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Caterina Occhio: Fashion in Times of ISIS

By Sofia Celeste 09 December 2015

MILAN, ITALY - As luxury analysts ponder the negative impact of terror on the fashion world, it remains to be seen, not only how global attacks will affect sales, but also the burgeoning fashion talent in the Middle East and Africa.

For some, however, backing down in the face of terror isn't an option. One such brand is SeeMe, the fair trade jewelry label founded by Caterina Occhio that employs and protects female victims of abuse in countries like Turkey and Tunisia.

Before stepping into fashion in 2012, Occhio, a former development aid management specialist for the European Commission, spent about 16 years traveling in danger zones to help abused women in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Today, SeeMe is widely known for its silver and gold plated hearts and its artisans' creations have been propelled onto the runway through collaborations with Karl Lagerfeld, Missoni and Tommy Hilfiger.

FAIRPLAY caught up with Occhio in Milan.

How has ISIS-backed terrorism affected the women who work for See Me?

Isis represents a small, infinitely small minority of Muslim people. All of our staff, men and women, feel offended by the way they interpreted a religion, which salutes the world with "Aleykum selam" meaning ‘May peace be with you.’

How has it affected your production?

It has not really effected our production lines, but rather the product development section of it. Not everyone feels safe and protected enough to join us in Tunisia and Lebanon, to work with our artists to develop new prototypes. We perfectly understand that, so instead, Riahd, one of our master artisans traveled to Amsterdam in November. This was the very first time he traveled outside Tunisia. He is the main trainer of our girls and an experienced master goldsmith. He worked with me and our designers Liam Maher, Peter Bedner and Ylenia Swierk on the new women’s and men’s collection for A/W 2016

Will you continue to work in these countries despite the dangers? Why?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

It is essential to show all of the wonderful and positive energy and amazing things happening in the daily life of people in the Middle East.

As I said, extremists belonging to ISIS or other extremists groups, are an infinitely small minority. They do not represent the incredible positive energy and motivation the moderate muslim people display in their everyday life.

I myself with the president of Amal association (our NGO partner in Tunisia) were in Bardo museum area last March when the terror attack happened. But we shall continue working there.

Surrendering to terror is the real defeat. Allowing violence to cover the beauty, the strength, the culture of the Middle Eastern people is the real surrender. We work in Tunisia and Lebanon, and we shall keep on working there. Barbarians. Will. Not. Win.

What precautions will you take?

Nowadays, the attacks are truly random. If you think about it, in Tunisia the first two attacks in 2015 were targeting tourists. Last one, a few days ago, targeted a bus filled with presidential police and normal Tunisian people. The same happened in Beirut, where the last two consequential terror attacks were against civilians in a market. In Paris instead, the attacks were in very normal residential areas.

What I am trying to say is that, it could happen everywhere. In every moment of the day. No effective precaution could possibly be taken. What we strive to keep instead of precautions, is a constant positive and optimistic attitude. A very strong weapon.

How is fashion production positioned in the Middle East? You said you are one of the few?

Unfortunately, many of the EU companies regularly outsourcing to the Middle East in the past, have been relocating their production to other more safe and stable places in the world.

These bigger companies relocating production means a destruction of employment, creating more poverty, and this far too often translates into ignorance and anger, the perfect seeds for extremism.

My message to them is that the only effective way to prevent attacks like the one in Paris, is to prevent a few people from terrifying us and rob us of the freedom we all created for ourselves in this part of the world. The only effective way is to provide for real social and economic development of moderate Islam.

Instead, moderate Muslim countries and struggling democracies like Tunisia should be supported with effective economic development to combat and prevent the seeds of hate.

How does craftsmanship in the countries where you work differ from the rest of the world?

Each and every country in the world has an immense craftsmanship heritage. We at SeeMe want to convey and translate their ancestral skills into beautiful products with a story to tell. The model we are creating is based on few pillars: use ancient local craftsmanship, make beautiful products and make sure the people who make them have a second chance in life and a fair wage: the transfer of heritage into effective social and economic development.

Any individual stories of lives you have improved?

A woman -- we will call her "S" -- told me last time we met in Tunisia that her dream was to become like me. I was obviously flattered but what she meant had little to do with me. What she really wanted was to become a woman that can take independent decisions about her future. A woman that is able to chose, to chose for herself and her children.

I told her that what my dream was that many more girls we will hire at SeeMe, will see her and want to become like her instead. She looked at me with big eyes and after few minutes of silent replied: I will. I want to be the girl other girls look to at as an example to follow.

You spoke of resilience. How has the resilience of the women who craft your hearts changed or affected your life?

They showed me what it means to be a silent hero. A daily silent hero, one of the many who cross our path without getting much notice. They don't have millions of followers, they have no audience to target. They only have a daily battle to win. A silent battle to fight with dignity and courage.

Resilience. Silent heroes. Look around, you’ll see them everywhere. Look at yourself, you are or may become one winning your daily struggles...

Join the #heartmovement and help replace violence with love.

 

 



Sofia Celeste
FAIRPLAY Editor-in-Chief

When she is not hunting down the latest in tech and fashion, Sofia Celeste is scouting artisan talent for her online magazine bacoluxury.com. Born in the US and raised on the Pacific Island of Guam, she went on to write for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. Her work is now regularly published in top fashion publications NOWFASHION and WWD.

