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Altering Expectations: Fair Trade Fashion in Guatemala

Posted by Melissa Millis on 9th Oct 2018


Most of you don’t know me; my name’s Melissa. I work behind the scenes at Liz Alig. Nothing fancy: I ship orders and keep inventory updated. Sometimes I squeeze into the extra small sized samples to model for catalogs. For the most part, you could say I pretty well keep Liz organized and freed to do what she does best – design clothes and work directly with the groups of women she employs all over the world. While I know quite a bit about the process behind fair trade fashion, I’m still a rookie.

In September, samples for the spring line come in. Rather than shipping samples from Guatemala, we decide to make the trip, pick up the samples, and connect with all the people behind each part of the clothing production process. And Liz thought, “while we’re at it, let’s do the spring catalog shoot!” So, off we went to a country full of beauty, warm people, and delightful surprises. Our photographer friend, Nate, joined us.

This is not the first time I’ve traveled internationally with Liz. Six times, she’s traveled to Haiti with me to work with local artists I connected her with, years ago. But for this trip to Guatemala, she was in charge (as much as she hates that!). I was along for the ride – one that would prove to be delightfully full. This trip would alter my rookie expectations about the fair trade fashion industry, in a country I hadn’t yet explored.


We started our journey in Guatemala City where we toured Iris, a factory that recycles clothing and specifically denim, spins new thread, and weaves fabric. This unique factory has secret processes for recycling that are only revealed to visitors - what a treat! It was incredible to be walked through the fabrication process and see what might otherwise end up in the trash, be given life and become wearable! All Liz Alig denim items are birthed right here, where Iris is altering the way fabric is woven.


From the big city we continued onto Antigua where we spent the majority of our time. The cobblestone streets, colors, and doors within the city make for some great photos, despite the city’s touristy nature. Walking along the streets felt like stepping back in time.

Just a short tuk tuk ride away we visited the local seamstress, Gladys, employed by Liz Alig who works out of her humble home. Being able to work out of your home is the ancient-future reality of fair trade. Gladys warmly greeted us and showed us her studio. We discussed her work, fabric sourcing, and new designs. Much of the items Gladys sews are made from traditional corte or huipil. It took me a few minutes to realize that the corte pants I had on that day were sewn in the very room we were standing in, by the very person in front of me whose smile warmed my heart.

In the heart of Antigua, we visited Indigo and met Olga, who is one of the very few people in country to use completely natural dye processes. We learned about the various traditional, organic sources of her dyes – like avocado pit that produces a rich brown and cochinilla (a dried up bug!) that produces a warm pink. The color pallet created from her vast array of ancient, natural dyes was astonishing. The new ikat fabric produced from Olga’s threads altered my expectations for my wardrobe and the future possibilities for fair trade fashion.


The next leg of our journey took us to beautiful Lake Atitlan. From quaint town to town we traveled by boat and landed a visit with Delfina at Casa Flor Ixcaco, a local weaving cooperative that uses the traditional back strap loom. This cooperative also utilizes special, locally grown brown cotton - ixcaco - native to Guatemala that grows on trees. Let’s just say I was not expecting such beautiful products, unique to every batch of rich brown cotton picked. We’re hoping to partner with the weaving cooperative for fabrics for future products. With fair trade fashion you can expect unique!


We spent a few mornings putting Nate to work capturing images for the 2019 spring catalog. Of course, I had no problem wearing the one-of-a-kind clothes around the city! In between changing clothes and modeling for photo shoots we continued to explore and have our expectations altered as we tried the local pepian (a pumpkin stew), cacao, coffee, and fresh tortillas. Each part of the journey was full of unexpected delights, whether on foot or "chicken bus", stretching my Spanish speaking abilities or conversing with new people who felt like long-time friends. There is something beautiful, inspiring, and life-giving about learning exactly where your clothes come from and the impact that it has on real people. My fashion expectations have forever been altered.

Photos by Nate Canada - natecanada.com