Print designer, illustrator and graphic artist Nelly Rose.

At Fashion Scout SS18, London College of Fashion graduates Nelly Rose and Odette Steele and Indonesian designer Dian Pelangi, created what was perhaps one of the most beautiful collections created around the hijab ever. But Nelly Rose doesn’t consider herself a fashion designer.

“I think [the title] puts me in a certain category that doesn’t really represent who I am,” she says, a little ruefully. “Fashion can be anything from reeling off 20,000 t-shirts in a factory to hand weaving and constructing … I’m a step back from that.”

When it comes to her CV, the title is certainly reductive. A passionate believer in art as an enabler for global change, Nelly Rose applies her zingy graphic style onto textiles and ‘zines, films and installations, accessories and craft.

Nelly Rose, Dian Pelangi and Odette Steele, Fashion Scout SS18.

If anyone thinks the sustainable aesthetic is, by definition, a bit wishy washy, Nelly Rose begs to differ. Broad bands of electric colour, painterly illustrations, tactile surfaces, a strong emphasis on typography as print: her work is joyous, unfettered, boundless.

Now, the London-based artist has a new project in the making: a collaboration with Sofia Contreras-Paredes, founder of Guatemalan fair-trade initiatve MEÜS, and three Guatemalan women’s craft co-operatives.

The project, entitled Societas (strapline: Uniting Cultures + Breaking Borders), aims to turn some of the industry’s most pressing issues – the ethical treatment of workers, the  practice of sustainable fashion, sexual inequality – into luxurious wearable art.

And what the artisans do genuinely is art, from Adiba for beading, Las Rosas for weaving and Chuwila for embroidery. “Their skill is incredible,” says Nelly Rose, warmly.

The Las Rosas artisans weaving the Societas samples by Nelly Rose and  Meüs .

The idea is that she creates the designs and the women make them but the key aspect of Societas is that it is not just a collaboration; it is also an exchange of skills.

“We’re not huge brands, we’re just young designers trying to make a difference,” she says. “So, at the beginning of the project, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with this model? What skills have we got that will benefit them?’”

The artisans themselves answered those questions: the weavers wanted to learn how to forecast trends and make their work more relevant to other parts of the world; the beading women wanted to learn more about composition.

“The embroiderers commission a man to draw for them so they only embroider,” says Nelly Rose. “They don’t have the confidence to draft their own patterns yet.” Through workshops, Sofia and Nelly will be working to answer all their questions.

In her own designs for the project, Nelly Rose has steered clear of using traditional motifs. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in fashion right now. Last week, in reaction to Western plagiarism of their ideas, Kaqchikel Maya weavers in Guatemala declared that permission needed to be sough to use the traditional designs associated with their tribe.

“Each area has its own symbolism which is extremely sacred to them. In my designs for the artisans, I’d never use their own motifs.” Instead, she has used universal symbols:

Embroidery for Societas. Picture: Meüs.

“Abstract globe shapes, the eye or the hand, so that we’re creating a new symbolism that represents the collaboration …”

So far, the artisans have been selling their work in local markets. “In the markets, their products get valued more as souvenirs rather than at the value they really are – which is luxury,” says Nelly Rose.

And so Societas has multiple aims: the celebration of craft as a vital expression of culture is one. “Societas is our vehicle to preserve cultures and communities,” says Nelly Rose.

Another goes to the heart of the inequities of commercial fashion: that it is women and their families who often bear the brunt of exploitation. The co-operatives currently employ 11 men, 152 women. “It’s a massive feminist issue,” says Nelly Rose. “If 80 per cent of garment workers are women, then we’re not just empowering women with Societas, we’re empowering families.”

Community, craft, global exchange, heart and soul: for the talented artisans of the co-operatives in Guatemala and their dedicated collaborators, Societas deserves to fly.

Societas, the final collection, will be presented this September at Fashion Scout, in which Nelly will also launch her platform GLOBELLE by Nelly Rose, and at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Guatemala.

Support the project at Kickstarter here.

Follow Societas’ journey here:

Instagram: @nellyroselondon  @sofia.cpb @van.meus @thenewdenimproject
Twitter: @nellyroselondon @globelleseries @TNDPtextiles  

All base fabrics for the project have been supplied by The New Denim Project, a Guatemalan City-based initiative which creates 100% sustainable yarns, fabrics, and products created from pre-consumer denim waste.