Ni en More
It’s an early summer evening when The Doyennes meet Lise Bjørne Linnert, artist, designer and one of the driving forces behind Ni En More, at the Mexican Embassy in Oslo.
Linnert is perhaps most known for her conceptual art piece Desconocida/Unknown/Ukjent, where the audience contributes to an ever-expanding work of art: each participant embroiders two name tags; one with the name of a murdered woman in Ciudad Juárez, the other label with the word “unknown” in the participants own language – and in that way, memorizing victims of similar crimes globally. Linnert is Norwegian, but due to her work, she has spend a lot of time in Ciudad Juárez, and along with Mexican artist Jane Terrazas and human rights activist Veronica Corchado, she founded the brand Ni En More with a similar aim as her Desconocida/Unknown/Ukjent project: to put a spotlight on the femicide, the systematic violence against and murder of women, that is taking place in Ciudad Juárez and beyond. Ni En More also aims to be a tangible part of the solution by contributing to social change from within the community, by creating a space where women can learn a craft that can provide them with economic independence. Ni En More makes beautiful handcrafted clothing with natural dyes, and after seeing a fashion show and performance showcasing the brand’s pieces, The Doyennes were able to ask Linnert some questions about the brand, which truly is an international project – a collaboration between Norwegian, American and Mexican artists and artisans.
NI EN MORE is a collaboration that stretches across borders, how did it come to be?
- That’s actually a long story, but I’ll try to make it short! It came to be due to my work as an artist. In 2006, I was invited to an exhibition that was dedicated to the women of Juárez, Mexico and their fight for justice and safety. I started Desconocida Unknown, a mass collaboration, embroidering the names of women murdered in Juárez, as a way to raise awareness and protest. The project has travelled all over the world, and because of that, I have travelled back and forth to Juárez a lot as well. In 2016, I went back with all the embroidered nametags – all 7000 of them. Art attracts attention, and that’s great, but I thought; “what if we could do something that actually makes a difference?” So along with the NI EN MORE co-founders, Jane Terrazas and Veronica Corchado, who had all the local knowledge we needed, and Norwegian designer Tine Mollatt, who I collaborated with when it came to design and fabrics, and many more volunteers, this clothing project came to be. Tine donated the design and the fabric we needed, and product development and sewing training was done by Julie L Parisi. Jane and Veronica’s long term devotion to social change in Juárez gave us the trust we needed to reach women from different marginalized areas and invite them to be part of the project.
Why did you choose clothing as the medium for this social innovation project?
- Both Jane and I work with textiles in our art, and with Tine Mollatt, founder of the clothing brand byTiMo, on the team, we had great design to start with. In addition, we wanted to do something that is already done in Juárez, but in an opposite way. Clothing is mass-produced in Juárez, in huge factories known as sweatshops, where workers only earn a few dollars a day, work 12 hours shifts, and have no rights. Our clothes are made slowly, dyed one by one, by hand, with colours made of flowers and food waste – restaurants save avocado stones and peel for us to make dye of, and flower shops save flowers they can’t sell anymore and we pick them up once a week. It’s about recycling, and it attracts attention and engages more people than just those working in our little sewing studio! The process itself is also quite magical – you use something that was going to be thrown away to create something new. That whole process of creating, it’s incredibly important, and it contributes to build personal strength and the feeling of accomplishing something. You don’t need to know how to read or write to become an expert on sewing and dyeing. Making something like this together from scratch also makes everyone on the project equally important, regardless of background.
What are the challenges to running a brand in this way?
- We wanted to reach women in need, and our employees does not have to have much schooling, or any previous training in sewing at all. We teach them the skills they need for this job from scratch. That, combined with trying to keep production at a level that ensures enough sales to survive, is of course a challenge, and we work with women with real problems: the daughter of one of our team members went missing for three days for example, and is now in hiding in a shelter. One of our workers had to flee to another city because of death threats. Still, it’s important to emphasize this: this is not a people that are victims. These women are incredibly strong, have a great sense of solidarity and a willingness to see opportunities, as well as to back each other up – it’s inspiring!
What about Ni En More’s production process contributes to positive change?
