The fashion world isn’t always associated with positive images when it comes to the environment and women’s issues. All too often, fashion lines are designed to highlight the female physique for the benefit of men, rather than truly focus on form and function for women. Other times, fashion merely takes advantage of women by favouring men. To top it all off, few fashion products developed in the modern world are designed to last or be environmentally protective. All change with Yumnaa.

In a consumer-centric world, few companies care about making products that last, focusing exclusively on how to sell as many different products as possible in the effort to turn a profit. Yumnaa Firfirey is giving power back to women in the world of fashion, turning heads with her designs, and accomplishing all of this without any formal education in the field.

Yumnaa Firfirey

Yumnaa as a 3 year old fashionista.

Educated in Economics, Raised in Fashion

Yumnaa was raised with a strong influence from her grandfather and grandmother. Both grandparents were deeply involved in fashion of the day. Her grandfather worked as a tailor and her grandmother as a seamstress. Her mom and grandmother spent hours sewing and knitting, and Yumnaa witnessed it all firsthand as a child. This early involvement in cloth, fabrics, and clothing design gave her the inspiration and experience to design her first outfit at the age of 11!

Although Yumnaa grew up surrounded by clothing, fabrics, and design, she never studied fashion formally. However, she went on to become an economist by education and employment. and graduated from university with a business and economics degree. With these qualifications she has spent years working with government programmes supporting entrepreneurship, launched economic partnership organisations, and helped develop coherent economic policies and programmes for regional economies.

Yumnaa Firfirey

Yumnaa (seated) with parents and grandparents.

Diving into Fashion

With the knowledge of economics, her childhood experience with fashion, and the desire to create real change in her native South Africa, Yumnaa eventually stepped into her own with the launch of the Bodhisattva fashion line in June 2013. While many fashion designers are looking to create the next great trend for a season or entire year, the approach for Bodhisattva is very different. In her own words, Yumnaa explains the purpose behind her fashion house:

“Bodhisattva is not a seasonal brand. This means that there is only a very slight shift from one year to the next. I don’t do fads. I create timeless pieces that will always look good. There is too much wastage of clothing with people buying cheap clothes that only get worn a few times and then ends up sometimes on scrap heaps and as insulation in cars. This is after factories of people have sweated over the production of these clothes, for very meagre wages. That is not ethical. I would rather my customers bought fewer items, but spent a little more on good investment pieces.”

This doesn’t mean that her fashion house’s approach to design is bland or boring. In fact, she has her own style and that which she foresees for Bodhisattva. The designs from Bodhisattva rarely focus on seasonal colours, but rather on the interplay between colours. She selects those designs based upon how colours relate to one another and the magic that results when they come together to create a unique texture and appearance.

Yumnaa Firfirey

Yumnaa (centre) with role models.

Empowering Women through Ethical Production

As alluded to above, one of the goals of Yumnaa and Bodhisattva is to produce clothes through sustainable production methods. When clothes are fabricated to meet seasonal trends, they are tossed aside within a year and more are produced to meet the next season or year’s trend. This results in immense waste and low wages.

Yumnaa believes in empowering women, who fill many of the manufacturing and production jobs in the fashion industry, by sourcing materials and fabrics responsibly. This, of course, presents the brand with a variety of challenges:

“Production has been a significant challenge. I have very high standards in terms of fabric and how my clothing is sewn. It must look almost as good on the inside and it does on the outside and in this world of fast, cheap clothing, it requires a paradigm shift to get people to return to the days of taking pride in the garment that they are responsible for creating as opposed to how many they have churned out in a day. After lots of searching I have managed to find those gems of people to whom quality is of paramount importance.”

Empowering women through fashion is about more than just ethical production and responsible sourcing of materials. It is by sourcing high quality materials from producers (even small, rural production groups) that Bodhisattva contributes to higher wages. A small but major step forward for women and others to achieve economic equality.

Her approach goes beyond simply providing women with greater economic stability. When Bodhisattva choses models to wear new designs, a powerful message is sent to young women around the globe when they see who is modeling fashion from Yumnaa’s design house.

“My models are not just pretty faces. I have chosen women who are role models. Aina Amputu is a lawyer and has started a support group with other young professionals to help struggling NGOs with professional skills that they might not have. Elzanne Geldenhuys is a business women who also mentors others. We look at models and want to look just like them. In this way, I hope that we can see what other women are doing and be inspired to be even more than we thought we could be.”

Yumnaa has used her knowledge of economics and business to launch a fashion line that provides a positive image of empowerment for women around the globe. Fashion may be a multi- billion dollar industry, but it doesn’t have to be a wasteful one to be successful. More importantly, it doesn’t have to take advantage of low-wage workers in order to create beautiful products that are demanded around the globe. Fashion should start with an idea, a concept, and build into something coherent and beautiful in appearance.