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Clothes With a Cause

Profits from Treana Peake’s design label have paid for hundreds of water wells and schools in South Sudan and Cameroon. How she does it--and why.

How has your philanthropic work inspired your designs?

I’m always inspired by the emotional side of what’s going on. The Spring 2013 collection tells a story of this ancient pastoral society that’s threatened by the modern world. These are people who keep fighting and fighting, and if we can raise money we could have a peaceful solution and hopefully be able to preserve this culture.

I take that concept and I put it into a creative format. I take modern fabrics and silhouettes and layer them over traditional prints to show the contrast between the two realities. We put a bunch of black paint and white paint and scrape it off to show the loss that might be coming. I use strong colors and traditional detailing to pay homage to the strength of the South Sudanese tradition, and then I have all these sheer panels that reflect the dissolving of that.

People don’t want to wear the mission on their sleeve, but I do want the clothing to have another layer in case people want to talk about it.

You have $1,000 leather pants in your collection. How do you determine your price point, and how do you justify that when the people you’re actually helping could never even afford any of these things?

For me, I’m really just using my voice and my talent and turning all of my proceeds into good, so I don’t even think of it that way. However, I do realize there are other people who would like to be a part of what we’re doing, so we’ve started to branch into products that are more affordable. Our red scarf is under $30.

Why South Sudan? Why Africa?

Two years ago, a partner I’ve worked with on other projects called and said he was going to South Sudan. I said, ‘If there’s anything that we can do, then let me know.’ He called me at four in the morning, and said: ‘Water. We need water. Everywhere you walk, it’s literally dry, cracked earth, yet there are flowing water beds under the ground. Treana, all we’ve got to do is a few wells, bring the water to the surface, and these villages will flourish.’ 

We were able to act quickly there. I think sometimes we choose our path, and sometimes our path chooses us. That’s how I feel about Africa.

Interview was condensed and edited.