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Ammar Belal knows that there is no sustainable fashion without social justice

Ammar Belal knows that there is no sustainable fashion without social justice

by Rebecca Coughlan
|May 5, 2022

It wasn’t hard to spot designer Ammar Belal in bustling Chelsea Market where he runs a pop-up store for his clothing brand, ONE432. He sports a half-shaved, half-curly hairstyle and wears a Coca Cola red sweater with bright yellow lightning bolts on it. He looks like Ziggy Stardust.

Ammar Belal (right) wearing ONE432 clothing

“Have you seen our new patchwork jackets? he asks, almost before saying hello. “We had to save these scrap materials for almost two years to make them.” He then points to a rail on the back, “And here is my ‘David Bowie’ collection – I’m obsessed with him.”

“I’m so glad you got here,” he says between the folded up t-shirts, realigning a row of traditional South Asian clothing. jutti slippers and wipe off non-existent dust on a shelf. “You caught me just in time, I’m out of town tomorrow.”

The saleswoman lets out a knowing smile and I have the impression that this agitation before departure is routine.

Life is crazy for the Pakistani-born fashion designer. In addition to running ONE432the sustainable clothing brand and social enterprise he started with his brother, Belal is a teaching professor (or, in his own words, disruptive) at both the Parsons School of Design and the Sustainability Management Program from Columbia University.

Her passion for raising awareness of social and environmental issues in the fashion industry and many of their solutions is evident. In the ten minutes I spent in the store, Belal had already shared their brand story with three customers.

‘ONE432’ means ‘I love you too.’ For those too young to remember cellular devices that existed before smartphones, when you texted someone, the numeric abbreviation for saying “I love you too” on the keypad was “1432”. For Belal and his brother, it represents equality and reciprocity in the way they do business; if “I” do well, “you” do well too.

In effect, this means that 50% of the net profit from each unit sold is donated to the artisans who made it and used to sponsor a child’s education in Pakistan. Over the four years of the company’s operation, it generated $92,987.92 in revenue for the garment workers and 5,281 children were educated.

Beyond its focus on social issues, the brand sources materials from Pakistan whenever possible, as part of its ongoing drive to develop the country’s infrastructure.

The success of ONE432The radically ethical business model changes the hearts and minds of its most hardened skeptics. “I saw people who I thought would never even want to share a meal with me, come out and support us. It changed my view of everything we can do,” Belal says.

clothes and shoes in store

Photo courtesy of Ammar Belal

“They thought I was completely crazy. I tell you. And now I can proudly say that because we survived the pandemic. But I was called all kinds of condescending terms about not knowing the business, everything. I took so much bullshit, even people I love. They said it just couldn’t be done. And I was like, yeah, it can.

Some of the flack he took for launching a brand that is also a social enterprise may be due to the fact that Belal had spent the early part of his career pursuing fame and fortune as a designer of luxury clothing. for men in Pakistan.

Belal, however, thinks that was always meant to be his path. “In the 1980s, my father started one of the largest sportswear textile manufacturers in Pakistan,” he explains. “My earliest childhood memories? If you ask me what is the first thing I remember smelling,… I remember the smell of fresh cotton. I remember being three or four years old, running around the factory – around mountains and mountains of clothes and yarn and this fresh cotton.

But Belal isn’t content to just follow in his family’s footsteps. If he ever was, there was clearly a mindset shift along the way. ONE432 seems like a cultural reset; his opportunity to re-empower Pakistan’s garment industry after decades of exploitation and dumbing down trade.

“Nike, Target, Levi’s, JCPenney… All the big brands of the 80s and 90s were manufacturing in Pakistan before 9/11. And then a lot of things shifted to Bangladesh and China. [I saw] the impact of what he did on prices, what he did on the relationship between brands and factories. Brands and factories used to have long-term relationships and they became so fleeting because [fashion companies were] looking for the fastest and cheapest thing. Everything happened before my eyes. »

Having both grown up in “the system” of mass production and nurtured in the glamorous illusion of the world of haute couture, Belal now sees it as his responsibility to do better.

I ask Professor Belal if he thinks his business model is applicable to fashion companies of all sizes. He does.

“Look, I’m not saying everyone has to give away 50% of their profits. It’s quite aggressive. ONE432 is about showing people what is possible. It says “expect more”. If we, fully primed, can give that money away and have that level of transparency, so can other brands.

“Setting a good price so that it is attractive to consumers, I understand that. Everyone loves it very much. But there has to be a floor. There must be a minimum that cannot be exceeded. Where your efficiency doesn’t turn into exploitation, or where you wield power over a community that can’t bargain with you.

Belal thus advocates for a universal living wage, so that when big companies go looking for a place to manufacture their clothes, they get similar prices everywhere. “We say, ‘Look, you can’t go around the world looking for the best deal for yourself, exploiting the savings. In this way, the garment-producing countries have a chance.

I express my skepticism that fashion CEOs who grew up privileged in the Global North could ever think in these terms. Belal laughs.

“Yes, but I need a feeling of positivity when I wake up in the morning,” he jokes.

Having participated in the excess of mainstream fashion himself, he believes that if he could change the way he does business, so could anyone else.

“I had a belly full of every fashion faux pas you could think of,” Belal continues. “I come from a family that was part of [fast fashion], producing many top box brands. In my twenties, I did all kinds of cultural appropriations because I didn’t know any better. I exotified fashion. I started creating a luxury brand. I did everything.”

He continues, “The reason I think I’m quite effective as a teacher is because I tell people everything I’ve done to participate in the ‘system’. I completely drank the Kool-Aid.

In an industry that is notoriously lacking in accountability, Belal’s confession is refreshing.

“The reason I admit this is because it does the movement no good to shame people with their self-righteousness. So I say ‘Hey, I did everything and it left me feeling empty.’ Everyone’s on their way, but my job as an educator is to say, “Hey man, if this is where you’re headed, let me save you some time.”

Rebecca Coughlan is a graduate student in the MS in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University.


Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds