We hear plenty of talk these days of an awareness of fast fashion and the loose intention to make a dent. What we rarely hear of is two women traipsing a continent to collect positive fashion stories and get up close and personal with the practices presently taking place. Hailing from Melbourne, Gab Murphy, 26, and Megan O’Malley, 30, are in the midst of a 12-month journey spent walking across Southeast Asia, sharing the uplifting stories of the garment industry through their initiative Walk Sew Good. The pair studied International Studies at RMIT in Melbourne, where they met in a sustainability class and bonded over their shared interest in the impact of the fashion industry.
Inspired by Indian activist Satish Kumar, who spent the 1960s walking the world promoting nuclear disarmament, Megan decided she, too, should be walking for a cause. After witnessing the exploitation of workers in the industry in which she was working, she decided on Southeast Asia, a region known for its sweatshops, to create awareness of the good and bad of the garment industry.
“Did you know you can dye clothes with coconut husks? Or that you can melt wax onto cotton to make patterns before you dye it?”
Gab and Megan put their jobs on hold, emptied their bank accounts, and with a crowdfunded $10,000 (from friends, family and like-minded strangers), started the Walk Sew Good initiative – a project that has not only the possibility to make an impact, but that would also form an investment in their own futures. With a core objective to connect people with the inspiring initiatives and businesses in Southeast Asia, Walk Sew Good is promoting ethical fashion and challenges consumers to rethink their shopping habits.
Before we took this trip we didn't realise how much weaving is part of so many different communities in Southeast Asia. Yesterday we had the immense privilege to visit Huay Pu Kang and interview Aye Mee. She has been weaving for over 30 years now and has passed on the skill to other women in her family.
“We fine-tuned the idea and decided to only focus on the positive stories. There are a lot of negative stories about the fashion industry coming out of Southeast Asia and we felt like it left people feeling disempowered about what they should be doing. We decided that sharing the positive stories would show people a way to support the good things that are happening in the region,” shares Megan.
Now, over half-way into their journey, which started in November of last year in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Gab and Megan have walked more than 1,500km. On an adventure that will walk them through Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and back into Northern Vietnam to eventuate in Hanoi this November, they have experienced first-hand the people and stories of the industry that most of us never will encounter. Travelling without the capacity of a translator, with the exception of Google Translate, of course, many of their interviews have been in English with the help of bilingual staff.
“Language has been one of the barriers we’ve really had to work hard to overcome, and in some instances, it just isn’t possible. We have come up with some creative solutions… we’ve been quite transparent about this problem on our blog,” says Megan.
Day 207. 20kms. We just happened to walk past this incredible weaving village in Nan Province, Thailand called Sisawalai Weaving. Mrs Sisawalai styled and dressed us and we had a real life fashion montage. They grow their own cotton and hand weave and dye their clothes as a part of the "One Town One Product" initiative here in Thailand. Talk about #slowfashion
Despite challenges with language, their experiences has been outweighed by the positive. During their time in Cambodia, the two women visited Holi Studios, an in-house production and training centre for Holi that supports the local community with stable employment and training. The women of Holi Studios taught Gab and Megan to sew before lightheartedly challenging them to a sewing race.
“We’ve met business owners, weavers, sewers, dyers, jewellery makers, and so many more. Everyone has a different way of creating impact and addressing the issues with fast fashion. The diversity is wonderful. We’ve got lots of interesting stories to tell that will hopefully empower people to support these businesses,” says Megan.
What a day we had yesterday! The incredible people that work at this workshop have so much knowledge about the natural world around them and use it to create beautiful products. 🌱🌴🌏They offered to teach us all they know if we come back and stay for a month. To say we're keen is an understatement! A huge thank you to the team at Y Development Cooperation for showing us such a good time at their producer partners in Hod. These guys put the fair in fair trade (one word? Two words? I can never remember). 🙌🏽 @craftcnx
Walking across Southeast Asia comes with many lessons learnt, not least of all “Never drink from a communal cup”, which Gab testifies will make you sick. These lessons are changing the way they themselves and their followers see the garment industry, along with humanity itself. The venture has exposed Gab and Megan to an incredible amount of kindness and generosity, along with knowledge.
“Textiles have a rich history. I’ve never seen clothes made from scratch before, especially by hand and it’s mind blowing. Each thread is painstakingly picked, spun, woven, dyed, stitched – it’s just crazy. And did you know you can dye clothes with coconut husks? Or that you can melt wax onto cotton to make patterns before you dye it? I used to think clothes were just kind of a necessary evil, like you have to wear them to protect yourself from the elements, but now I can really see how they tell a story, they can be so personal,” offers Gab.
“In terms of fashion and sustainability, I’ve learnt that there are a lot of people out there doing really inspiring work, creating diverse solutions to the fast-fashion problem. It makes me hopeful that humans can achieve some of the big changes that need to happen in the fashion industry… This trip has been a study in humanity and the good that we are capable of,” says Megan.
Megan is also head of research with Project JUST, an organisation focused on empowering consumers to demand ethical and sustainable practice from fashion brands. Gab is a passionate advocate for refugee and asylum seeker rights and worked on the Strategic Plan for the Sunraysia-Mallee Ethnic Communities Council in 2015.
With peoples generosity fuelling their fire there is more yet to come from Gab and Megan, you can follow their journey at @walksewgood and hear the stories of Southeast Asia’s fashion industry at walksewgood.com
You can contact Megan O’Malley and Gab Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org