How many of us have seen "fashion for a cause" plastered across clothing lines and stores, only to find out that the fashion is the same old piece you find everywhere and the cause is as short-lived as the fashion itself? But every once in a while, you come across fashion that is different, for which the cause is self-sustaining and doesn't expire at the end of a season. If I could turn that description into a one-word category, that's where Schalmauer would fall into.
Originally Lebanese, born and raised in Vienna, living between London, Beirut and Milan, Rania – as she simply likes to be called – co-founded Schalmauer in 2015. This, her first social enterprise, aims to show how art and fashion can be brought together as a means to contribute toward social development. Schalmauer specializes in high quality pashmina scarfs handmade by Nepalese artisans and designed by world-renown Arabic calligraphy artists. What makes it a social enterprise is that profits from sales are brought back into the enterprise to improve the lives of its artisans.
I chatted with Rania to learn more about Schalmauer and what makes it different than the rest.
Marina Chamma: What does Schalmauer mean?
Rania: Schallmauer is the German word for ‘sound barrier.’ In our adaptation of the word, we bring together the two concepts at the heart of what we want to achieve: producing a high quality scarf (Schal) with which we want to break down the walls or barriers (Mauer). Many of the women producing these scarves left school at an early age and are barely literate. They have limited skills and consequently limited chances to improve their living conditions. It is these walls of poverty, illiteracy and lack of opportunities that we want to break. We truly believe that once these women are afforded an opportunity, they will be able to lift themselves out of their current situation and better cater for themselves and their families.
Why do you use Arabic calligraphy in your scarves?
I’ve always been a fan of this type of art and inspired by the flowing forms and complex shapes of Arabic calligraphy. The visual beauty and intricate detail of this art form allows everyone to appreciate it, even those who don’t read nor speak the language. I also think Arabic calligraphy can be used as a means to bridge the cultural divide between Europe, where I am based, and the Middle East, where I am from. Our ambassadors, as we like to call our customers, are spread across the globe and have shown a lot of interest in this art, proving that Arabic calligraphy can be appreciated anywhere in the world.
Rachel Mohawege, one of the artists. Photo credit: Schalmauer
It all came together very unexpectedly. The thought of starting something in the development area to assist people in need has always been present and a random trip to Nepal proved to be the ‘eureka moment’. Through acquaintances involved in the pashmina making industry, we were able to get an insider view into the workings of this industry. It was only then that we connected the dots – helping people by producing a high-quality product, which is in our view the most sustainable business approach.
How do the artisans actually benefit?
Because we want them to play a leading role in their own development, we’ve started by asking the women who work with us what is it that they want. Some of the first changes have been improvements in the work place, including regular lighting (Nepal can experience up to 18-hours of electricity blackouts a day), better equipment and sanitation facilities. In terms of long-term benefits, we’re in the process of organizing literacy courses for the women and advanced courses on pashmina making. This falls right into our core belief that capacity building and education, particularly of women, is central to any kind of development. And just today, we confirmed that we will be paying the school tuition fee of five children, whose mothers work with us.
What happens when the country your social enterprise is based in witnesses two devastating earthquakes (April and May 2015) one after the other?
It was a shock for the whole country. The earthquake caused a tremendous amount of damage to a population that was already one of the poorest in Asia. Of course it affected our business and took months for operations to resume to a relatively normal level. However, instead of taking a step back, we decided to take two steps forward. We felt it was more important than ever to support the Nepalese during such trying times. So we stocked up even further and made new orders to enable the artisans to resume their jobs and keep working.
You are part of a team that has worked in development for over a decade. Why did you still feel the need to establish a social enterprise to assist those in need?
It is precisely because I’ve worked in development that I think social enterprises can be so successful. Social businesses make up for the lack of sustainability often seen in development initiatives. We don’t rely on charity or donations, function like a full-fledged business instead. We have all the same issues to contend with like sales of our products, marketing and production. However, in the process, we provide capacity building opportunities for the artisans to help them get better jobs and improve their living conditions.
Swarti Adhikari, one of the artisans. Photo credit: Schalmauer
Do you believe your business model can be replicated elsewhere?
Absolutely and this is the beauty of launching a social enterprise. Simply put, it’s a business that utilizes commercial strategies to improve communities and people’s lives. In our case, we do this by selling a product and reinvesting the profits back into the growth of the business and into the development of the artisans working with us. So with a specific objective and social cause in mind, the model can be replicated anywhere.
What makes a scarf an essential accessory for men and women?
The versatility of the scarf allows it to be used anywhere and everywhere, in all seasons and occasions. It adds a touch of color to a simple and casual outfit, or acts as the charismatic and bold accessory that really makes an outfit stand out. The added value of a Schalmauer scarf is that it provides you with a wearable piece of art that gives back to those who produce, so it “feels good and looks good.”
What’s your favorite scarf?
That’s a tough question because I have an emotional connection to each scarf. However, I’m often seen wearing the Love V scarf designed by Iraqi artist Wissam Shawkat. Shawkat, one of the top calligraphy artists and designers in the world, designed Love V as an exclusive piece for Schalmauer. Love V was part of his Letters of Love Collection exhibited at the Reed Gallery in New York in 2011. It consists of four squares, each one written with the word “Love”.