For years, Vancouver fashion designer Treana Peake straddled two worlds.
There was the one of high fashion, where glitz, glamour, parties and endless talk of shoes reigned.
Then there was the one closer to her heart: the world of aid and development in countries torn apart by years of war and strife.
One day she’d be hobnobbing at a fashion show, the next she’d be looking at water projects in South Sudan.
“I’d be at New York Fashion Week and everyone’s talking about very superficial topics and I’d just come from South Sudan or Cameroon, where I’m in these villages and seeing levels of poverty that I know none of those people at those parties had seen. And it was just a real juxtaposition, a real contrast between the two worlds,” says Peake.
Fashion can help feed the poor
Then Peake, 40, discovered that one could, in fact, could feed the other.
Peake, founder and creative director of the successful Vancouver fashion label Obakki, announced last fall the company was turning “100 per cent humanitarian.” By which she meant 100 per cent of net profits were going to charitable causes through the Obakki Foundation.
While the fashion industry has been known to create products where a portion of proceeds go to charity, it’s unique for a luxury fashion company to make supporting aid and development in the Third World its sole mission.
“It’s really applying creativity to my philanthropy and giving fashion a purpose,” she says.
James Tansey, executive director of ISIS Research Centre at the University of B.C., which studies and supports social entrepreneurship, says this is the most unusual fundraising model he’s seen.
“This is the first time I’ve seen 100-per-cent profits tied to the outcome,” he says. “Lots of organizations do things like one per cent of their profits going to environmental causes but I haven’t seen one like this before.”
Tansey says he thinks it’s a good idea because the profit from high-end fashion can be considerable, which means more money for the cause.
That said, fashion is a notoriously ficklebusiness, and in order for the fundraising model to work, the clothes need to sell.
“It is challenging because people aren’t wearing the brand on the sleeves when they’re wearing the clothing — they’re just wearing great clothes,” says Tansey.
“So the focus has to be continuing to make the clothing distinctive and successful.”
Michael Gorenstein, owner of Vancouver lifestyle boutique Moule, has been carrying Obakki for a few years.
The draw, initially, was based solely on the design and quality of the clothing. But as Obakki has become more philanthropic over the years, that social conscience has resonated with customers, he says.
“I have to say it’s honestly one of our most successful brands, and we have a lot of brands. It has such a strong following. Women love it and know it and seek it out,” says Gorenstein.
Living with purpose
For Peake, it’s simply about living with purpose.
She wears many hats on any given day: mother, designer, philanthropist and wife of a rock star (she is married to Ryan Peake, her high school sweetheart and guitarist for Nickelback).
Her desire to make a difference can be traced back to her childhood.
Growing up poor in small town Hanna, Alta., Peake always felt a pull to go to places such as Africa to help in some way.
One could speculate that her desire to give back may have been inspired by the anonymous donations and food baskets that she herself received while growing up.
“I was the type of kid that would watch World Vision commercials instead of cartoons and I just had this yearning or pull to go to Africa and other parts of the world to give and share and help in some way,” says Peake.
At the age of 18, she and a friend startedtheir own grassroots non-profit organization, International Children’s Awareness Canada, which still exists. Their first overseas mission was to Romania.
She hasn’t stopped volunteering in developing countries since.
Peake started Obakki in 2005. The fashion company, she confessed at a recent talk at CreativeMornings, a free monthly talk held in Vancouver, may have also been a distraction for her as she felt increasingly discouraged that the public seemed to be fatigued from hearing about problems in the Third World.
“I began to reach a wall in my development work,” she said at her talk. “In a heavily saturated market with a million great causes, how do you get your own story heard?
“I saw people burnt out by the same old images, the same old stories, the same old problems of Africa. I even started to notice people that I knew leave the room or start side conversations as I told them about the adventures of my trip.”
Gaining a following
Meanwhile, Obakki began to gain a following. Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, Elle and other fashion magazines have all featured Obakki and celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow have sported the label’s modern, sophisticated designs.
But as the Obakki brand grew, so, too, did Peake’s desire to return to philanthropy. Then she had a eureka moment. Fashion, she thought, could be the platform to raise awareness of causes close to her heart.
In 2009, the Obakki Foundation, a registered non-profit, was founded with a $500,000 seed from Nickelback, who donated a portion of their sold-out summer tour ticket sales to the foundation.
The mother of two says she has always turned over the net profits of Obakki to her philanthropy; it’s just that now she’s announcing it to the public.
“I started to realize that maybe the people who are buying our clothes would like to know what this larger picture is that they’re a part of.”
