Özenç.
“I just increasingly grew isolated, kept spending time alone, throwing myself into travels, searching for inspiration. And then I realized inspiration was right there staring back at me. My mother, grandmother, our neighbors, almost all women in Turkey knew some kind of craft such as sewing, knitting, needlework. Of course, that largely stems from a patriarchal society that kept women at home. Women would have to find ways to pass time and would either turn to cooking, cleaning or creative crafts like that," she explained.
Özenç got thinking of a way to put this technical skill and knowledge inherent in Turkish women to good use. The pieces the older generation of women created were intricate and admirable, but Özenç knew not many modern women, especially in the younger generation, would willingly want to wear such pieces.
That was the big bang moment for This is Mana: Özenç would combine her modern esthetic and design principles with this partisanship. She put out calls to women across Turkey, asking if they would want to be a part of this new movement, and with support from designers such as Kula, the brand came to life.
The name of the brand comes from the Polynesian or Melanesian belief that anyone or anything has this supernatural power that draws energy from its roots in a way that permeates the universe, a healing power that can be inherited.
Özenç said as much as this word relates to women, they also wanted to make it about culture and draw inspiration from home, soil and millennia-old history.
However, unlike most handmade or ethnic-looking brands, Özenç said This is Mana stays loyal to a modern aesthetic.
"We can't disregard trends or the modern fashion sense because if you want to encourage people to join your cause and be more sustainable, at one point you have to give them what they want," she explained.
That's why her brand will create a shirt with shoulder pads, for example, she said. They may be "in" right now but a year later when they are out of fashion, you can always take them out and use as is.
"Giving people multiple options of wearing a garment is one way to go about it," said Özenç. More wear per use is also a golden rule for sustainability.
"I grew up watching my grandmother, a typical strong central Anatolian woman. She would take care of the whole house on her own. As we were living in a village, we had a woodburning stove (which she had to collect wood for) and small cattle and chickens to look after. She was a real multitasker," said Özenç, sharing with me about her biggest role model.
"And then I realized something one day. Whenever I would try to get rid of something old or a waste, she would tell me not to throw it out and instead turn it into something. She would always find creative ways to reuse something," she said.
Özenç said recycling and reusing is also a Turkish cultural thing, even if the younger generation has only just caught on.
"You used to see sellers selling washing detergent, nuts and all sorts in the open at Eminönü Bazaar, where you could get just as much you need in paper bags or your own jars. It's not until imported goods become the next big thing that people were sucked into colorful and fancy-looking packaging," she said.
Nowadays, we see eco-friendly, zero waste shops slowly sprouting across Turkey. The Kadıköy Waste-Free Shop is just one of the many.
This is Mana focuses on a new theme each year and releases about two collections a year, though they can’t make promises about the permanency of them as once they run out of materials for that collection, that’s the end.
2018 was the year of deserts to draw attention to drought, 2019 was the year of forests and 2020 the year of the road or journeys.
“Our inspirations are our experiences,” said Özenç. 2020’s theme was largely inspired by the feeling of confinement the whole globe has experienced and the thirst we’ve had for wanderlust, she explained.
“We’ve so missed being on the road and going on road trips. But we’ve also had the opportunity to go spiritual inner journeys, missing those we loved and discovering something new about ourselves," she said.
The year of the forest, besides drawing attention to the climate crisis and forestation, was also about women.
“We tried to draw similarities between women and forests and why we call it mother nature. Women are as vibrant, colorful and creative as forests. We wanted to show that humans and nature aren’t so dissimilar," she said.
Özenç wanted the brand to stand on a solid foundation of women empowerment and sustainability. But she also wanted to address concerns around transparent, fair and ethical trade, keeping the climate crisis at its heart.
In addition to 17 fixed producers, This is Mana also works with two women's cooperatives, providing interim work for 68 women. For Özenç, making sure all the women were working in humane conditions and were compensated fairly for their time and effort was of utmost importance. But being on the side that works with all data and figures, Özenç found herself falling short when it came to the financial side of things, at first.
"I just kept telling myself I was failing these women and was trying to find ways to give them what they deserved. Then one day, I asked a psychologist to survey our team to see if they were happy about their work. We asked them what This is Mana meant to them, and the consensus was that it was their point of escape; a space where they could escape from all of their responsibilities and duties at home; an amount of money they didn't have to spend on their husbands, home or children and have it for themselves, and themselves only," she said.
"I can't begin to describe the relief I felt. You can look at statistics and data all day long, but when you get feedback from beneficiaries, nothing can replace that," she said. Although it may not seem that significant, statistics say otherwise. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK), 80% of women subjected to violence have never earned their own money in their entire lives.
As a fashion brand, Özenç says they focus on three categories for their fabrics: upcycled, recycled and organic certified.
New materials, and in large quantities, are hard to come by for a new and smaller-scale brand, so Özenç and her team decided to turn to bigger brands. What they came across was great amounts of fabric waste and threads that were on their way to a landfill or incinerator. Now, Özenç says, they go knocking on cloth traders' and factories' doors in the Osmanbey, Merter and Zeytinburnu neighborhoods in Istanbul to collect fabric scraps and recycle them.
When it comes to certified and natural fabrics, they go for organic cotton, linen, jute and tencel.
But when it comes to wool, the brand has something exciting in store for this year.
"We are trying to create a network of small brands and individual producers to eliminate intermediaries. We are trying to reach villagers in Anatolia who have their own sheep, for example ... If it is five jumpers worth of wool we get from them, it's five jumpers we'll produce and no more," said Özenç. That way, the brand won't be encouraging overconsumption and will contribute to the livelihoods of others.
That way of thinking is something green brands have incorporated into their production in efforts to make it more sustainable. But can fashion achieve real sustainability?
According to Özenç, real sustainability could be possible through partnerships and collective effort, at least for the time being. It’s not something that can be achieved solely through manufacturers’ or consumers’ efforts though, she said.
As much as the manufacturer may say it wants to produce fabrics that do not harm nature or animals, it doesn’t end there. Say you start growing your own bamboo or fibers, so you allocate yourself a piece of land. But in this process, you either get rid of green space or fashion agricultural land into textile farming land. That's where it gets complicated.
Even if you use an area that will just meet your needs, you are still occupying green space. And that’s what awaits the fashion industry in the future: we’ll have to start using agricultural lands for textile farming and apparel production to meet rising demand.
"What if every brand had its own farmlands and produced its own fabrics and threads but in a sustainable way, without destroying other plants and not driving endemic plants to extinction? That’s exactly how sustainable brands operate today. And that’s fine for now. But what happens when every brand under the sun says the same thing in the future? This will just turn into a vicious cycle and lead to more consumption, maybe this time causing the loss of another species," said Özenç.
"That’s why balance is so crucial. When consumption rises, no brand, nothing can become sustainable. Every brand has to recognize its own responsibility in this and work to better their conditions and products but so does the consumer who has to realize the impact of their purchasing decisions and think about its wider implications," she stressed.