• Home
  • News
  • Fashion
  • White Label Project: The new fashion & design destination empowering women globally

White Label Project: The new fashion & design destination empowering women globally

By Partner


Scroll down to read more


Scarf design by Nada Duele Credits: White Label Project

White Label Project is a digital concept store and community platform for the most exciting up and coming female-led impact brands in fashion & design from around the globe. White Label Project was founded in 2019 by Caroline Foerster and Ann-Kathrin Zotz with the aim to empower women through sustainable e-commerce.

With currently 35 impact brands from across 15 countries, White Label Project features highly individual fashion, jewellery and interior, with bestselling items such as mesh tops by Nada Duele, created in Guatemala from deadstock fabric, and artistic Mexican wall hangers by Caralarga, to rings by ethical jewellery brand Soko from Kenya. In this interview, founders Caroline Foerster and Ann-Kathrin Zotz offer a look behind the scenes, revealing in what ways White Label Project fosters women economic empowerment by serving as a springboard for small design and fashion brands wanting to internationalise their brand, products and stories.

“White Label Project” is much more than just a name, it also refers to a dynamic in the global fashion industry. What exactly does the name reflect?

Caroline Foerster: White labelling is a common practice in international trade, especially for generic commodities such as coffee, tea but also in fashion. Retailers and brands outsource their manufacturing to external companies, mostly located in the Global South, which make identical products sold under different brand names, often only differentiated by packaging, or prices. White labelling is, unfortunately, also very common in the design and handicraft market - even with handcrafted products with unique designs or which are produced using traditional crafts and techniques. Especially when products are artisan-made or have roots in certain cultures white labelling can lead to anonymisation of the crafters and creatives disconnecting end-customers from the craftsmanship, traditions and origins of the products they purchase. Further, it can result in cultural appropriation by not crediting the original craftsmanship and not fairly compensating producers behind the product.

Another common issue in international trade is about a lot of middlemen, including sales people, exporters and importers, impacting how the different parties are being paid. The more intermediaries there are, the less those at the beginning of the value chain, that design and create the product, ultimately receive. With the name ‘White Label Project’, we are reflecting our mission of creating a platform where design and fashion brands can tell their story, present their own brand, directly communicate it to international end customers and find a way to grow and internationalise - reversing the idea of white labelling and maximising local incomes. Our mission is reflected in our name, serving as a constant reminder to ourselves of why we exist.

In what ways does the White Label Project contribute to change in the industry?

Caroline Foerster: We want to empower women in fashion and design by maximising their incomes through brand building and e-commerce. We don’t work with importers, only directly with the brands, avoiding intermediaries. We offer an alternative solution through our digital concept store empowering locally rooted sustainable design brands from all around the globe to build a direct connection with international customers. It enables them to grow their businesses on their own terms, while preserving their own brand and giving room to telling their own story.

In the fashion and design industry, a lot of new startups or platforms are focusing on B2B support with large scale product sourcing, while there is still very little focus on growing the demand with end customers. Having worked in design, marketing and fashion, we understand that demand isn’t just an absolute term, it also evolves from marketing and positioning brands and products in the right way and the right context. When we only focus on creating solutions in the early stages of the supply chain, but there are no customers interested in the products because they don’t know that they exist, we are not really getting anywhere. This is where our focus goes: To educate, shift demand and grow attraction so that the brands benefit by selling more through whichever channel they choose.

Many brands are drawing attention away from creating or feeding a demand. But there is no denying that demand equals business. How do you reconcile this with sustainability?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: From the beginning it was very important to us to build a platform which takes a share from unsustainable markets. So we are not creating an additional demand, but are instead trying to get a decent market share of the existing markets, by driving customers towards our platform. We deliberately chose to design our platform in a way that makes it appealing to design and fashion lovers - not only conscious consumers who come to us because of the sustainability of the products and brands. Those who are looking for a unique design or the next cool piece, they can find and buy it on our website and it just happens to also be sustainable. For us, being sustainable is a given, but the customer doesn't have to be oriented towards that necessarily. A modern design platform - that’s the feeling we want to convey.

