The Ethical Espadrille Handmade In East London

As the old saying goes, you should never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Now, two social entrepreneurs in East London have put this proverb...

As the old saying goes, you should never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Now, two social entrepreneurs in East London have put this proverb at the centre of a new fashion label.

Juta Shoes is a Shoreditch-based social enterprise taking the concept of slow fashion up a level. Not only does Juta produce beautifully handcrafted espadrilles from eco-friendly materials, but it empowers disadvantaged local women in the process – training and employing them as shoe-making artisans. Partnering with a local charity, Juta offers women a safe and supportive space in the community where they can gain new skills and build their confidence. Once trained, a flexible job awaits paid above the London Living Wage.

And in a unique twist, the label is opening its studio doors to creative Londoners who fancy becoming fashion designers for the day. At monthly workshops, you can learn the traditional hand-stitching technique directly from the makers themselves while designing your own, bespoke pair of espadrilles.

What we love about this start-up fashion label is that it’s the perfect combo of style, sustainability and social impact. And at a time where the world is turning inwards, it provides a much-needed example of how the global and local can work harmoniously as forces for good.

Take the materials. The uppers are made from waste leather offcuts, sourced from local factories and saved from landfill or upcycled textile waste for vegan purchasers. These are upcycled and handstitched onto soles made from jute – an eco-friendly, plant-based fibre grown in tropical Asia and imported from family-owned factories in Spain.

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In perfect symmetry, most of the local women supported by the enterprise are of Bangladeshi origin – a country which also happens to be one of the world’s largest exporters of Jute. And the origin of the name Juta? It means “shoe” in Bengali.

Jute cultivation in Bangladesh

So how did this great concept come about? It very much locally-inspired – a result of the Co-Founders’ (Joanna Hamer and Sabeha Miah) own personal experiences working in the community.

Despite being adjacent to London’s financial hub and the recipient of much infrastructure investment, Tower Hamlets remains one of the poorest and most unequal in the country. Nearly a quarter of its residents are income deprived with ethnic minorities and women twice as likely to suffer. In particular, local Bangladeshi women face unique barriers: caring responsibilities, English language difficulties, discrimination, social isolation, a lack of confidence and self-esteem.

Sabeha understood this all too well. Prior to Juta, she spent nearly 12 years running a project for women at St Hilda’s East community centre in Shoreditch, having herself previously been a member of the group as an isolated mother. At St Hilda’s, Sabeha ran regular crafts-based workshops and could see how creative, skilled and eager the women were to work. But given the many barriers they faced, she also recognised that existing job opportunities were neither suitable nor sustainable. Something needed to change.

Joanna’s journey to Juta was quite different. A fellow of social entrepreneurship programme Year Here, she spent five months mapping community resources in Tower Hamlets for her frontline placement, becoming well-acquainted with the borough’s social issues, but also the local assets that can could be used to help fix them. It was during this time that Joanna started to think about how she might use her personal passion for craft to make a difference in the community.

So when Joanna met Sabeha in 2016, a perfect partnership – and a great idea – were born. Why not set-up a social enterprise that could build on the creative skills of the women at St Hilda’s to fashion the supportive, paid job opportunities they so desperately needed?

Image courtesy of St Hilda’s East Community Centre

Since launching in October last year. Juta has already supported 29 women and saved over 80 kilos of leather from landfill. Those supported by the enterprise report feeling like they now have a purpose, are less isolated, more confident and more financially independent.

If you think the shoes look great and love the social mission, then we reckon the workshops are a no-brainer. For just a few quid more than it costs to buy a pair, you can also learn the craft and meet the inspiration behind the enterprise – the artisans themselves. On the three-hour course, you’ll create your own shoes from start to finish, including choosing the leather or plant-based textile for the uppers, cutting your own pattern, and learning the construction technique. Each workshop includes tea, coffee, biscuits and a local East London beigal lunch.

Workshops run on a monthly basis in locations across East London. The next one will be taking place on 16th September from 11am – 2pm. You can book online here.

You can buy the shoes on Juta’s online shop here (vegan options are available, but get in touch with Juta directly for more).

We’ve even secured GOtilers a 10% discount on all purchases of workshops or shoes – just use the code GOTILO when you check out.

…And for vegans, we’re currently talking with Juta about putting on some exclusive workshops using plant-based materials. Please drop us a line if you’re interested and we’ll keep you posted.

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