Join Us in Saying Hallo to Jess Bowen

Throughout the month of June we look forward to featuring tonlé creators and collaborators who proudly identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. In line with our gender expansive approach to designing fits which are adaptable for all bodies, we work to ensure the language we use, models we hire, and images we share, align with these goals- year round. Breaking away from the traditionally cisgender and binary approach of the fashion industry to offer an authentically inclusive line is our ongoing goal.

We’re kicking off our series of introductions with Jess Bowen, the newest member of our tonlé team. Working remotely from her home in Austin she has over seven years experience promoting and learning from makers in the fair trade and ethical fashion community. As a self identified artist, social advocate, and aficionado of beautiful handcrafted things she’s excited to become a part of amplifying our brand in this new role.

Before diving into her next assignment we asked her to share her perspective on just a few questions to complement these beautiful shots captured by Tory Stolper last year. 

Jess is wearing the RJ Overalls in black over the Ribbed Crop Top in grey in front of a large leafy plant.

Jess admits she has a hard time keeping a straight face in photos. Here she's wearing the RJ Overalls in black over the Rib Crop Top in grey. Hand batiked bandana by Global Mamas, upcyled earrings by Body Parts jewelry. Photo credit: Tory Stolper

A brief introduction to yourself 

Hiya! I go by Jess (she/her) and identify as a maker and an auntie and a partner and a global citizen- with the perspective, compassion, and awareness that entails. Growing up as a 'third culture kid', the people and places I've had the privilege of encountering have deeply influenced my personal aesthetic and views. My space is a mashup of folk art, textiles, my own weird creatures, plants (which my partner mainly keeps alive) in addition to work from friends and local artists. 

My favorite animal as a kid was a pangolin. I love black licorice. And for those into the stars- I'm an Aries Sun, Virgo Moon. All the important factual pieces!

For the past 4.5 years, I worked for Global Mamas, a fair trade nonprofit based in Ghana. It was through a trade show in Vegas that both tonlé and Global Mamas attended that I had the good fortune of discovering the brand. I've had an appreciation for tonlé's product and ethics ever since.

How did you get into ethical fashion? 

By accident! With a degree in fine arts my career path meandered from teaching art to training as a Montessori directress. After a difficult summer working in the early childhood education department at a local homeless shelter, my heart was breaking and I’d reached my limit.

As luck would have it I stumbled across an unexpected opportunity at a fair trade shop. It was my first time thinking past the products on the rack to the people involved and it blew my mind a little. Why hadn’t I thought about this before?! I started picking up literally everything- from salt shakers to makeup products to read the fine print about where they were made. Discovering this alternative to mainstream commerce felt like a beautiful intersection of social justice, gender equity and my boundless enthusiasm for handcrafted goods. With each position since then I’ve hopscotched closer to working for brands that reflect my own aesthetics and values. I feel pretty darn lucky to be here today.  

Recycled glass handmade jewelry from Global Mamas with pieces from tonlé's zero waste collection.

In partnership with Global Mamas, traditional beadmakers in Ghana's Eastern Region transform discarded glass bottles into this gorgeous recycled glass jewelry. Several pieces from this collection have been paired with tonlé's zero waste looks for recent shoots. Photo Credit: Jess Bowen + Chloe Jackman

What was your favorite aspect of the job at Global Mamas?

When I started with Global Mamas, a side perk was getting to help with new jewelry development. I’ve always made my own jewelry and for 5 years in college worked at a bead and jewelry shop helping customers design their own pieces. 

All of the recycled glass beads used in Global Mamas’ jewelry collection are handcrafted in house. These beads are *gorgeous* but with imported beads from China and India flooding local markets it’s become increasingly difficult for traditional beadmakers to make ends meet despite generations of expertise. (See the process at a glance, here). My favorite work-weeks each year were spent with colleagues in Krobo- developing new bead molds and sitting elbow to elbow with jewelry assemblers troubleshooting new product ideas.  When I made the decision to move on from GM, leaving this crew was the hardest part. 

 What are you most excited about working on at tonlé?

I REALLY loved tonlé's partnership with the Plant Kween. What a stunning collection! What a fabulous human! Such lush and saturated looks! In addition to creating a truly joy-filled line, this partnership provided the perfect opportunity to continue the conversation about what fashion can look like in a gender-expansive world. Because beauty and joy for all bodies CAN walk hand in hand if we set the intention of doing so. #Inspired

Talking through this collaboration with the team I'm super excited to be a part of imagining future partnerships with members of our community. I have a lot of respect for tonlé's willingness to openly speak out against systemic issues and love the idea of bringing together thought leaders we admire to combine our respective skill sets to create something beautiful. It's gonna be good!

There have been a lot of conversations happening within fair trade around white saviorism and its role in perpetuating some of the very problems it seeks to solve. As a white woman collaborating with Ghanaian women - how did you see your role within the organization, within the fair trade space, and/or - how would you ideally like to see the fair trade community better live up to it’s values of being inclusive and creating mutually beneficial partnerships with makers? 

 Lol. This could be another whole blog post in and of itself. 

Talking to customers and managing social media on behalf of a diverse team means constantly having to check my own language/race/bias/privilege in order to communicate effectively and remain aware of the inevitable power dynamics involved given the situation.