One of your slogans is “On a mission to empower impact brands”. How do you define impact brands?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: The term comes from “impact-driven brands” - brands with a clear mission to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. We shortened it to “impact brand”, as they leave a positive impact in their own respective ways. What they have in common is that they want to modernise traditional knowledge and techniques from their countries of origin, by reviving and highlighting them through a new design context, to make it, let’s say “economically feasible” again - so that the women working as artisans can actually live from it. They work with sustainable, upcycled, recycled or natural materials, from silver extracted from x-rays for jewelry to lotus fibre for pyjamas. There are so many century old traditional approaches within recycling, production of textiles from natural fibres and natural dyeing techniques next to the more mainstream practices used in the Global North today. This is traditional knowledge we want to promote and transfer to the customer. All of the impact brands are on a mission to empower women - about 95% of the founders featured on White Label Project are women and they also work with women. Looking at the entire value chain, there are 99% women behind the products, economically empowering each other and helping each other to have better positions within their own communities and households.

What is the connection between women, craftsmanship and empowerment? And what is the role of e-commerce in this?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: There's a very strong connection between the three. Traditionally, it’s mostly women who are practising traditional crafts within their communities. However, crafts often aren’t generating sufficient incomes nowadays, especially in the Global South, due to a lack of or limited access to markets - few people buying and appreciating these crafts locally and internationally. A person who acknowledged and understood this problem in its roots, is Yasmin Sabet, founder of the Colombian fashion brand Mola Sasa, who works hand in hand with the Kuna communities in Colombia. Originally, these women crafted bustiers which were worn over blouses, using an ancient appliqué technique of hand sewing cut-out layers of fabric to form an intricate piece of art. These days especially young women don’t really wear them anymore, as they prefer to dress more modern. Locally, the craft is not only associated with not generating sufficient income anymore, it is also a craft mostly practised by elderly women. Yasmine Sabet wanted to contribute to the preservation of this ancient appliqué technique by bringing the iconic Kuna fabrics into a modern design context and co-created the Kuna clutches. As a result also younger generations find it relevant and economically attractive again to engage with the craft. Generating new income streams for women can change the power structure within the households and the community. It’s about lifting up the craft and the position of women which can even result in them gaining greater decision-making power that comes with an increased income. E-commerce can be an additional accelerator by exposing the craft, its story and products not only locally but internationally. In this way brands can really generate income streams that benefit the community at large. The brands we work with design and create to empower. With our digital concept store, we want to multiply their impact.

Bag by Mola Sasa, founded by Yasmine Sabet in collaboration with the Kuna communities Credits: White Label Project

One of The White Label Project’s commitments is to “create jobs and stable incomes”, especially for women. Could you give some examples of how you put this to practise?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: We are supporting the brands to grow by selling their products and positioning themselves internationally. By this they create new jobs and stable income streams, for crafters and creatives. The brands that we feature in our digital concept store are impact brands of all sizes, this includes one-woman business as well as social enterprises, some even NGOs or associations. They are inherently set up to create impact, socially, environmentally and economically.

For instance, take Caralaga from Querétaro, Mexico. This is a brand we believed in early, but they also believed in us very early on. They came to our platform in 2019. At the time, there were 10 people, now there are around 60. They are located in Querétaro, which is next to Mexico City, in an old textile factory. Most textile factories moved to China - which left Mexico with all these abandoned factories and workers were without a job. They deliberately chose this place to create jobs for the people in Querétaro and they are using raw cotton to make their pieces. It's a very nice story combining the aspects of sustainable materials and social impact. They create art pieces from raw cotton in the form of unique wall hangers and table stands. At White Label Project we sell small versions but they also do big made-to-order ones, decorating metre long walls. By establishing themselves in the international interior design scene area, they have created stable incomes and an array of design customers. We are happy to see that they also grew a lot - they were even featured in the New York Times recently.

What kind of price policies are needed to protect the ones at the very beginning of the product chain? How do you make sure the creators earn their wages while having an interest in turnover for your own business?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: A big bottleneck for very small brands is how to pre-finance their production. We place the order and already pay on average 50% upfront and fully pay the remainder before they are even shipped. It’s built on a lot of trust. We also commit to working with a brand over several years, with continuous orders. Many of our brands aren’t not driven by the regular fashion cycle, they are not producing in collections per season, so to know that we as White Label Project come back every few months to place orders is a different type of relationship. It's the opposite of what usually happens, where big labels place one very large order and then perhaps never again. On our end, we have to balance customers’ demand and expectations driven by fast fashion’s and fast e-commerce’s unsustainable practices through education and appreciation of the production as well as quality and impact of the product. We also always offer new collections as pre-order as well as made-to-order pieces next to the stock we keep for direct fulfillment. Our focus is on customers who are appreciative of handmade items and who welcome that their piece has been made in Colombia, Ghana or Cambodia. Targeting the right customers helped us a lot. And we had to learn how to use the right marketing channels, how to reach that end customer who is looking for really special items!

