The Nature of Fashion: Peruvian designers incorporate the textile traditions of an Indigenous group in the Amazon

USAID’s Amazon Business Alliance, a joint initiative with the Government of Canada and Conservation International, promotes economic development based on the sustainable use of natural resources and on gender and intercultural approaches to improve the people’s welfare and forest conservation.

Models stride down the runway in stunning outfits that celebrate the textile traditions of the Yanesha people, an Indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon, and the wealth of the rainforest’s biodiversity. 

The Boutique Moda Peru fashion show in Lima, the capital of Peru, in April was the result of a unique intercultural collaboration that highlighted the transformative potential of the fashion industry within the Amazon region.

As part of USAID’s Amazon Business Alliance, a joint initiative with the Government of Canada and Conservation International, two renowned Peruvian fashion designers traveled to the Indigenous communities of Oxapampa to learn ancestral techniques from Yanesha women and adapt them to their own designs.

“Exploring the art and textile traditions of native communities has always been a vital source of inspiration for my work,” said one of the designers, Sumy Kujon.

A month before the fashion show, Yanesha leader Cecilia Martínez welcomed Sumy Kujon and another designer, Vania Tafur, to the communities of Ñagazu and Tsachopen.

Yanesha women artisans taught the two designers how to naturally dye fabrics using roots, tree bark, and leaves. Combining these plant-based ingredients can create a diverse palette of more than 20 color variations.

The dyed fabrics traditionally feature hand-drawn geometric patterns that embody profound symbolism and become a testament to the relationship between the Yanesha people and the natural world.

The Amazon Business Alliance’s work connecting artists from different parts of Peru helps preserve and add value to natural resources and Indigenous cultures, while improving economic opportunities for women. 

The alliance is in the process of finding the best way to collaborate with these two groups. In all of the collaborative work (show, fashion pieces, and graphic and audiovisual pieces), the Amazon Business Alliance has been careful to recognize the collective intellectual property of the communities, and will continue to do so as new activities are developed with them.

“What we aim for is that the women who produce these crafts, who work with their hands day in and day out, not only bring sustainability to the field but also achieve economic independence for themselves,” Cecilia said.

The Amazon Business Alliance bought the textiles from the Yanesha artisans and gave them to Sumy, Vania, and three other Peruvian fashion designers to incorporate into their collections.

Back in Lima, the five designers created 15 modern garments that incorporated the naturally dyed fabric. 

"More than 50% of a garment's sustainability is defined in the design stage. It is here that materials are chosen, and the processes and techniques are determined, making it crucial to look for inspiration that leads to more sustainable clothing and to inspire other designers,” explained Sumy.

The innovative vision of the designers on the runway serve as a catalyst for broader conversations on sustainable fashion, the preservation of Indigenous culture, and new opportunities for sustainable business development in the Peruvian Amazon. 

By valuing and preserving traditional knowledge, this collaboration paves the way for a more inclusive and environmentally conscious future of fashion.