Interview: You&Mei is Putting a Face to Fashion and Transforming Lives

A chance encounter in the poverty stricken streets of Myanmar just under two years ago led former High-5 star, Tanika Anderson, to question the Western world’s approach to ‘fast fashion’. Now, Tanika is set to launch the second collection from clothing label, You&Mei, a social enterprise that helps to raise up young women from poverty. I asked her to share more of this inspiring story…

Let’s start at the beginning – how did this all come about?

Because I was a member of High 5 and a World Vision ambassador, I was fortunate enough to travel and visit so many countries. In 2015, when I first visited Myanmar, I really didn’t know anything about the country or its people. But it’s just the most beautiful place and they are the most generous people you will ever meet in your life.
I remember we were walking around one of the villages and we came across this girl living in the dirt under a house belonging to another family. She had this old foot pedal sewing machine and she had taught herself how to use it so she could make clothes to sell to tourists. She was basically providing for her whole family with the few coins she made. I was really moved and so I bought a top from her. When I got back to Australia and started wearing the top, people kept asking me where I got it from. The idea really started there.

Now you are responsible for setting up this incredible social enterprise, which not only provides the girls with a regular income but also access to a nutritionist, a doctor, an English teacher. How did the idea grow?

It all really happened fairly organically. I started thinking maybe I could just set up a website where we could sell the garments on behalf of the women who were making them. Because there were hundreds of these women, living in absolute poverty, and at least half of them were orphans who’d dropped out of school to earn money for their younger siblings. A few dollars from the sale of their garments could support whole families and communities.

But when we started and I got the first batch of garments through, I realised that not all of them could really sew. So we set up proper seamstress training for them. Then I realised the samples were coming back with dirty fingerprints on them. Of course! Because they didn’t have a clean space to work and they don’t have clean water. So we started looking for a space where we could set up a workshop.

Then we noticed that some of the women were falling ill and weren’t able to come to the workshop, suffering from things like anaemia and malnutrition. So we made sure they had access to health care and regular check-ups.

The money they earn means these women can now support their entire families and I thought that perhaps some of them might be able to go back to school or on to university. But because they drop out at such a young age, to provide for their family, they can’t just go back to school at age 17 or 18 because the curriculum is too advanced for them. So we have brought on teachers and the women are learning maths, business, the English language and writing. And life skills, including aids education which is the third biggest killer in Myanmar. What’s more, the women are now passing on this knowledge to the other people in their communities. You just see this amazing ripple effect.

It’s a big leap to go from working in the entertainment industry to creating a social enterprise from scratch. How has the experience changed you?

These women have completely changed my life. I’d trained my whole life to be a performer. But l always knew there was something more I could be doing for others. From my experience with these women I have learnt that we have things backwards in Australia. We give something and we expect something in return – that’s not the way in Myanmar. These girls have nothing to give but they’re still willing to give everything they have. And they have this incredible sense of community. They eat together, they celebrate together. Everything they do is for the family and the community.

When we first started out, I realised that I wanted more for these women than just to be seamstresses. No-one has ever asked these women what they wanted to be when they grew up. Dreams were not something they had for themselves. They made clothes because it was a way to provide for others. Now, these women have the opportunity to pursue their own paths. One of the girls has just started to study law at university. The workshop is paying for all her fees. She wants to be a lawyer so she can help her community fight for their rights.

It made me realise that your career really doesn’t matter if you don’t have the people you love around you to share it. I hope that these women can inspire other people to change their focus.

How involved are the women in creating the designs for You&Mei?

They are so hands on! I give them the mood board and some ideas of what I have in mind but the designs all come from them. They actually cut freehand and put the garments together. They choose the colours they like, they assemble the pattern – it’s all them.

I’m intrigued by the ‘longi’ material used in some of the collection. It’s never been used in Western Fashion. Why did you decide to showcase this?

Despite all that’s happened in Myanmar, it’s a country that has managed to hold onto its traditional cultures. The longi is one of those things. It’s a wrap skirt, and all the women wear them, and the men wear them too. They’re made of these beautiful, hand-woven patterns. Some of the patterns take two girls two days just to weave, that’s before we can even get it to the You&Mei team to sew.

In this day and age we’ve totally lost touch with the effort that goes into making these kinds of pieces. We have no idea who makes our clothes, how long they take to create. It’s ‘fast fashion’. With our garments, each piece is different, woven by a different girl, hand-sewn by a different girl.

There’s a quote on your Facebook that says “when you buy from a small business an actual person does a little happy dance”. At You&Mei I imagine there’s a lot of actual people doing a happy dance…

The women love to see their work being purchased all around the world. But obviously they don’t have much access to the Internet so it’s not this immediate thing. We encourage people to share their purchases on Instagram and I print off all the photos of people who have purchased a garment and take them to the workshop. The girls hang them up all around the walls and I’ve got videos of them doing this and they’re just so happy. They giggle, they laugh! And they love to see the fashion parades and the fashion shoots. For this launch coming up they’ve asked if I can please share the videos – they just can’t wait to see it.

The launch is coming up this weekend in Melbourne, which is known as the Australian ‘home’ of fashion. Is it daunting launching a collection here?

Melbourne was the next place I wanted to launch. We had our first collection launch in Sydney, which is where I grew up. It was a softer sort of a launch, where I invited friends and other people I was connected to, because I didn’t want to put pressure on the girls. I didn’t know what they were capable of doing and I was still getting my head around what the business actually was.

But now we know where it’s going. We know if we make enough funds at this launch we’ll be able to replicate the entire program next year and take on another ten girls, which is huge! So there’s a specific purpose to this launch and I’m really excited about it.

The womens’ skills have improved by such huge amounts. Every time I go there I fall more and more in love with the girls because they’re just so inspiring. They’re so talented, they just needed the opportunity. The garments in this collection are so beautiful they’d sell themselves even without the story behind it.

The You&Mei Spring/Summer 2017 launch will be held at 7 Phoenix Studio in South Yarra on Sunday December 10th, and will be hosted by entertainer Stevie Nicholson.

To find out more about this truly inspiring business, visit www.youmeilabel.com