Bibi Russell: handicrafts people have magic in their fingers

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Bibi Russell
Bibi Russell
© Husniddin Ato
08 September 2016

UNESCO’s Artist for Peace Bibi Russell is currently participating in the Festival of Traditional Textile Atlas Bayrami (Celebrating Atlas) organized in Margilan, Uzbekistan, from 6 to 10 September 2016. The well-known fashion designer and former top model from Bangladesh participated also in the Festival’s first edition in 2015. Initiated by the UNESCO Tashkent Office, the festival aims to safeguard traditions, improve the wellbeing of communities and promote the rich cultural heritage of the region. Since the end of the 1990s, Bibi Russell has been working to develop traditional textile and handicrafts in her country, as well as in a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

An interview conducted by Krista Pikkat and Jasmina Šopova (UNESCO)

This is your second time to participate in Festival of Traditional Textile in Uzbekistan. Why did you decide to personally contribute to the event?

I come to Uzbekistan for the people. The handicrafts people here have magic in their fingers. If I did not enjoy working here, nothing would make me come, even for a million dollars! I have spent six days in Margilan, in Uzbekistan, and lived with the weavers here and they have not let me miss anything. I feel I am one of them.

I am absolutely in love with the crafts of ikat, the local dyeing technique. Ikat has traditional patterns that are very modern – very graphic designs. Both the artistic and technical side of ikat are marvellous. This is the most amazing weave I have seen. 

Ikat’s preparation is a complicated process. Before it reaches the weavers it has undergone 6 or 7 stages of preparation. It is a real art and we should preserve it and transmit it to the next generations.

In Bangladesh we do not produce ikat, and I was fascinated when I discovered it.

Bibi Russell, Atlas Bayrami Festival, 2016. Uzbekistan.
Bibi Russell, Atlas Bayrami Festival, 2016. Uzbekistan.
© UNESCO

You returned to Bangladesh in 1994, after 20 years in the West, where you pursued a successful career as a top model. Why?

Since I was young, I had a dream... I could not understand why the Bangladesh people were thought to be poor. For me, the country was rich of colours and music! When I went to Europe my dream went with me. One day I knew that I was mentally and physically ready to come back.

I believed that people in Bangladesh needed me as much as I needed them. You need two hands to clap. Today, after 20 years of experience, I know I was right. They know I respect them and I help them restore their human dignity. That is the most important thing. On the other side, they give me so much love and affection! This gives me strength to go forward. Nothing in the world can take me away from this work.

I never turned my back on my country. My parents always lived in Bangladesh, so I came back home regularly even when living abroad. I was born in Bangladesh and I spent my childhood there. I think childhood has a major impact on your life.

I had a wonderful family. My parents taught me to appreciate our culture as well as the culture of other countries. Bangladesh used to be part of Greater India, which was governed by the British and the Mughals. Thanks to the education my parents gave me, I learned all about it and about the culture of other countries as well. I think parents have to teach their children more about their culture and traditions so that it does not die.

Upon your return to Bangladesh, you started a small tailor workshop, which grew into Bibi Productions in 1995. The great majority of the weavers live in villages. Why did you decide to have your company based in Dhaka, the capital?

I only have one office located in Dhaka. I needed an office, which can be connected to the world. But I spend 99.9% of time in villages. We work with craftsmen from different parts of Bangladesh. They are not from privileged families, and each one of them, starting from the person who prepares tea in my office, feels that Bibi Productions is theirs.

I have done this for the people of Bangladesh and I shall leave it to the country.

How would you define the philosophy behind Bibi Productions?

We cannot say that Bibi Productions is not-for-profit, but we make very little profit. Our focus is on saving and reviving the crafts and supporting the crafts people, and on raising their awareness about the importance of education and health.

I see the difference since I started Bibi Productions in 1994. All the people working either in the office or villages have no more than two or three children. Having come out of poverty, they understand the importance of their children going to school. Their standard of living improves because they know how to better manage the money they make. Education and health is the backbone of any economy and country.

How many people does Bibi Productions employ?

We have some 30 people from different corners of Bangladesh working in the office. There are people who first thought they would not have the skills and knowledge to work in the office. But I recognize people with positive attitude.

