The Township Story
What began as a conversation with women in the townships around Cape Town has become a unique social enterprise in the fashion industry. In 1987 Nicole-Marie Iresch, an Algerian-born executive with Air France, traveled from Paris to Cape Town on holiday. While exploring the city she was approached by a group of women who asked her for employment. They had basic sewing skills but could not find the work they needed to support their families. Nicole-Marie felt an instant bond with the women and visited them in their homes in the township of Khayelitsha. More than twenty years later, she still remembers clearly:
“When I was first invited to the township of Khayelitsha, during the final years of apartheid, I entered another world and got to know people that changed my life completely. Penetrating beyond the mass of shacks, I got to know the homes, the lives and the dreams of the women I met. I discovered a beauty, a style, and a spirit I have never encountered before. Ever since my first visit to Khayelitsha, I nursed a desire to express and translate the irrepressible urge to create beauty that I discovered there: to shine a light on the originality and style of the township women and their homes, to take the colors, textures and vibe and show them to the rest of the world.”
It was during that first encounter that Nicole-Marie recognized the energy and potential of township women, and felt compelled to offer them meaningful opportunities that would convey their spirit and creativity to the outside world. She acted as an advisor to the women and supported them in establishing their own sewing cooperative. The women gave Nicole-Marie’s life real purpose. In 1997 she permanently relocated to South Africa and founded Township®, an organization providing women with the training and business skills required to create independent sewing cooperatives. In order to generate sufficient income, the women began to produce reusable bags from non-GM cotton. With the support of major clients like Pick ’n Pay and the hard work of the women, Township ® secured large contracts and was able to facilitate the founding of an additional 6 cooperatives. All 5 of the cooperatives were registered as independent businesses with a commitment to fair trade principles and Township® itself was certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation.
Township Patterns CC and ASB Non-Profit Organisation, a Section 21 company, registered as Afrique du Sud, Bidonvilles (ASB), was set up by Nicole-Marie Iresch in the beginning of 1997 to create and build areas of employment for women in township communities. In 2003, her partner Christophe Labesse joined her in a full-time capacity as the finance director of ASB and general manager of Township Patterns. Both organisations were set up as a result of Nicole-Marie’s personal relationship with a group of women and the first ever sewing co-operative of women in the townships, and has since grown into an empowering social enterprise that supports around 60 women.
Zolani promotes Township Patterns – Flagship store opens