Weaving colourful dreams into respectable riches

Bibi Russel: Former Model, Designer, Social Entrepreneur

When I was little I had a dream. Walking through the villages of Bangladesh I could see that the people were wearing beautiful clothes, such as saris and sarongs, and I used to ask things like, “How did you do this colour combination?” They would say, “We did it ourselves”. “But,” I would say, “you never went to school. You do better colour combinations than me and I have pencils and everything.”

One day, when my parents realised that they could not make me study to become a professional, I told them that I wanted to go to Europe to study fashion. For me, fashion is a culture and a necessity. You go to a different part of the world, you see what people are wearing, and you know their culture. It is a necessity because you need a piece of cloth to cover your pride, as we cannot go around naked. So, I went to Europe to study, and I graduated from the London College of Fashion.

All the best art colleges and fashion schools have a graduation show. My teachers told me that in my graduation show I could model my two outfits, because I looked good. When the teachers said that I must model my clothes, I agreed. So then the Bengali girl who came to study fashion turned to modelling.

I was very lucky. My first work as a model was fourteen pages in Harper’s Bazaar. I worked with the greatest people. I travelled around the world and worked for nearly all the top designers, all the best magazines. Modelling made me mature and taught me many things.

When I told my friends in the fashion world that I wanted to go back to Bangladesh they thought I was crazy. For an Asian girl it is not easy to make your first name known around the world, and they thought I was throwing it all away, but they did not understand that this was my dream. Nothing means more than making your dream come true. I went after my dream and it took me 25 years to realise it.

I went back to the villages and I started working. During my 25 years in Europe I had made a little money and I sold everything I had to put into my work. I knew that I had no time to waste. I started a company called Bibi Productions. I am just the founder–it is for the people.

That is where Fashion for Development started. Fashion can create social and economic development. Actually, designers do not work alone–they employ many people. Bangladesh has vast human resources. I learned all the modern technology in Europe, but I have transferred it to the Bangladeshi environment because I don’t have all the resources of powerful machinery.

It took me a little time to get close to these craftspeople. It took two years for them to gain confidence in me and in themselves, which was very important – you must not take away human dignity – and now they perform magic! They have really started a revolution. Poverty is not a disease that cannot be cured, but you cannot do it in one leap- you have to go step by step.

My work is to show that beauty can come out of poverty.