In addition, we work with thousands of craftsmen. I cannot say their exact number, but they are around 100 000. You think it's huge? It is not even 1% of the weavers in the country! I wish that I could feel that I have reached the first step of the ladder before I die.

In countries like India, Bangladesh, Central Asia, agriculture is the most important sector of economy. People working in agriculture and handicrafts live side by side. I work with people who do things by hand: Fashion for Development is what I am.

How the idea of Fashion for Development started? 

When I made my first show at UNESCO, in 1996. Very rarely designers are given recognition by the UN agencies, but UNESCO recognized the link fashion has with development, education and health. The show at UNESCO was shown on 29 channels around the world. It was supported by Federico Mayor, the then Director-General of UNESCO, and the Queen of Spain. Two Spanish people who believed in me from the start. The media made me Bibi as a model, they gave me priceless support as a designer. I got a lot of international support. Since then, I have been invited to top universities in the world, which now work on fashion for development. Now I get invitations to participate in the World Economic Forum, because they realize the importance of creative economy and social economy.

Bibi Russel, UNESCO Artist for PeaceIn 1999, UNESCO designates you as Designer for Development. Then, in 2001, Artist for Peace. What does UNESCO’s recognition mean to you?

What I am today is thanks to UNESCO. But also, thanks to my work people realize that Bangladesh does not only have problems, but it is a wonderful country.

When I was designated Designer for Development, I went back home and showed the certificate to the weavers. I told them that the certificate was for them, not only for me. You can change people’s minds when you respect their human dignity.

Any recognition gives you strength. I am a fellow of London Art University. This recognition is given to me for the contribution I have made to promote handloom. I have received a highest award from Bangla Academy, Bangladeshi national language authority established in 1954 on the model of the French Academy. And the biggest designers in the world have also recognized the work I do for development. The international recognition helps me a lot in my work on promoting Fashion for Development.  

What is the specificity of your work as fashion designer?

Everything we do in Bibi Production is natural and handmade. I have never used synthetic fabrics nor artificial colours. I don’t expect people to wear natural and handmade all the time, but even if you have three or five outfits, wear them every now and then!

My models are inspired by traditional design. Of course I change colours, I simplify the design, but I never change traditional way of weaving cotton or silk. 

Among my biggest sells are my accessories and scarfs. My bangles are made out of water hyacinth, a plant that grows widely in Bangladesh. I have women in six villages now making these bangles. And my gamuchas (poor people’s cotton towels) are promoted by the famous actor Antonio Banderas, so I do not need to spend money on publicity. I would never do it as Bibi Productions is a self-funded project and hundreds of people depend on me for their livelihoods.

How has your work evolved?

When I started working in Cambodia I started doing recycling and today, I have become expert in recycling! In Bangladesh I make things out of what people throw away.

I was also inspired by the "rickshaw art" in Bangladesh to make spectacle frames that I personally wear very often.

But the real "revolution" was brought about our design for young people. We do jeans in different colours, sari in a different way, modern blouses…


© UNESCO

Fashion design was your true passion and vocation, though you first became famous as a top model. How come a young girl from Bangladesh decided to go to study in the London Fashion School?

I was brought up in a very cultural family. My mother used to sew clothes for us. My sisters never complained, but I was never quite happy. So when I was ten years old, my father bought me a sewing machine. You cannot even hold a pair of scissors properly when you’re ten, but I started experimenting.

When I was 15-16, my father gave me a book of Chanel. So I realized there is grammar in fashion and I wanted to study. I had received different awards for art between the age of 6 and 12, but I did not want to do art. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to go to London. During six months, London Fashion College refused my application, but finally they accepted me, with many conditions.

And today, how do you manage to reconcile your family life with your professional activities? 

I know married life, I have two children. When my kids were around nine or ten, I had to make them realize that I have a dream and that if I do not pursue it, I shall be frustrated. Today, my parents have both passed away, my children live abroad, but the crafts people I work with never make me feel alone. These are ordinary people, who need their wages on the first day of the month because they have to pay the rent. They are not my family, but they mean more than anything to me.  

Since I went back to Bangladesh, I started picking up street children. It was first one or two, whom I gave some money on the condition they went to school. I became their guarantee for the NGO schools where beggars were not accepted. Now I have more than 100 children I take care of. They are my source of joy when I am in Dhaka.