Karen Walker's latest campaign. Picture: Supplied

As fashion consumers, we often buy items without thinking about the processes by which they are made, or the people who work behind the scenes to create the end product.

It is invariably the "celebrity designer" who takes a bow at the end of the runway but as anyone who works in the fashion industry knows, there are many more hands at work putting a collection together.

The idea of acknowledging some of those people was integral to New Zealand designer Karen Walker's latest eyewear collection, Visible, for which she teamed up with United Nations organisation Ethical Fashion Initiative.

The result was a collaboration with artisans and craftspeople in rural parts of Kenya, who produced the screen-printed and, in some cases, hand-embellished pouches that are sold with Walker's latest selection of typically quirky specs.

But Walker went one step further, engaging fellow Kiwi Derek Henderson to photograph the artisans for the subsequent advertising campaign. The results - which quite literally make the faces behind the scenes more "visible" - are striking.

"We photographed machinists, cutters, beaders, production members and metal workers, as well as members of the Maasai group who created the more elaborate beading work," Walker explains.

"None of them were professional models."

The Ethical Fashion Initiative encourages textile artisans in impoverished countries to make sustainable livings from their collaborations with designers. It means that textile artists, beaders and so on can increase their skills, contribute to their community, and enter the fashion chain in a fair way, producing directly for brands that distribute the products worldwide.

"It gives the women and men in these local communities a regular wage and the means to improve their living conditions for their families," Walker explains.

"The idea is to promote sustainable business over dependency on aid."

Collaborations between designers and artisans in developing countries are by no means new. But more and more designers are recognising that it's not enough to simply reference the craft techniques honed over centuries throughout Asia, Africa, and India.

For many brands, it has become an economic - and moral - imperative to give back to the communities whose work has inspired them. (Other labels who work in this vein include Edun and Maiyet).

Walker's first collaboration with the EFI was in 2012 and the success of that project - a bag that was sold exclusively at Myer - was such a success that the designer approached it again.

"This time, we wanted to do something more intimate, which is where the idea for the photographic campaign came from," Walker explains.

"We wanted to give a glimpse into the world that this work was coming from."

Designer sunglass ranges are all the rage now but Walker's sunnies were some of the first to acquire an almost cult-like appeal. Each collection has that unique X-factor and her shades regularly sell out at some of the world's coolest boutiques. But Walker says the eyewear range was never conceptualised as a throwaway afterthought to the main fashion line.

"Any new projects we take on, we're looking at the big picture," she says.

"This was never going to be about just an extension of the clothing line. This was always going to be about a great product and great ideas that would cut a new path in the market."

The designer agrees that it is important for fashion brands to aspire to ethical standards and environmentally friendly production methods.

"When you're a brand that carries a certain amount of influence in the industry it's important that you use it in a way that has a positive impact," she says.

The West Australian

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