- Positive changes happen because of our team members in the studio and their diversity and support of each other. Two of the women here are from the native population in Ciudad Juárez for example, which has been discriminated against for generations and therefore traditionally have kept to themselves a lot. However, here, we’ve seen a new kind of openness, both regarding communication across the team and regarding what’s being talked about. These women seeking help outside of their communities when a problem arises is something new, and it comes from something as simple as sharing. For lunch for example, everyone brings a dish and we share across the team. That creates community!
Another good thing is that we have started a small «school» with the help of a governmental plan: we’re able to help youth who have somehow fallen outside of other educational- and working environments. We have three people working and learning with us who have experienced a lot of hardship for their young age. After a year of training paid by the local government, our goal is to offer them a job within our team from next year.
We pay our workers more than the factories do – but still not as much as our goal is. Our project is still needing financial support to survive, and everyone involved donates time. Our goal is to be financially sustainable within two years. Then, my role will no longer be necessary, and the project will be 100% run from Juárez.
Can you tell us a bit more about your designs?
- As mentioned, our garments are handmade and hand-dyed. The first four styles were designed by Tine Mollatt. Now, we also have a local designer working with us: Maritza Uscanga. She created, together with graphic designer Tania Delgado, the first design from the studio, our MUKI dress. This dress comes with a special story. It has an open back, and the shape of it references a tattoo that Tania has on her back - a tattoo that symbolizes the fight against fear and for justice and change; qualities needed to live in Ciudad Juárez!
Our fabrics have thus far come from India, from a factory with an ethical production chain, which Tine has helped us find. The factory gave us 200 metres of cotton when we started the project, and Tine donated the silk we needed. We tried to find local silk, but it’s so expensive, so it’s just not possible for us at the moment.
Part of our plan is also that the women who learn this craft can teach it to others – we hope to expand NI EN MORE by setting up dye workshops in other communities, and have our team teach new people the skills they have acquired. In this way, increasing production will also increase opportunities for change for more women.
How is the situation for women in Juárez now?
Ciudad Juárez is still one of the most violent cities in Mexico, dangerous for both men and women. Part of this is due to the drug cartels’ fight for control of the city, and of transport of illegal drugs into the US - Juárez is the main port for this. Women have for more than 30 years systematically been kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered. Thousands have disappeared, and unfortunately, the number of women murdered is rising again. That’s not just the case for Juárez, but for the whole of Mexico. However, the EU and the UN have just launched a program to end femicide, with so-called spotlight cities, and Ciudad Juárez is one of them. One of our co-founders has worked with preventing violence against women in Juárez for more than 30 years now, but the problem is that it’s systematic.
While NI EN MORE cannot do anything to change the systematic violence, what we can do is to create economic independence for some women. Economic independence is important because it can give you the opportunity to make choices, such as to leave someone who beats you, which again can give you a more solid foundation for the rest of your life, and for example have an impact on your children, and allow them to create new opportunities. That’s why our goal isn’t mass production - it’s about giving someone the opportunity to learn a craft and gain the skills and confidence they need to acquire long-term financial independence. That’s the great thing about learning a skill – it’s something you own, and it’s something the women who are working with us can use in other settings if they leave NI EN MORE. When a craft is being taught to others, it will also give more and more people the same opportunities as well, and that’s that kind of expansion we want.
How can we help this project or buy the clothes?
- You can buy them online on our website, for example. That’s the best thing to do – all the money goes directly to our studio. The clothes are also sold in a few shops in Oslo, Marfa, New York, Miami and Mexico City.
Another option is to donate: although we have grown from our humble beginnings in a small borrowed room, we still need to raise funds to become self-sufficient. In 2019, our main focuses are to raise funds to hire Maritza to work full time with us to develop our team’s skills and train new women in our sewing techniques, to expand our production team in the studio, to start local natural dye workshops to spread our knowledge, to buy needed machinery and to share our vision globally and improve sales.
You can help us with this by signing up for a monthly donation, give a one-time sum, or buy one of our garments - all of it the money spent will go directly to help this project, something which both means a lot to the women involved, and benefits the community around them. We are so grateful for any support, and for anyone interested in learning more, they can also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.