ARTICLE22 'buys back the bombs' in creating jewelry in Laos
Maria Bianca Algieri at the 2019/2020 Article22 Bryant Park Holiday Shop
Among the 100-plus kiosks at this year’s Holiday Shops open-air marketplace at Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park, ARTICLE22 stood out, both for its designated ethical accessories/sustainable fashion product and for the story behind it.
After all, the Brooklyn-based supplier is named after Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that every member of society has the right to social security--and is “entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
The post-World War II Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, but ARTICLE22 came into being in long after--and was directly inspired by the spillover into Laos in the 1960s and `70s of the Vietnam War. It was during that was that the U.S. dropped an estimated two million tons of bombs on Laos—nearly a ton for very person.
“I was born in 1983, and went to Laos when the market was crashing back hom--in September, 2008,” says ARTICLE22 founder Elizabeth Suda, who started selling her company’s jewelry and home goods as a sole proprietorship in 2010, incorporating in 2013.
Suda’s signature piece is the Peacebomb bracelet, created from unexploded bombs in Laos—of which there were an estimated 80 million following the war.
“I came up with the idea for the bracelets in February, 2009, after discovering the incredible history of Laos that I never learned in classes,” continues Suda, who had studied history and art history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Oxford University, but had not learned of what has been called America’s “secret war” in Laos.
Then, during a two-year stint in the merchandising department at Coach, she began considering sustainability in the fashion industry.
“I realized that it was one of the world’s highest-polluting industries, where people would spend so much to look good, but without knowing how damaging that the things they were buying were, not only to the environment, but to the people who were making the product. So I researched natural dyes, and that led me to Laos, where there was a rich, living culture of using natural dyes and hand-loom weaving.”
She packed her bags for Laos and “hit the ground running,” first in the capital city of Vientiane—located near the border with Thailand, which is just south.
“I had no job or real connection to what I wanted to do, but I had a feeling before I went that some of the answers on how to become more sustainable were not in modern innovation but in the past, and when I got to Laos I saw my hypothesis was actually true: There were local traditions there, that were still being practiced by people we often categorize as less educated and poor, but are actually quite rich in other ways.”
Suda introduced herself to local women’s handcraft businesses and organizations, and was warmly received.
“There was a woman who was essentially a social entrepreneur—before that term existed—and a community of women weavers making products sold to tourists and the European market,” she says. “I was taken in, and saw what international trade looks like—and the techniques employed in making beautiful materials.”
But it took a few months for her to make the connection with the Vietnam War.
“Vientiane wasn’t a target and was not so affected by the war—not the way it was in parts of the North, which were dumping grounds for bombs,” says Suda, noting that while it’s only a 25-minute plane ride to get to the North, it’s nine hours by car. When she did go there eventually as a consultant for a non-governmental organization, she found “an incredible mix of people there,” from mine-clearing organizations to military searching for MIAs and rural villagers working on textile projects.
She founded ARTICLE22 after meeting artisans in a village who were melting American bombs into handcrafted aluminum spoons.
“They were incredibly resourceful and innovative, and the ultimate problem-solvers,” says Suda. “They found a way of repurposing devastating material in building their livelihoods. And since they ate noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they were making practical items. They created a product that the local market demanded.”
ARTICLE22's story of "buying back the bombs"
A portion of ARTICLE22’s Peacebomb bracelet sales goes to helping clear unexploded bombs and scrap metal from detonated ones, “so it’s a true story of ‘buying back the bombs’ and upcycling things that are so negative and making them into something positive,” notes Suda, whose company offers other items like the bracelets. These notably included the Story Bomb Necklace (a bomb-shaped pendant dangling from a chain, inscribed with “PEACEBOMB—DROPPED + MADE IN LAOS”), accompanied on ARTICLE22’s website with the notation that sales of the necklaces help “support traditional Laotian artisan livelihoods, village development, community endeavors and further de-mining efforts.”
But the company has also teamed with celebrity designers like artist and fashion muse Beatrix Ost, actress Oliva Wilde and model Angela Lindvall, as well as Massive Attack co-founder Robert del Naja, who has created with Article22 and in conjunction with U.K. charity Legacy of War Foundation, the Karmacoma Rectangle Necklace.
“We work with collaborators we identify with, sharing their messages and work with our audience,” says Suda, adding that ARTICLE22 articles have also been worn by the likes of Emma Watson, who insisted on only sustainable fashion during her Beauty and the Beast press tour, and was photographed wearing ARTICLE22 Laos Dome Earrings.
“She’s been really valuable in spreading the word because her platform is so large,” says Suda. But she notes that her product really works for everybody, as evidenced by sales at Bryant Park and other holiday markets in Manhattan at Union Square and Columbus Circle.
“They give us the opportunity to meet and talk with customers face-to-face—which we can’t do online,” she says of the kiosks, “and people are very touched personally by the jewelry on so many different levels, irrespective of date of birth: Both young and old are attracted to the jewelry’s transformation of negative to positive. It’s not some trite symbol, but pieces of history--and they provide a degree of optimism in those who wear them.”
Indeed, ARTICLE22 product represents “circular fashion in the most clean sense,” Suda concludes.
“It’s something made out of waste product that isn’t biodegradable, that is melted back down and made into something else—that doesn’t end up in a garbage dump, or the ocean. And it completes the circle by giving back to the communities.”