Refugees fashion better lives with haute couture

The Turkish kebab shops and halal butchers on Lure's main street are evidence of the high number of immigrants in this region, attracted by the area's manufacturing plants and by the town's center for refugees.

But female immigrants who settle in Lure - and elsewhere in France - find that it's difficult for them to find jobs to support themselves and their families.

Carmen Colle, a social worker who daily worked with immigrants, was familiar with the problem. But it really hit home, she says, when a friend, a political refugee, wasn't able to find work "because she couldn't speak the language and she didn't know how to sell herself."

In thinking about what she could do to help, Mrs. Colle came up with the idea of starting a business that would employ foreign-born women.

With no previous experience, she founded World Tricot, a knitwear factory. It is now one of only three knitwear manufacturers in France skilled enough to produce haute couture. Its clients include Hermès, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Christian Lacroix. And the business now has female-staffed branches in Bosnia and Belarus. Siberia may be next.

But why a knitting factory? The idea came from a friend of Colle's, a professional clothes buyer, who complained about the lack of interesting sweaters.

With a $3,500 check from a local charity, Colle bought her first knitting machine and rented an apartment for the business.

During the first year, she and her staff of twohad to learn everything from scratch. She attended a management course in Paris, read hundreds of fashion magazines, and taught herself and her staff to use the knitting machines, sew, and market the goods. Initially, most of her sales were to community members, and she raised additional money through galas and bake sales. She also contacted fashion houses and slowly built up a clientele.

Colle recalls that one of the company's first big orders was for sweaters. Halfway through production, she realized that neither she nor her staff knew how to make sleeves. Still, determined to complete the sale, she delivered the goods as planned, presenting sleeveless sweaters to the client. Fortunately, he thought they were supposed to be vests and bought the lot.

Xom Phommavong, a political refugee from Laos, was the company's first employee. "When I arrived in France, I looked and looked and looked [for a job]," she recalls. She searched for three years before finding Colle.

"I don't know what would have happened without her," Mrs. Phommavong says.

In France, unemployment rates for young immigrant women are more than four times the national average. "It is really not good to be a young foreign woman in the job market in France today," concludes a report from the Observatoire des Inégalités, an independent think tank that focuses on social inequality in France. Lack of education, language barriers, social background, and discrimination are factors that contribute to the problem.

The women at World Tricot average about $12 an hour (25 percent above France's minimum wage and above the national average worker's wage), a salary that increases with experience.

"For the women who work there, this is a real job, it's not just a way to help them integrate into society," says Elisabeth Laville, founder of Utopies, a French consulting company for sustainable business strategies. "In terms of self-confidence, this is extremely important.

"Generally with this sort of social project, people are hired for doing unskilled work and making second-rate products," she adds. "The key to World Tricot's success is that Carmen did exactly the opposite. She decided to take people without training and taught them to make high-quality goods. This gives them value and precious new skills."

But Colle has found that it's not always easy to balance a budget while also providing a social service. At times she has had to make some difficult choices about finances and priorities. Occasionally she has had to fire inefficient workers. "Work is a contract between two people, and if someone doesn't honor the contract, then you have to take measures," she says. "That was very difficult for me."

Colle has held fast to her goal of helping immigrant women, and even expanded her reach. During the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s, refugees from Kosovo came to work for World Tricot. When they decided to return home after the war ended, she promised to help the women piece their lives back together. So she packed her bags with wool, knittingneedles, and threadand went to Bosnia, looking for her former employees. She brought with her clothing orders from Thierry Mugler and Christian Lacroix.

Colle remembers waiting 14 hours at the border between Macedonia and Serbia, with her precious bags piled high in a wheelbarrow. "I was at the checkpoint with my passport, and I just thought, 'What would Mr. Lacroix say if he knew,' " she says with a smile. "I arrived in the village in the middle of the night.... Slowly people heard about the project, and then the women started coming. We couldn't communicate, but there was such momentum."

For eight months, Colle spent 15 days every month in war-torn Kosovo, working with the women on the floor of one of the few houses still standing. Sometimes the temperatures fell to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Colle paid the women the same wages they had been earning in France, which enabled them to repair the roofs of their houses, buy seeds for vegetables, and start rebuilding their lives.

World Tricot now has a subsidiary in Belarus, and Colle hopes to expand to Siberia, where the tradition of hand weaving is still very much alive.

She is also developing her own brand of ready-to-wear and haute couture - Angèle Batiste, named after her parents.

"Through Angèle Batiste, I want to say that women exist and that their work must be respected," she says. "It's through work that they can have access to healthcare and education and a decent life.

"That's what fair trade is," Colle adds, "and I want to say that it is possible to have another conception of business and trade. And not through pretending, but by really doing it."

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