MILAN, ITALY - As luxury analysts ponder the negative impact of terror on the fashion world, it remains to be seen, not only how global attacks will affect sales, but also the burgeoning fashion talent in the Middle East and Africa.

For some, however, backing down in the face of terror isn't an option. One such brand is SeeMe, the fair trade jewelry label founded by Caterina Occhio that employs and protects female victims of abuse in countries like Turkey and Tunisia.

Before stepping into fashion in 2012, Occhio, a former development aid management specialist for the European Commission, spent about 16 years traveling in danger zones to help abused women in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Today, SeeMe is widely known for its silver and gold plated hearts and its artisans' creations have been propelled onto the runway through collaborations with Karl Lagerfeld, Missoni and Tommy Hilfiger.

FAIRPLAY caught up with Occhio in Milan.

How has ISIS-backed terrorism affected the women who work for See Me?

Isis represents a small, infinitely small minority of Muslim people. All of our staff, men and women, feel offended by the way they interpreted a religion, which salutes the world with "Aleykum selam" meaning ‘May peace be with you.’

How has it affected your production?

It has not really effected our production lines, but rather the product development section of it. Not everyone feels safe and protected enough to join us in Tunisia and Lebanon, to work with our artists to develop new prototypes. We perfectly understand that, so instead, Riahd, one of our master artisans traveled to Amsterdam in November. This was the very first time he traveled outside Tunisia. He is the main trainer of our girls and an experienced master goldsmith. He worked with me and our designers Liam Maher, Peter Bedner and Ylenia Swierk on the new women’s and men’s collection for A/W 2016

Will you continue to work in these countries despite the dangers? Why?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

It is essential to show all of the wonderful and positive energy and amazing things happening in the daily life of people in the Middle East.

As I said, extremists belonging to ISIS or other extremists groups, are an infinitely small minority. They do not represent the incredible positive energy and motivation the moderate muslim people display in their everyday life.

I myself with the president of Amal association (our NGO partner in Tunisia) were in Bardo museum area last March when the terror attack happened. But we shall continue working there.

Surrendering to terror is the real defeat. Allowing violence to cover the beauty, the strength, the culture of the Middle Eastern people is the real surrender. We work in Tunisia and Lebanon, and we shall keep on working there. Barbarians. Will. Not. Win.

What precautions will you take?

Nowadays, the attacks are truly random. If you think about it, in Tunisia the first two attacks in 2015 were targeting tourists. Last one, a few days ago, targeted a bus filled with presidential police and normal Tunisian people. The same happened in Beirut, where the last two consequential terror attacks were against civilians in a market. In Paris instead, the attacks were in very normal residential areas.

What I am trying to say is that, it could happen everywhere. In every moment of the day. No effective precaution could possibly be taken. What we strive to keep instead of precautions, is a constant positive and optimistic attitude. A very strong weapon.

How is fashion production positioned in the Middle East? You said you are one of the few?

Unfortunately, many of the EU companies regularly outsourcing to the Middle East in the past, have been relocating their production to other more safe and stable places in the world.

These bigger companies relocating production means a destruction of employment, creating more poverty, and this far too often translates into ignorance and anger, the perfect seeds for extremism.

My message to them is that the only effective way to prevent attacks like the one in Paris, is to prevent a few people from terrifying us and rob us of the freedom we all created for ourselves in this part of the world. The only effective way is to provide for real social and economic development of moderate Islam.

Instead, moderate Muslim countries and struggling democracies like Tunisia should be supported with effective economic development to combat and prevent the seeds of hate.

How does craftsmanship in the countries where you work differ from the rest of the world?

Each and every country in the world has an immense craftsmanship heritage. We at SeeMe want to convey and translate their ancestral skills into beautiful products with a story to tell. The model we are creating is based on few pillars: use ancient local craftsmanship, make beautiful products and make sure the people who make them have a second chance in life and a fair wage: the transfer of heritage into effective social and economic development.

Any individual stories of lives you have improved?

A woman -- we will call her "S" -- told me last time we met in Tunisia that her dream was to become like me. I was obviously flattered but what she meant had little to do with me. What she really wanted was to become a woman that can take independent decisions about her future. A woman that is able to chose, to chose for herself and her children.

I told her that what my dream was that many more girls we will hire at SeeMe, will see her and want to become like her instead. She looked at me with big eyes and after few minutes of silent replied: I will. I want to be the girl other girls look to at as an example to follow.

You spoke of resilience. How has the resilience of the women who craft your hearts changed or affected your life?

They showed me what it means to be a silent hero. A daily silent hero, one of the many who cross our path without getting much notice. They don't have millions of followers, they have no audience to target. They only have a daily battle to win. A silent battle to fight with dignity and courage.

Resilience. Silent heroes. Look around, you’ll see them everywhere. Look at yourself, you are or may become one winning your daily struggles...

Join the #heartmovement and help replace violence with love.

 

 



Sofia Celeste
FAIRPLAY Editor-in-Chief

When she is not hunting down the latest in tech and fashion, Sofia Celeste is scouting artisan talent for her online magazine bacoluxury.com. Born in the US and raised on the Pacific Island of Guam, she went on to write for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. Her work is now regularly published in top fashion publications NOWFASHION and WWD.

Photo: SeeMee

Photo: SeeMee

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