Clothes With a Cause

DailyWorth

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What happens when the answer to, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” is "To be a fashion designer--and to save the world?"

If you're Treana Peake, you figure out how to do both.

Four years ago Peake, 40, decided to use the profits from her successful Vancouver-based fashion label, Obakki, to fund the Obakki Foundation, which works to bring water, food and education to people in developing countries. One hundred percent of her company's net profits now go into the foundation. To date, it has raised $2.67 million from donors and Obakki Designs--enough to drill 400 wells in South Sudan and build 12 schools in Cameroon, with more to come. 

Daily Worth: Which passion came first for you – fashion or philanthropy?

Treana Peake: I’ve actually been doing philanthropy ever since I was in grade school. I was always coming up with ways to fundraise. I would assume the role of a promoter, and I’d throw a concert or I would write a script and audition kids to join this play, and then I would [give away] the proceeds from the show. 

Where did that passion for philanthropy come from?

I was really drawn to other cultures in different parts of the world and always thought, if there’s a way for me to help, I should. I honestly don’t know where I got that from, but I remember having those feelings at a very young age.

What gave you the notion that you could merge philanthropy with business?

My goal from the beginning in 2005 was to build up this company and then use the money that I made to fund my philanthropic efforts. But I didn’t vocalize that publicly because I didn’t think they would believe me. 

What changed?

I was at this crossroads where people were paying less and less attention to the philanthropic work I was doing. I realized in order to have people hear my story on the philanthropy side, I needed to apply some more creativity to it and give it another bit of a spin. [The fashion] was also a superficial product, and I thought, “I want to give my fashion a purpose.” So it seemed like a natural merge of the two.

If your goal is to do good in the world, why not just donate to an existing organization?

A lot of us write checks for various organizations and, while they’re very worthy organizations and have great reputations and are doing a lot of really good work, you never really know where your money’s going. 

Obakki Designs itself covers all the administrative fees of the foundation so that, if somebody gives $100, $100 actually gets to the project. It was really important to me to do it that way.

Keep reading to find out how she’s measured success.


 

How do you connect customers who buy your clothing with your causes?

There’s a red scarf that we sold, for example, and 100 percent of the proceeds of that red scarf go towards our projects. When we sell 500 of those red scarves, all those people who bought that scarf get connected to that one particular village where we drilled that well. We like to bring all of our campaigns full circle so that even if you’re buying a scarf, you know where your money went.

How do you measure success?

For me, it’s just results. We’ve done over 400 water wells in South Sudan. When we drill a well and I go back a year later and where it used to be dry, cracked earth, they’ve turned it into thriving agricultural villages, that really is a great indicator of success. Not just my success, but the success of the other people that are a part of it.

Growth for me on both sides of the business is about how much more money we can raise on the fashion side, and how many more people we can engage. 

You’re giving money away, but you also need to make money. How does that mind shift work for you?

I go from New York fashion parties to sitting and eating sorghum with an elder in a tree so there’s a definite juxtaposition between the worlds, but the actual behind-the-scenes business part of it, I don’t think is that different. I think they parallel. In order to have success on both sides, you need to be putting in lots of hours and be dedicated and committed and a smart business person. It’s all the same things. 

How is the company doing, and how is the foundation doing? 

We’ve done hundreds of wells and are now working with the United Nations, which has approached us about doing this pilot project in “Conflict Hot Zones” where we go in and drill livestock watering stations and water for people in order to reduce the conflict. We’re receiving national and international recognition on the ground for the work that we’re achieving, so that’s going really well.

On the business side, we’re getting more and more followers and more people buying into it and more people coming into our circle and putting out great collections with a great cause, so yeah, everything’s going good. 

Keep reading to see how her philanthropic work inspired her designs.


How has your philanthropic work inspired your designs?

I’m always inspired by the emotional side of what’s going on. The Spring 2013 collection tells a story of this ancient pastoral society that’s threatened by the modern world. These are people who keep fighting and fighting, and if we can raise money we could have a peaceful solution and hopefully be able to preserve this culture.

I take that concept and I put it into a creative format. I take modern fabrics and silhouettes and layer them over traditional prints to show the contrast between the two realities. We put a bunch of black paint and white paint and scrape it off to show the loss that might be coming. I use strong colors and traditional detailing to pay homage to the strength of the South Sudanese tradition, and then I have all these sheer panels that reflect the dissolving of that.

People don’t want to wear the mission on their sleeve, but I do want the clothing to have another layer in case people want to talk about it.

You have $1,000 leather pants in your collection. How do you determine your price point, and how do you justify that when the people you’re actually helping could never even afford any of these things?

For me, I’m really just using my voice and my talent and turning all of my proceeds into good, so I don’t even think of it that way. However, I do realize there are other people who would like to be a part of what we’re doing, so we’ve started to branch into products that are more affordable. Our red scarf is under $30.

Why South Sudan? Why Africa?

Two years ago, a partner I’ve worked with on other projects called and said he was going to South Sudan. I said, ‘If there’s anything that we can do, then let me know.’ He called me at four in the morning, and said: ‘Water. We need water. Everywhere you walk, it’s literally dry, cracked earth, yet there are flowing water beds under the ground. Treana, all we’ve got to do is a few wells, bring the water to the surface, and these villages will flourish.’ 

We were able to act quickly there. I think sometimes we choose our path, and sometimes our path chooses us. That’s how I feel about Africa.

Interview was condensed and edited.

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