The Genteel
November 24, 2020


Production underway at Rebibbia Prison. Source:;

Italian fashion label Sigillo (Seal) has been making headlines for commercialising women's prison workshops in Italy. In cooperation with the Italian justice ministry, the initiative unites prison workshops across the country so that inmates can use the skills they have learnt to create commercial products under the Sigillo label.

Similar projects, such as those led by the London College of Fashion; German label, Haeftling; and Filipino designer Puey Quiñones, are also using fashion as a tool to help inmates feel connected to the outside world and hone skills that can eventually ease their transition back into society.

Sigillo was launched in conjunction with Ora d'Aria Lab - a cooperative that promotes social work inside prisons and runs the Rebibbia Prison workshop in Rome. As president and chief executive of the cooperative, Daniela Arronenzi has been involved with women in Rebibbia since 2008, when inmates first produced a line of bags commissioned by the municipality of Rome. When approached to take part in Sigillo, Arronenzi saw an opportunity for the women to get a glimpse into the business side of the fashion industry and have their goods distributed to a wider market.

An inmate at Bilibid prison dressing a model.

The handbags produced by the women in Rebibbia, which are made from recycled PVC banners, have few upfront costs and retail for up to 40 euros (US$52). Consequently, inmates can make up to 600 euros (US$775) a month working part-time. 

Aside from being backed by a fashion industry big name, Silvia Venturini Fendi (heiress of the Fendi label, now owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH), the project also received funding of 400,000 euros (US$520,000) from the justice ministry and an equal sum from charities.

Although such figures seem miraculous given the country's current economic condition, for a penal system that Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri described as, "not worthy of a civilized country," it may be considered a small contribution to a much greater problem.

Within a prison culture that is often male-oriented, introducing fashion training specifically to women offers a sense of empowerment and creative expression. "Our fashion education in prison projects form part of the prison's commitment to rehabilitation and enable women to make a genuine transformational change in the future that will allow them to build a life away from crime," explains Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion (LCF) and Professor of Art and Design Education.

Corner helped establish LCF's Centre for Sustainable Fashion in an effort to encourage students to think of fashion beyond the ivory towers and engage with the rest of society. "Through our projects women have explored their own sense of identity, what fashion and image can mean and how their own choices about how they portray themselves and how they consequently behave are within their own spheres of control."

In 2011, a group of first year students and tutors from LCF ran an outreach program in conjunction with the organisation Women in Prison (WIP) to work with inmates detained at Send Women's Prison, in Woking, that continues to this day. What began as a design project has now evolved into a collaborative publication called, The Beauty's Inside, the second issue of which will be released this summer. The publication features content relevant to and inspired by the women inmate readership and engages them in the creative process.

"The only sensible way to reduce crime is to switch the emphasis in courts from punishing past events to influencing future events," stated the late-Chris Tchaikovsky, founder of WIP and a "determined campaigner who put women's plight in prison on the political agenda."

The workshops and collaborative process can have a large impact on the daily life experience for those who will remain in prison for the long-term and can also teach women who will soon be released valuable skills that can allow them to work from home.

Corner explains to The Genteel, "For some women, our projects offer a genuine opportunity to develop their skills and to focus on a future career in fashion. It can be a vehicle for women to explore their talents and to express themselves through creative and artistic work. The women themselves have commented that the encouragement they get from receiving feedback from people outside the prison is invaluable."

Haeftling espresso beans.
Source: prisonphotography.

While inmates are the focus of the program, the experience is also life-changing for others involved. Students who participated were struck by the women's high level of resourcefulness and began to think of new ways they might be able transform routinely discarded materials into their own future designs.

German brand Haeftling (translated to "detainee") has also been heavily influenced by observations of jail life. What started in 2003 as an advertising agency's attempt to bring prison garb to the street, has now grown into a full-scale retail model. Haeftling's first shop opened in Berlin in 2008 and the line now includes house wear, kitchen items and accessories.

Many of the company's designs are produced and inspired by prisoners. The men's collection features striped shirts, gray hoodies and dark brown jackets. The women's collection is made up of similarly harsh materials and bland colours, with miniskirts made of coarse denim and sweaters featuring hidden pockets. A t-shirt designed by inmates in Texas features prints of voluptuous women, such as those that are popular in tattoos. The company now even sells espresso beans roasted by inmates.

Although some of the clothing is also designed and produced outside prison walls in India and Poland, three to five per cent of Haeftling's profits go back to organisations that campaign internationally to oppose the death penalty, uphold the rights of political prisoners or to improve prison conditions.

Filipino fashion designer, Puey Quiñones, has taken a smaller scale approach to improving the prison environment. For six years, he has led workshops with a select group of mostly gay male prisoners who have become like family to him.

The 2012 documentary, The World's Most Fashionable Prison, followed the young designer's weekly visits to the Philippines' largest maximum-security facility, the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City. Home to over 12,000 inmates convicted for some of the most vicious crimes, Quiñones has taught them to cut and sew, never asking about their past or judging, simply engaging in the creative process with those who are not normally given an outlet to do so.

At the end of the day we all need reality check. We all need to realise that there are people suffering inside and out of prison: suffering from injustice, poverty and inequality. Our society needs to understand the roots of why there are criminals, hungry people, and injustice....

Quiñones describes his role:

"I think I become the instrument of the word 'reality.' Because in fashion people sometimes think that it's just all glamour, parties and high fashion. But it's not. At the end of the day we all need reality check. We all need to realise that there are people suffering inside and out of prison: suffering from injustice, poverty and inequality. Our society needs to understand the roots of why there are criminals, hungry people, and injustice... We need to have a deeper understanding. Each and every one of us has his/her story that I think we need to pay attention and listen to. People make mistakes because they lack love, guidance, attention and understanding. That's why I can say that love is the reason why I am doing this, helping the inmates by giving them hope and chance to feel loved and love again."

For a designer who himself faced much public contempt in February 2011 for selling a men's wedding jacket that featured his own tag as well as that of the original designer, Quiñones appreciates that the inmates don't pass judgment or ask many personal questions. "The feeling of belonging and acceptance is the best reward," he states. "Giving them hope and a chance."

For the past three years, Quiñones has worked with the inmates to produce "Project Bilibid Runway," a fashion show that takes place in the heart of the prison. Quiñones' model friends volunteer to don the inmates' designs, giving inmates an opportunity to show a side of themselves they don't usually have the opportunity to share.

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) founded the Koestler Trust in 1962 with a similar motive: to showcase "creative work in the fields of literature, the arts or sciences by those physically confined." The annual competition receives over 7,000 entries each year, one in four receives a cash prize, and over 14,000 people attend the final exhibition held in the UK.

After being imprisoned for political motives during the Spanish Civil War, Koestler explained, "Being in prison leaves its imprint on you for the rest of your life… This trauma can turn you into a neurotic, but it can also act as a stimulant with positive effects. The prisoner's worst enemy is boredom, depression, the slow death of thought."

While fashion in prisons takes on many forms, one thing is certain: offering those behind bars a creative outlet can drastically change their experience. Inmates learn new ways of negotiating, interacting and mitigating, which will likely transition with them into the world beyond bars. Such programs are proof of the fashion industry's ability to positively transform lives within an often-overlooked sector of society.



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