Peake, a self-taught designer, produces four collections a year. In keeping with her social consciousness, all of the clothes are made in Vancouver in a small factory where about a dozen sewing machines hum next to her no-frills studio and office.
Obakki Designs, the creative arm, absorbs all the administrative and operation costs, from manufacturing to travel expenses to paying the wages of a small staff. (Peake herself does not draw a wage.)
The net profits are turned over to the Obakki Foundation.
The foundation’s work is also supported by donations, 100 per cent of which go to humanitarian projects. (Donations to the foundation are eligible for tax receipts but tax receipts are not issued for purchased clothing because the fashion company is not considered a charity.)
Between the net profits and donations, Obakki Foundation has considerable reach: In 2011 alone, the foundation spent $1.25 million on projects, according to audited financial statements.
Bringing water and education to Africa
The Obakki Foundation is currently focused on providing access to water and education in Cameroon and South Sudan.
It has built 15 schools in Cameroon and continues to provide ongoing support to three orphanages.In the past year alone, the foundation has built more than 300 water wells in South Sudan.
Peake is hands-on with the foundation’s work. She travels to Africa four to five times a year. The foundation plans and carries out development projects by partnering with locals on the ground.
Peake believes that by staying small, the Obakki Foundation is far more effective than a large, bureaucratic organization. It can act quickly and get results faster.
The focus has been on water because it’s the foundation for growth — and also the reason why conflict continues to erupt in South Sudan as tribes fight over the scarce resource.
Just prior to the historic referendum of 2010 that would decide South Sudan’s independence, a water emergency was declared in Lakes State. Millions of voters had made long journeys to the voting station and faced the prospect of standing in line for days without a drop of water.
Obakki Foundation met with local government officials and in five days rehabilitated 40 water wells near the polling station.
In an audio clip posted online, former Lakes State governor Chol Tong Mayay can be heard expressing his gratitude: “I’d like to thank Obakki Foundation for their good work. The water program in this state is of very great importance and of great benefit to the people. . . I welcome you, and [to the people] of Lake State, these are our friends. They have come in our time of need and whenever you hear about Obakki Foundation coming to your county. . . please welcome them as it is well-known all over the world the hospitality of the Sudanese people.”
In order to identify where the need is greatest, Peake studies data provided by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations such as The Carter Center. Currently, there is a team of four on the ground in South Sudan carrying out much of the project work.
The UN shone a spotlight on water scarcity on March 22, designated World Water Day. More than 3.4 million people die from water- and sanitation- related causes every year. Nearly all deaths, 99 per cent, occur in the developing world.
Only 34 per cent of South Sudanese have access to clean water, according to statistics from South Sudan’s Ministry of Water Resourcesand Irrigation.
Life in South Sudan
A typical day in South Sudan for Peake begins at sunrise, followed by meetings, visiting villages, inspecting water wells, sitting with elders under a tree listening to their needs. It’s non-stop until sundown, when Peake returns to her room to write reports.
The fashion, however, is never far from her mind. While she’s writing up field reports, she will have her fabric swatches laid out on her bed. The collections are directly inspired by the people and geography of where the foundation is currently working.
For spring/summer 2013, the blue accent on the clothing speaks to the hope that water brings. Photographs of dusty cattle camps (some taken by Peake) are printed onto skirts, dresses and tank tops.
On recent trips to Africa, Peake brought along 26-year-old videographer Brian Ceci to capture the results of the work.
The videos are not just beautiful, transportive and inspiring but informative, too, as people — meaning customers and donors — can see firsthand how their dollars are being spent.
“I think the videos are effective because there’s a certain [style] that African charity videoshave, which is the kid looking up into the camera, looking all sad. It’s kind of a guilt trip into giving money,” says Ceci.
“Whereas this is supposed to be showing a hopeful side of Africa, which is what it is when you’re there. Everyone’s smiling and happy. They just need basic needs, which [in South Sudan] is water.”
Ceci, who has travelled twice to South Sudan, says he was stunned to see how quickly dusty, bone-dry villages were transformed after the installation of a water well.
“The before and after is so great. I was blown away the second time I went,” he says.
“It’s astonishing what you can do in one year. I can’t even explain to you how crazy it is to see a dusty place under a tree and then you go back and it’s a sprawling garden, a good acre of garden.”
The two worlds that Peake once thought were so disparate are now working in tandem to produce results.
“I was in Sudan in December and I’m sitting under a tree with an elder and hearing about all the struggles . . . and their people won’t stop their quest for improving their future. And when paired with my team of supporters, donors, my staff team, my family, when you put those teams together, you realize it’s an absolute collaboration,” she says.
“Everybody’s just collaborating and that’s what overwhelms me the most.”