by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) Hundreds of kilometers away from Jozi, in the small North Coast town of Umdloti, Julia Franco could teach DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, a thing or two about compassion and innovation. Franco has created a socially relevant local fashion brand that gives migrants work, and which aims to revolutionise the fashion industry by offering more than fair pay for work.

Shwe — The Wearable Library exports to Brazil, the US and beyond. Founded by Franco, it is a social enterprise that employs 64 people at a handful of hubs in Durban’s city centre. The brand produces trendy female garments made out of wax print material (shweshwe) and is a living testament to her philosophy that fashion is a form of communication. Each garment has a tag that tells the story of the person who made it.

“Group effort”

Julia Franco. Photo by Jon Pienaar.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Shwe is that you can’t do anything like this by yourself. It is a group effort,” says Julia Franco who learned to sew, and learned about life, alongside the refugee women she works with. Photo by Jon Pienaar.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Shwe is that you can’t do anything like this by yourself. Shwe is a group effort. Every single woman linked to the garment-making process is important to the whole process,” says Franco, who also says that this operation has changed her life and the way she thinks about work, fashion and money.

The 33-year-old first studied fashion in Milan and got a dream job at the Italian icon, Roberto Cavalli, but, after falling in love with a South African during Fashion Week, what happened next changed her life. She says she met her boyfriend in Milan and followed him from Italy to SA five years ago, and that’s when she first encountered the traditional African fabric we all know as shweshwe. “It was love at first sight,” she admits, and the diversity of patterns and colours inspired her to craft a new place for herself in the world of fashion.

“When I first arrived in SA I started to look for a place to fit in. There were a lot of opportunities with Mr Price, but I couldn’t do that because of what cut-rate retail clothing is doing to the industry,” she explains. A sociologist friend introduced her to some social justice organisations in Durban that assist refugees and the destitute, and her path became clearer.

“Humbling experience”

Julia Franco with a sample. Photo by Jon Pienaar.
It took a year for Shwe to gain traction but now the fashion label with a conscience retails in boutiques in Brazil, Europe and the US. Photo by Jon Pienaar.

“I toured elderly homes, social justice projects and refugee centres, and found three different organisations that I could work with,” Franco said. “I arrived at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban with fabric and we started straight away, and I became a part of the sewing group. I learned to sew with the group by taking a three-month course with them. It was a very interesting and humbling experience,” she says. Situated in Durban’s inner city, the Denis Hurley Centre acts as a refugee reception for people who travel to South Africa to escape poverty, violence or political instability.

“I think that fashion can make a strong political statement, and that’s how Shwe started,” Franco says, adding: “It is not really about what we make, but how we make it. I try to use Shwe as a statement that asks why so many people are excluded from fashion when they shouldn’t be. Everyone dresses themselves and has the right to express and communicate. Everyone should be integrated into and represented in fashion, because everyone has a voice.”

She shares a recent experience she’s had working alongside the garment makers who create Shwe fashion: “We recently did a collaboration with the Durban University of Technology. The university helped to teach the women in our group to learn the basics, like doing a good finish and putting in zippers. When we arrived at the university, we discovered that some of the refugees had never been to school before. Any kind of school. That is when I realised that this was beyond just giving a profession to someone. That this is about hopes and dreams.”

Living wage

The social entrepreneur mashes her Italian fashion-fu with the bright and tightly patterned shweshwe materials, creating garments fit for a Milan catwalk. But, unlike the multinationals that dominate the retail world, she ensures that all the seamstresses are paid a good living wage. They are given a per-garment commission, so those who can put in a full day can take home a decent package, while some prefer to work part-time to subsidise their continuing education.

The international garment industry is renowned for cut-price, mass-production manufacturing strategies, such as outsourcing to factories with sweatshop conditions and child-labour practices in countries that are less than fastidious about health, safety and welfare regulations. Low manufacturing costs allow for huge mark-ups by suppliers and wholesalers. A report by O’Rourke Group Partners in 2011 calculated that a $14 shirt sold in Canada would be supplied at only $5.67. The factory that manufactured the shirt would have paid its workers 12c per shirt, which is just 2% of what it’s sold for.

For Franco, this is not an option: she prefers to make less profit, and to ensure that people who work on Shwe are well-paid. The weak rand works in Shwe’s favour, as exporting makes the garment more-affordable in places such as Brazil, the US and Europe.

“Help more people”

Shwe item of clothing
In Shwe, Julia Franco has created a socially relevant fashion brand that gives migrants meaningful work at a living wage. Photo by Jon Pienaar.

When it comes to talking about the bottom line, Franco says she isn’t in this for the money. “I’ve lost money setting this up, and I invest everything that comes in. Because it is always a matter of deciding to take a bigger salary or helping five more people. I always want to help more people. If you want money in fashion, it would be best to take a traditional job or open an individual brand, and not create a social brand.”

Today, Shwe is beginning to make a small profit while at the same time offering refugee women an opportunity to work in the fashion industry and to earn a living wage, with work conditions that are largely set by themselves. A radical about-face at a time when brands such as H&M, with their cut-rate cost-clothing, have earned public ire and shame for exploiting refugee children.

Viva la Revolution, Shwe!


Charlie MathewsCharlie Mathews is a writer who likes to draw and is based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, She is a contributing editor to through her monthly “Africa Dispatches” column.

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