In November, the Espero Association opened a couture workshop in Antony, south of Paris. The organization aims to offer a group of uniquely talented refugees their first professional experience in France. Major French brands have already offered fabric remnants, while others are considering collaborations to produce pieces 100% made in France.
"They have the talent, experience and motivation. All they needed was an outstretched hand." Nine refugees – six Afghans, two Tibetans and one Moroccan – were the first tailors hired by the Espero Association for the launch of the "Threads of the Future" project, a philanthropic couture workshop employing only refugees in Antony in the southern suburbs of Paris.
"These are people who have never worked in France, even though they have incredible skills, skills that have never been valued here, even by the refugees themselves, who didn't have the nerve," said Maya Persaud, who founded Espero and is at the helm of this new sewing workshop nestled in an 18,000-square-meter shed. Two weeks after opening, the equipment is still somewhat spartan: three new sewing machines, a few tables with pieces of fabric donated by leading French couturiers, and a few lights.
Stationed behind the central desk, a sharp-eyed Thierry doesn't let anything slip: "Your hem is too thick. We said one centimeter maximum, we want French refinement," he explained to one of the refugees, who hung on his words. The Parisian fashion designer was recruited by Espero to supervise and coach the tailors who, for the moment, are training so they will be ready when their first customer places an order.
"I am impressed by their technique. Some are able to assemble a shirt in two minutes, others are true experts in cutting... everyone has their strengths," Thierry said. "My goal is for them to be operational at every workstation so that they understand how to function well as a team, so that the production line runs smoothly and harmoniously."
'This job, in France, is a dream for me'
That’s an aspect of the job that Afshari has mastered. This young Afghan who arrived in France in 2017 was a career couturier and loved his job. After his departure from Afghanistan, he crossed through Iran, Turkey and landed in Denmark, where his request for protection was rejected. At risk of being deported to Afghanistan, he tried his luck in France, where he was granted refugee status.
"I had been through so much that I didn't want to do anything difficult. At first I only did temporary work, odd jobs in the building industry, ironing... But it wasn't my profession," he said. He sent out his CV for positions as a couturier many times. There was no response until he came across Espero. "Today I'm really happy, all I want is to keep this job and work even harder."
Haider's life has also changed through the sewing workshop, where he is in charge of integration. His role is to liaise with the dressmakers and support them professionally and administratively. "I love the contact, it's my first job here and the first time that I can help people who have gone through difficult journeys similar to mine," the Afghan, who has been a refugee in France for a year, explained in very good French.
"Before, I was a project manager. I was warned that there was little chance I would be able to get a skilled job in Europe. So this job in France is a dream come true for me and it's so rewarding to be able to help people with experience and talent."
More than just a first job, it is a kind of "dignity" that these refugees rediscover, said Persaud, who is already looking to expand. Although for the moment the dressmakers only work twice a week for five hours at minimum wage rates, the long-term goal is to increase their hours and eventually convert the workshop into a real social enterprise.
"At the moment, they are being hired as part of the 'First Hours Program,' a project being tested in Paris and the Hauts-de-Seine region to give them their first work experience in France. They are then directed to a job, they do French language courses and are assisted by social workers over a period of 18 months. We hope that the studio will be successful enough to enable them to exit the integration system and keep their jobs," she added.
A former stylist and collection director for several major brands, Marie Chiapponi may well be among the workshop's first clients. In search of meaning, tired of working only with Asia to produce clothing in astronomical quantities, the young woman left the fashion world a few months ago. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, she launched a brand of face mask called "Born in France" with the idea of developing products designed and made entirely in the country.
"I want to go back to simple things, recycled materials where the human aspect is at the heart. Hence the desire to work with refugees here," she said. "I'm going to come back by the end of the week with prototypes." The designer sees the project as the revitalization of her products, which will be made with scraps of fabric or with reclaimed materials, but also and above all a rebirth for these designers, whose talent can finally be recognized.