Moral Fibers is an ethical clothing brand that hires artists in the developing world and asks each of them to create a dozen paintings every month. Those paintings are then scanned, turned into clothing, and sold online. It's an incredible opportunity to give artists of all ages a chance to not only earn a steady income, but express their creativity in a unique way that also serves to educate the Western world of the devastating poverty and social issues the countries involved face on a daily basis. We spoke with Martin Weiss, the brand's COO, about how he finds the artists Moral Fibers works with, the effects the brand has had on the artists' lives, and more.
The Fashion Spot: How do you find the artists that you work with?
Martin Weiss: Moral Fibers finds artists in developing countries with experience ranging from novice teenagers up to painters with 20 years of experience. We currently are focusing on a community of 15 artists in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Matt Brightman flew to Port-au-Prince to assist with relief work. On that trip, Matt made contact with Erick Frazier, who became Moral Fibers’ local manager. Erick Frazier helped us identify our first eight artists both in his community in Carrefour, Haiti, and in the surrounding tent camps. Over the course of the next year, we expanded our artist base to include 15 artists. Since then, they have one by one moved out of their tents and into houses in the same block of Carrefour.
Moral Fibers employs all 15 artists full-time. They enjoy 5 times Haiti’s average national income, plus benefits like subsidies equivalent to education for one child, healthcare subsidies, home subsidies, and entrepreneurship funds. In exchange, each artist delivers 12 pieces of art, attends an educational institution, and volunteers for community service. We think that Moral Fibers’ model for international development has changed the lives of 15 families and a community; we’re backed up in that belief by the daily assurances from our local manager and video interviews with our artists.
tFS: You seem to only be working with men, is there a reason?
MW: Three of Moral Fibers’ new artists are women. There is a newly-designed site with Moral Fibers’ 15 artists and profiles that should be launching in February.
tFS: Do you give the artists any creative guidelines?
MW: The artists have complete freedom in their artwork. They frequently come together and paint in the same space, learning from each other. Self-help groups of 15-20 people make micro-finance possible in many developing countries. A fundamental tenet of this kind of solidarity lending—group accountability—is what drives Moral Fibers artists. They also have an incentive to put time into their work, for every painting that is produced on Moral Fibers clothing earns the artist a $100 bonus.
tFS: Do you give them the materials to create the paintings or do they figure all of that out on their own?
MW: Our local manager buys $25 of art supplies for each artist every month. Many Moral Fibers artists choose to make more than the required 12 pieces of art. Our artists have used water colors, acrylic paint, markers, sharpies, pens, pencils, and more.
tFS: What do you do with the paintings they create after you’ve scanned them and turned them into the clothing designs?
MW: We host them on our Flickr site. They serve as a great way to build a community of art fans. We have been thinking about running an auction—our first 4 shirts sold for a total of $800 at auction—so look out for some art auctions in the near future! We also have framed art with which we do gallery events.
tFS: What have been some of the most memorable designs?
MW: Haitian Eyes is the name of the first design that got mocked-up into a piece of T-shirt. I remember when Matt and I got the file from our graphic designer over Skype: we opened it, turned to each other and jumped up and down with excitement. Matt and I enjoy working on international development and business—but don’t know the first thing about fashion! As a result Moral Fibers’ first move after procuring art was to find graphic and fashion designers.
tFS: Do the artists ever discuss their inspiration with you?
MW: Yes! We have conversations through our translator as well as interviews with our artists about their work. We have a lot of information about our artists’ inspiration for all of our framed and printed art. They paint about a lot of things—about their lives, Voodoo, the natural world, and abstract designs. We have many hundreds of pieces of art from many different people, so it can be hard to pigeonhole. However, there are some interesting cultural commonalities.
tFS: Color seems to be a very big part in many of the current designs, is that always the case?
MW: Haitian art is traditionally vibrant and colorful. Though this isn’t the case for all of our art—we just have so much it’s hard to make generalities. We are really excited to expand our model into other countries. The kinds of art we would get from countries like Nepal, Rwanda, or Cambodia would make different styles of clothing. Imagine South American art for a summer line, and art from Nunavut for Moral Fibers’ winter line!
tFS: Can you explain the effect Moral Fibers has had on the artists you work with?
MW: When I was talking on the phone with my local manager recently, he said that he wanted to tell me about “Bradley, one of the street kids.” Bradley is a 16-year-old boy who watched his home collapse on his family. Erick found him wandering the streets in Carrefour a few weeks after the earthquake and set him up under a tin roof in his yard.
In a country where less than 30% of students reach 6th grade, Bradley is going to school. In a country with more than a 40% unemployment rate, Bradley has a job. In a country where gangs fight block by block, Bradley volunteers for his community. And through all of this, Bradley gets to learn to paint, to express himself, and to create our fashion line.
To quote our local manager, “Do you really believe that Moral Fibers has brought happiness to my heart? You know man, sometimes I ask myself if I am not dreaming… it feels just like my life has just begun.”