Treana Peake of Obakki creates a new business model that pairs fashion design with humanitarian need.
"I used to think I had to fit a mould," says Treana Peake, head of Obakki and this year's Fashion Designer of the Year. "That my inspirations had to be abstract, or come from 'normal things.'" Peake is speaking from her Vancouver studio where the design, production and marketing of her internationally celebrated fashion line—and the headquarters of her Obakki Foundation—reside under one roof. The focus of her non-profit foundation is to provide clean water and education for developing communities: to direct, execute, and manage projects, start to finish—work that at first blush, wouldn't appear to naturally flow from a fashion house. And, until recently, managing those two roles was a challenge for Peake as well. "I was travelling from South Sudan, where we'd been digging water wells, straight to Paris for the Premier Vision fabric show," she explains. "And I was struggling with the dichotomy of my two worlds. I was feeling so motivated and inspired by the Sudanese people and the work we were doing there, I just thought, why can't I bring that into my designs?" When Peake considered the possibility that the two worlds could coexist, "designing became easy. The ideas just flowed because they were coming from a true place of passion. I was free from inventing or manufacturing inspiration to get through to the next fashion season. And the clothes became an authentic representation of who I am, which is fashion and philanthropy." Peake grew up in small-town Hanna, Alberta, but had her eyes set on the bigger world. Fashion started as a creative outlet, maybe even an escape. It evolved into a unique business model, one that absorbs all the administrative and operational costs of the foundation, from travel to employee wages (Peake herself does not draw a wage). Net profits are fed back into the foundation. The tangible result of a breakthrough decision to link her designs to her fieldwork—most recently in the cattle camps in South Sudan, which are threatened by tribal war—is in Obakki's fall 2012 collection. Some pieces literally reflect the region; photographs taken in the field by Peake are transferred onto fabric and overlapped with archival shots. Other pieces are more evocative; conflict is represented in textures that crash and overlap, patterns that weave wildly, coarse lines and vectors that look like scars. "We scraped black and white together in scratchy prints to show destruction," she explains. "The strong collars and shapes are a nod to tradition, while the sheer panelling echoes the dissolving of a culture." In the last two years, Obakki drilled 400 water wells in areas identified by the UN as conflict zones—the single largest humanitarian effort in the Sudan region. "Once a collection is sold I take the proceeds back to the field and we carry out the projects," she explains. "Real results are obtained and, most importantly, we are all part of making a change." Some moulds are meant to be broken. wl