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Bibi Russell: Finding magic in fingers

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Bibi Russell pays tribute to the craftswomen of Barmer, Rajasthan, whose work was presented at a fashion show to celebrate Rajasthan Day in the Indian state, March 2017.

UNESCO’s Artist for Peace and well-known designer Bibi Russell has achieved a tour de force: thanks to her, the humble gamuchas ‒ traditional cotton towels that people in South Asia generally use to wipe their hands and faces ‒ rival the most prestigious pieces on fashion podiums all over the world. But her real success is away from these podiums, in hundreds of weaving workshops in her country, Bangladesh, but also in Uzbekistan, Colombia, India.

In December 2017, she took part in India’s Rajasthan Heritage Week, showcasing her khadi collection. The show was her tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and to the traditional Rajasthani weavers who created the homespun cloth.  

Russell also participated in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange in February 2018, with an exhibition showcasing sustainable fashion from the Commonwealth countries. It was   launched at Buckingham Palace with the support of the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge.

The designer with a difference is now working on what she calls “a difficult and emotionally very engaging project”. With the direct support of Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, she has been working at the Liluah Home, the state’s largest shelter for girls, since September 2017. Here, she teaches and motivates the girls, some of whom are victims of child trafficking, to develop income-generating skills. “I can’t believe that in the twenty-first century, when everyone is talking about women’s empowerment and equal rights, we are still selling our girls!” she says, pointing out that destitute girls in the state are sold for less than $100.  “If I have the strength to finish this difficult work, I hope it will open doors for these girls to start a new life filled with dignity and love.”

Russell’s efforts are paying off. On 7 March 2018, thirty-three girls from the shelter, including six Rohingya refugee kids, walked the ramp at a fashion show organized by the government in Kolkata and conceived by Russell. They were wearing clothes designed by their friends at the Home, who have been trained by Bangladesh’s best-known designer.  

Since the late 1990s, Russell has been working to develop traditional textiles and handicrafts, giving a chance to thousands of people to rise out of poverty thanks to their “magic fingers”, as she puts it.

Interview by Krista Pikkat (UNESCO) and Jasmina Šopova

Fashion design was your true passion and vocation, though you first became famous as a top model. How did a young girl from Bangladesh decide to go to a fashion school in London?

At home, my mother used to sew clothes for us. My sisters never complained, but I was never quite happy with the clothes. So when I was 10 years old, my father bought me a sewing machine. You can barely hold a pair of scissors properly when you’re 10, but I started experimenting.

When I was 15 or 16, my father gave me a book about the fashion house of Chanel. I discovered French haute couture, and realized that there is a grammar in fashion that I wanted to study. I had received different awards for art between the ages of 6 and 12, but I did not want to study art. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to go to London. Over six months, the London College of Fashion refused my application, but they finally accepted me, with many conditions attached.

After twenty years in the West, where you built a successful career as a top model, you returned to Bangladesh in 1994. What made you do that?

Since I was young, I had a dream. I could not understand why Bangladeshi people were thought of as poor. For me, the country was rich with 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 go back home.

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

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

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

When you returned to Bangladesh, you started a small tailor’s workshop, which grew into Bibi Productions in 1995. Most traditional weavers live in villages. Why did you decide to base your company in Dhaka, the capital?

I only have one office located in Dhaka. I need an office from which we can connect to the rest of the world. But I spend 99.9 per cent of my 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 makes tea in my office – feels that Bibi Productions is theirs.

I have done this for the people of Bangladesh, and Bibi Productions belongs 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 craftspeople, 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 in the villages have no more than two or three children. They know how to better manage the money they make, and their standard of living has improved. Having come out of poverty, they understand the importance of their children going to school. Education and health is the backbone of any economy in any country.

How many people does Bibi Productions employ?

We have some thirty 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 am able to recognize people with a positive attitude.

In addition, we work with thousands of craftspeople. I cannot say their exact number, but they are around 100,000. You think that’s huge? It is not even one per cent 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 – there is so much more to be done.

In countries like India, Bangladesh, Central Asia, agriculture is the most important sector of the 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.


Bibi Russell with craftspeople in Rajasthan, India.

How did the idea of Fashion for Development start? 

It started when I held my first show at UNESCO, in 1996. Designers are very rarely given recognition by United Nations agencies, but the Organization recognized the link between fashion and development, education and health. UNESCO’s “Weavers of Bangladesh” show was covered by twenty-nine television channels around the world. It was supported by Federico Mayor, the then Director-General of UNESCO, and Queen Sofía of Spain. If the media made me Bibi the  model, these two people, who believed in me from the start, gave me priceless support in my career as a designer. I also received a lot of international support. Since then, I have been invited to top universities in the world, which now work on fashion for development, and to the World Economic Forum (WEF), because they realize the importance of the creative economy and the social economy.

In 1999, UNESCO designated you as a Designer for Development. Then, in 2001, you were made an Artist for Peace. What do UNESCO’s recognitions 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, it is also a wonderful country.

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

Any recognition gives you strength. I am a fellow of the University of the Arts, London. This recognition is given to me for the contribution I have made to promoting handloom. I have received the highest award from the Bangla Academy, Bangladesh’s national language authority, established in 1955 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 of promoting Fashion for Development.  

What defines your work as a fashion designer?

Everything we do at Bibi Productions is natural and handmade. I have never used synthetic fabrics or artificial colours. I don’t expect people to wear natural and handmade all the time, but even if you have four 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 the traditional way of weaving cotton or silk. 

Among my biggest sellers are my accessories and scarves. My bangles are made out of water hyacinth, a plant that grows widely in Bangladesh. I now have women in six villages  making these bangles. And my gamuchas are promoted by the Spanish actor, Antonio Banderas, so I do not need to spend money on publicity. I would never do that anyway – 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 began recycling and today, I have become an expert at 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 with our design for young people. We do jeans in different colours, saris in a different way, modern blouses, etc.

How do you balance your family life with your professional activities? 

I know married life, I have two children. When my kids were around 9 or 10, I had to make them realize that I have a dream, and that if I do not pursue it, I would be frustrated. Today, my parents have both passed away, my children live abroad, but the craftspeople I work with never allow me to feel alone. These are ordinary people, who need their wages on the first day of the month to pay the rent. They are not my family, but they mean more than anything to me.  

Since I returned to Bangladesh, I started to support street children. I gave them some money on the condition they went to school. I became their guarantor for NGO (non-governmental organization) schools, where street children are not usually accepted. It was first one child, then another – now they are more than a hundred! They are my source of joy when I am in Dhaka.

With this interview, the UNESCO Courier marks the celebration of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, on 21 May.