“I am taking this home,” says flamboyant billionaire, serial entrepreneur, creator of the Virgin mega-brand and seasoned Guinness World Records breaker, Sir Richard Branson. He is in Virgin Megastore, at The Dubai Mall, and holding onto a fluffy velvet pillow decorated with a colorful, hand-embroidered Arabesque geometric pattern. The philanthropist hasn’t suddenly developed a penchant for interior designs, instead the pillow is part of an artisan range, called MADE51, which provides income to refugees.
Branson is in Dubai not only to promote the MADE51 line, which is now available in Virgin Megastores in The Dubai Mall and Mall of Emirates, but to also address the ongoing refugee crisis, for which the collection raises awareness for.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution or natural disaster in 2019. The world is going through the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II and as Branson says, “One of today’s biggest problems is the refugee crisis. One day they have a decent job in a stable country the next day they have to flee across the border and they have nothing. What they need most is to have their dignity back, the best way to do that is for them to have secure employment.”
Each MADE51 product tells a story, for example the dolls, made with intricate handiwork, depict the dreams of Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon. Meanwhile, in time for the festive season, the Holiday Collection, available in stores now, is comprised of 12 Christmas Ornaments made by refugees from across the world. Made51 is a new-age luxury brand that is supported and funded by the UNHCR, a global initiative that was launched just last year and links refugee artisans with social enterprises to facilitate the design, creation, and marketing of unique crafted products. The program is named after the 1951 Refugee Convention, a document that outlines the rights of the displaced. “[Its name is also an acronym for] Market Access Design and Empowerment,” adds Branson. “I am surprised at how well made the products are. Every item has a message at the back from the refugees, and the attention to detail is just beautiful.” The products not only provide a livelihood to the refugees but ensure that the heritage of their home countries is celebrated and not forgotten. The products are windows into the talents and cultural diversity of their makers, who are simply leveraging their savoir-faire to become economically independent.
The UNHCR finds the perfect partner for the refugees and ensures that all products are made to global standards. For instance, Syrian refugees now living in Jordan make bags that are made with cross-stitch techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, in partnership with Japanese designer Mei Hayashi, based in Jordan since 2008. Her studio, Tribalogy, works with women from disadvantaged communities.
With fashion’s new buzzword being sustainability, the MADE51 project is even more poignant with refugees often using recycled materials for their crafts. Malian refugees living in Burkina Faso produce handmade bowls that are created using time-honored Tuareg artisanal techniques. The bowls use recycled copper on the inside while the exterior is decorated with leather – the design methods derive from tent-making traditions.
Sir Richard Branson hopes the MADE51 collection, available all Virgin Megastores in this region, will trigger a trend with other retailers. “Sometimes when Virgin does something, others follow. For instance, 30 years ago I had a drawer full of loose foreign change, and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you just collect it off passengers as they leave the flight [and give the money to charity]?’ So we started collecting the loose change. And now many airlines have followed this practice, including British Airways and Emirates. Now literally billions of dollars are raised for a charity that way.”
Purchasing a MADE51 product is truly a gift that gives back in so many ways. “For a company just to be a money making machine for any owner is most unsatisfying. A company has to be a part of life for an employer and employees. It has to use the entrepreneurial skills of its people to look at what problems they can fix,” says Branson who believes if every company used this approach, all the problems of the world could be fixed. On a more micro level, Branson also believes that MADE 51 really makes for the perfect gift. He says, “I am the last person to give style tips but if you are looking for a present that is practical, useful and gives back, then Made51 products can make a real difference.” By 2030 Made51 hopes that more than 300,000 refugees will be supported by this initiative.