What can other brands learn from The White Label Project about respect towards origin and tradition, and giving appropriate credit?

Caroline Foerster: It’s always difficult to say what others can learn from us, but we want to inspire to talk more about brands, designers and products rather than arts and crafts. It is common to buy into the whole narrative of 'artisan made’ , especially when the crafter behind is acknowledged but the design, culture and traditions that go into it are not. It’s about telling the entire story, providing a context and giving credit to all the people involved in the process and this is also one way to ensure there is no cultural appropriation.

Then, we want to see that creative hubs go far beyond Paris, London & New York, and draw attention to Accra, Mexico City or Mumbai - destinations that have hundreds of years of culture that influence their designs today, constantly being reinvented in art, design products and fashion brands. Connecting the old and the new and empowering people along the way. It’s about shining light on these cities that are often being disregarded.

And then, it is about a collaborative approach and being open to feedback. We never put brands in a position where we have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, we open a dialogue and work together. We are in close contact with our brands, often via WhatsApp - if anything comes up we just text. It’s a lot about communication. Making sure we create a platform where everybody is on board is key and we think other players in the fashion and design industry could apply this a bit more.

Credits: White Label Project, courtesy of the brand

Working with marginalised groups, indigenous people and their cultural techniques comes with a certain risk of White Saviorism - or White Feminism. How does White Label Project navigate this?

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: White Label Project was built to be a platform to be not only seen and heard but to have economic value for the brands. We don’t want to take ownership for the brands we work with - on the contrary. With White Label Project we want to support brands with the services, systems, and structures that are needed to showcase the brands to more audiences and to sell their products. White Label Project is not a charity and it would be unfair to the brands and the women behind it to say this. We want to build up a business model that is inherently sustainable in itself and that includes not only social but also environmental and economic sustainability. It is very important to us that the stories are told by the brands themselves. Sometimes we are asked why we don’t create our own products- we have gathered enough knowledge about the craft and their origins now, we technically could do this. But it’s against what we feel is right and it is not our place. We can’t replicate how to select a community, how to interact with them, how to co-design, and how to develop the business in an authentic way as someone, who grew up in the same country and culture. The founders we work with are doing everything they can to empower women and local communities and to build up their businesses.That is why their brand should be showcased and no one else’s.

Are authenticity, individuality, appreciation for craft and willingness to spend more the true solutions of returning to conscious consumption?

Caroline Foerster: I think the willingness to spend a certain amount on a product comes from it’s desirability and from assigning values and attributes to products embodied by the brand they are sold by. For example, if you look at a fashion item by a prominent fashion brand, the value doesn’t only reflect the actual quality and production and marketing cost - but what customers are willing to pay for it because there is so much desirability around the brand and product. Therefore, we need to unite sustainable production processes with desirability and brand building, for consumers to never feel that they have to settle for one over the other.

We also need to acknowledge that sustainable products cost more because people are being paid fairly and they do not harm the environment. If something is very cheap, that means somewhere in the value chain someone will lose out or the environment is impacted negatively. It’s important to understand that in an ethical and green business model higher prices do not mean there are larger margins. It simply means that production is environmentally sustainable, everyone is paid fairly and the surplus generated by the desirability of the product is distributed amongst everyone.

Let’s take a look into the future: Where do you see The White Label Project in a few years time?

Caroline Foerster: We want to grow while ensuring the mission and goals of our platform. And we want to do this in two parts: for brands, we want to be a springboard that helps brands to internationalise, accelerating their long term growth. For customers, we aim to become one of the most exciting digital destinations for independent brands from all over the globe, where women empowerment and sustainability is a given, and inspiration and individual style is in focus.

Ann-Kathrin Zotz: We really want to combine these two. And we want to reach around 100 well-selling brands by 2025 - at the moment it’s around 35 - while staying well curated and boutique-like

And lastly: What can consumers do to support crafters and creators, especially women, aside from becoming The White Label Project customers of course?

Caroline Foerster: Of course buying the products is the main support! Besides that, becoming an ambassador for these brands and spreading their stories as well. Personally, I wear our products all the time and I love the possibility of sharing their brand stories when people ask me about them. They get so inspired and curious that they start looking into it themselves. That’s something customers can do, but also the media - making sure to give more space to sustainable brands with fantastic stories and great design but with perhaps more remote locations or a size that makes them harder to find. And showing all those positive examples of impact brands and women entrepreneurs!

Caroline Foerster and Ann-Kathrin Zotz, founders of White Label Project Credits: White Label Project, courtesy of the brand
Read more about White Label Project on their brandpage
Female Empowerment
White Label Project