At GM I was lucky to have critically thinking colleagues to talk through these important topics. We also had a super engaged social audience who were unafraid of asking questions and holding us accountable in various ways. Navigating these conversations had hard moments but on more than one occasion I saw the resulting growth that came from being open to reevaluating our process and finding ways to be better. 

Because white saviorism and giveback programs are quite common in the fair trade space, at markets I'd often get asked how we’re “helping those poor people”, or what religious denomination we’re affiliated with, or asked what percent of each purchase “goes back” to the people “over in Africa.”

I believe these questions are asked with good (if ignorant) intentions, but for a brand to put distance between themselves and this rather ugly “savior” dialogue it’s important to stay critically aware of how words and images may inadvertently reinforce familiar stereotypes and power dynamics consumers may expect to see.

Jess wearing the zero waste RJ overalls in black standing in two different poses.

Jess appreciates simple staples such as our RJ Overalls to complement the wild assortment of pattern and oversized jewelry that make up a large portion of her wardrobe. Photo credit: Tory Stolper

 At tonlé we are working on making our clothing more inclusive - so I’d be curious to hear how has your identity affected your clothing choices - and how do you reflect your identity with your clothing choices? When options haven’t been available in the past, how have you adapted? 

Since getting professionally involved in the fashion industry I’ve become much more aware of how brands gender garments in their marketing. In the past I never gave it much thought- either from the advocacy perspective of challenging companies to be more gender inclusive, or as it pertained to my personal wardrobe. 

My personal style ranges from monster truck muscle tees to black minimalist sheaths to femme patterned frocks. I don’t really care if a shirt is labelled “for men” or “for women”- I’m more interested in how it fits, feels, and looks on *me*.  Since high school my personal style has spanned a pretty broad range of looks. Day to day how I choose to express my shifting identity as a woman is very much reflected in the garments I wear. 

Working in the ethical fashion community I find there are a lot more options for femmes (though that’s definitely starting to change!) Fit and flare just isn’t my jam. As I try to be intentional with where I spend my dollars I often shop at thrift stores and search for specific brands whose look I like on sites like Thredup or Poshmark. I like to complement the more unusual patterns and prints I find with simple solids like the ones offered by tonlé or Pact.

The fashion movement is having a much needed reckoning moment around racial justice, equity and inclusion. At the same time - the rigid gender binarism continues to create harm and has pretty much gone unchecked. How has gender binarism in the fashion industry affected you personally? Why do you think it’s important to change this construct? 

My personal style doesn't always fall within traditional stereotypes for a “woman” and neither does that of my partner (who happens to also identify as a woman). Living in Austin in 2020 I’m fortunate to be able to express myself pretty authentically and I’ve chosen to continue living here which in part affords me this privilege. I’m also fortunate to have internet access which means I’m able to find brands I like, with looks that align with how I identify. 

In places where it is dangerous not to identify as heteronormative or cisgender (both in the U.S. and abroad), certain mannerisms or ways of dressing that go against the binary have the real possibility of leading to discrimination and violence. When the fashion industry and larger society clings to traditional norms ‘because that’s how it’s always been done’ it reinforces this discrimination against folx who might not conform to these preconceived notions.

Every human deserves to express themselves freely, in their own body, without fear. For individuals to feel safe- irregardless of what they are wearing or how they present, the broader industry must change.

Jess with her partner Kim wearing zero waste garments from tonlé

 Jess is wearing the Dash T-Shirt Dress in black while her partner Kim wears the handwoven Srey Crop Top. Photo credit: Tory Stolper

If you could change one thing about the fashion industry - what would it be and why? 

This question could go in SO many directions...but after years of working in-person markets, and talking to many beautiful humans fixated on finding the ‘most flattering fit’ to hide their arms/knees/legs/tummy, my initial priority would be eliminating the mainstream definition of beauty that’s blatantly and subliminally shoved down our throats by many fashion and beauty brands. Less fatphobia and self-shaming. More inclusive representation and self-love.

What are your favorite tonlé styles and why? 

The past couple weeks my tomato red Camryn Culottes from the phenomenal Plant Kween collection have been a go-to. They’re high-waisted which makes them great with a crop top and I don’t mind showing a little tummy. The wide legs make them superfun to wear with both slip-ons, high-tops, or big wedgy sandals. In my buddy’s words after seeing them modeled in person- “they’re just SO FRESH!” 

On a more neutral note, the Dara midi dress is another piece I recently acquired. The deep neckline is great for oversized earrings and solid black is always a good choice for setting off body-art to it’s best advantage. 

In the new summer collection I’ve been eyeing the Chaya top for it’s beautiful simplicity which is perfect for Texas summers. I’ve also had the Ny shorts on my mind-I love how the team in Phnom Penh styled them with heels and could see myself wearing them on heavy rotation with various outfits depending on the mood.

Kim and Jess wearing sustainable outfits from tonlé by the pool in Austin, TX.

Photo credit: Tory Stolper


Thanks Cheryl & Daria! Bringing part of a supportive community (yourselves included) is bringing my heart joy. :)

Jess June 03, 2021

Great that you are free to be you and able to work alongside people with similar beliefs to yours and let your creativity fly freely and your personality shine through

Cheryl June 03, 2021

Thanks for sharing your story, Jess! Love tonle! I think you will bring a unique and positive perspective to this brand.

Daria Painter June 03, 2021

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