Fair-Trade for the Fair: Microfinance Goes Tres Chic

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When Louis Vuitton hangs a “Made in Africa” charm on a leather tote (modeled by Bono, of course), fashionistas ooh and ahh like the French luggage giant thought of something tres nouvelle. But Euro-centric designers are jumping on this bandwagon late.

Microfinance and nonprofits — two D.C.-wonky words that make our eyes glaze over faster than we can say “Is The Economist really $7 a copy?!” — are helping actually-out-of-Africa artisan crafts hit stores this season.

Boho-chic retailers like Anthropologie are now hawking hand-knitted Rwandan scarves and Moroccan purses sewn from hand-woven rugs. Best of all? Many such products are made by women who’ve turned microfinance loans into profitable small businesses.

Using fashion for empowerment: It’s certainly an upgrade from bra burning.

Last Thursday, microfinance nonprofit Nest and the Embassy of Morocco hosted “Midnight in Marrakesh” at Marrakesh Palace, a swanky 400-person feast to fundraise for female loan recipients who create handcrafted Moroccan goods.

The event featured a souk packed with of braided baskets, chunky necklaces and carpets transformed into leather-and-denim sacks.

Providing interest-free loans and village-to-market importing, Nest helps artisans in nations like India, Morocco and Togo sell accessories that don’t look like a scribbled charitable deduction on a potato sack. These fashion-forward, versatile styles would fare well alongside spring’s 70s-chic, San Fran-inspired collections, where intricate DIY designs dominate.

For a versatile fall-to-spring piece, try the Rachida tote ($60, above), made in Midelt, Morocco.

If you didn’t catch the swanky (and delicious) Moroccan affair, move south of the Sahara with Indego Africa’s 2010 Ibirori Gala, benefiting female artisans of Rwanda. With fair-trade home decor products and the popular Ingenzi Knit Union “A Thousand Hills Cowl” from Anthropologie’s Fall 2010 Knitwear collection, D.C. fashionistas can wear fair-trade designs without having to dress like a middle-aged Irish rockstar.

Josephine Butler Parks Center, 2437 15th St. NW; Friday, 7 p.m.-10 p.m., $55.

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