Creating a Fashion Laboratory to Empower Female Inmates

2017

Professors at Pearl Academy are pushing back against the ways that fashion and design are commonly categorized. They don’t want their students to see only the traditional definitions and iterations of the world of fashion; they want students to know that they could be change agents.

“In most places in the world, fashion is misunderstood,” said Antonio Mauricio Grioli, Area Head, School of Fashion, Styling, and Textiles at Pearl Academy. “We want students to know that it could be a way to empower people.” Along with Associate Professor Bela Gupta and Vice President of Corporate and Business Relations Dr. Bhavna Chadha, Grioli helped to set up a partnership with a local jail to create a fashion laboratory for female inmates.

The Pearl Academy Fashion Laboratory at Tihar Jail in Delhi is the first initiative of its type in India. Tihar is the largest prison complex in India and has more than 550 female inmates at one time. Where others have seen hopelessness, the team from Pearl saw opportunity. Students and faculty from Pearl had been doing small-scale projects at Tihar for a number of years, but Grioli, Chadha, and Gupta believed a much larger initiative was possible.

With the support of Pearl Academy, Tihar Jail, and various community partners, they set up the Pearl Academy Fashion Laboratory at the prison with the goal of empowering female inmates and training them in skills that will serve them long after their time at the jail. The laboratory is a state-of-the-art facility with equipment for pattern-making, sewing, and construction of garments. It opened in February 2017, but had begun intakes of inmates to receive training and certifications in late 2016. There will be 45-day capsules conducted throughout the year that train women in a variety of areas, all offering the potential of obtaining a certificate from Pearl when they complete the capsules.

Students have been an integral part of the Fashion Laboratory since the beginning. Even before it launched, they painted murals, trained women in the prison, and built relationships that have led to a smooth launch of the initiative. The faculty members from Pearl know that the involvement of students must be central to the project, and that it is a valuable part of their Pearl experience.

“We are proving that fashion and design can have a large social impact,” Dr. Bhavna Chadha said. Students are encouraged to co-design everything with the inmates involved in the capsules. This method benefits both parties, as students learn how to collaborate and lead teams, and the women in training benefit from the knowledge and skill of the Pearl students.

As is the case in most prison systems worldwide, many of the inmates grew up in poverty, and will most likely return to impoverished, disadvantaged environments once they finish their sentences. The team at the Fashion Laboratory hopes that through the training and skill development the laboratory provides, these women will have new tools to lift themselves out of poverty and seek out better futures once they leave Tihar. Already, the project is opening up the minds of Pearl students who never expected to be working alongside inmates in their country’s largest prison. As the paradigm is challenged, the team at Pearl Academy knows that new possibilities will take root.