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Behind the brand: Meet the women turning sofas into shoes

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In an age of mass-produced and untraceable products, a bespoke shoe company based in London is subverting fashion’s manufacturing process from beginning to end. 

Founded by Sabeha and Joana in 2016 as a response to the skills and needs of a local community in Bethnal Green, Juta epitomises ethical and empowering fashion: “There are so many women in our local community with incredible craft and creative passions but without access to the traditional creative economy," Joana says. "We wanted to create a business that provided free training, a supportive community, and flexible, well-paid, empowering work to women who face barriers to employment.

"So far we've reached over 60 women with our crafts-based skills training, sold over 250 pairs of shoes, and run shoe-making workshops where our experienced makers have taught over 200 people to make their own shoes. We've also reclaimed over 200 kilos of leather that would otherwise have gone to waste from factory and upholstery offcuts.”

Image of founder Joana and Sabeha courtesy of Joana at Juta

Ethical

At The National Student, we love a brand that is as committed to ethics as it is to aesthetics, and we think Juta proves that neither has to be sacrificed for the other.  Nevertheless, as awe-inspiring as Juta’s feat is, prioritising fair working conditions and sustainable practices hasn’t been without its challenges: “There’s usually a higher cost of doing things right - we pay twice as much for our shoe bags because they’re traceable, printed with eco-friendly inks and sewn in a Fair Trade certified factory. And since we pay the London Living Wage for our makers’ time, labour costs make up a much higher percentage of our item cost than most high-street shoes. But we also find that customers are more interested in listening, understanding where things come from and how they’re made, and understand where the costs are coming from. There’s no one definition of ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’, and customers rightly ask difficult questions of brands who claim to be one or both. There’s always more that we could do better, and we’re always keen to listen, be challenged, and make changes”, Joana told us.

 

Image credit: Kanahaya Alam

Traceable

Recently the traceability of supply chains in the fashion industry has come under enormous scrutiny, but Juta has found a resourceful and beautiful way to produce high-quality footwear that you can trust. She says: “We love using reclaimed and repurposed materials for our shoes. At the moment, we have relationships with upholsterers and factories in London who let us take away their waste leather. When making something like a couch, there’s often little pieces in strange shapes that are cut off from the design - because we’ve adapted our patterns to use very small pieces of leather, we can turn these into shoes. Building relationships with leather providers has taken a while but has been really lovely. Some particular highlights include working with a coffee shop to reclaim all the leather from their old seating when they replaced it, and running workshops for customers who have brought in their old leather items - jackets, boots, sofa seats! - and turned them into shoes.

 

Image courtesy of Joana at Juta

“Sustainable sourcing is definitely something more companies should look into. Advances in material science, along with new circular economy platforms and systems, mean that there is even greater access to and ways of re-using materials that would otherwise go to waste. Using reclaimed materials changes how you design, requires that you be more creative and thoughtful, and provides more unique products with more interesting stories.

 

Hopeful

 

If you’re interested or inspired by Joana and Sabeha’s creativity and resourcefulness but feel it’s out of your depth owing to a lack of training or knowledge, then we have some encouraging news for you. Neither of Juta's founders had any formal "fashion" training (Sabeha has a BA in Social Enterprise and Joana has a Master’s degree in Medical Anthropology).

There are so many different ways to learn the skills you want - formal training is certainly one of them, but so are less formal apprenticeships, following online or video training, or just getting stuck in and making things. There’s no substitute for just sitting down and testing things out repeatedly. We taught ourselves to make our espadrilles, and have spent two years testing, tweaking, and refining our patterns and processes. It’s really important to us that fashion and making are accessible - for the women who graduate from our employability skills course and work for us, and for the people who book onto our shoemaking courses to sew their own shoes. We so recommend people joining the industry who might not have formal or university training - if it’s something you love enough that you’re doing it in your spare time, you already have an edge in your passion. And the industry could use some shaking up!

 

Image credit: Kanahaya Alam

We completely agree; it’s no secret that our fashion industry is causing our planet and our people harm in its current state and the only way we can fix this is by changing it at its very foundations. But this doesn’t have to be a pipedream, as proven by creatives like the Juta team; they have big ambitions for the future with wishes to design a wider range of products and workshops, and one day hope to start another community hub in another area. Suddenly, fashion’s future doesn’t look so bleak after all. 

To meet another inspiring woman in the fashion industry, check out our interview with Jennifer Georgeson here!

To read more pieces from our 'Behind the brand' series, visit this link.

Image credit: all from a selection courtesy of Joana at Juta.




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