It all started when Veronica D’Souza, a Danish businesswoman, was living in Nairobi (Kenya). In some way, she was attracted to prisons, so she decided to visit a women’s prison there. That’s how she started mentally sketching the idea of her next step. Almost two years later, they’re three: Louise Van Hauen, Stinne Marie Wilhelmsen, and Veronica herself. But it’s not only them; the most special thing about Carcel are the people manufacturing the clothes.
Veronica, Louise and Stinne wanted to do something with women in prison while following their ethical principles and focusing on quality, sustainability, and good materials. All aimed at creating timeless and unique pieces. To start the adventure, they researched the poorest regions with the highest rates of incarcerated women and with the best materials. This made them travel to Peru, where their first idea made sense and became a reality.

They’ve been working with a team of imprisoned women there who know how to work with materials as luxurious as alpaca; in exchange, they provide them with higher salaries than the average, make them feel useful, train them, and let them prove their skills and develop them even more. But it was not about charity, at least, not in a traditional, vertical way; it was something else.

The founders of Carcel are compromised, revolutionary, and powerful, and that’s what they want to reflect through their clothes and what they want the imprisoned women to become. It is an amazing, almost unbelievable story giving us hope and showing a different insight into the fashion industry, in a world and time when everything is instantaneous, quick, fading. We talk to Louise Van Hauen, one of the founders, about how is it like to work with incarcerated women, how has this project improved their lives, and the newest prison they’ve started to work with in Thailand – where they produced the most recent collection, shown during Copenhagen Fashion Week, made of silk.
Carcel Metalmagazine 28.jpg
First things first: who is each of you? How did you meet and how do you complement each other in terms of work?
I’m the Creative Manager and one of the founders. Veronica and I lived together in Nairobi (Kenya) and it all came out there: she was with another business and I was the Creative Manager of a Kenyan brand. Veronica had a curiosity for prisons and told me about it, and I really liked the idea too. Because of that, she drove to a prison in Nairobi and she found women from the village spending all day in the workshops, knitting and doing stuff without really having any outputs, resources or a market.
At some point, Stinne appeared (our third partner). It was the same with her. She has a long experience in graphic design and she was working in a company in Copenhagen. We asked for her opinion and then she couldn’t leave it. So from then on, we became three partners in three different departments: everything you see visually (visual design, campaigns, etc.) is Stinne; all the business and strategy work is Veronica; and all the design in products is me.
I understand that Veronica’s visit to the prison in Nairobi was a sort of starting point. Tell us more about it.
Yes, I think that the beginning of everything was when Veronica visited the prison in Nairobi and saw the women there working. She showed me the products so we could think of something to do out of them, and we quickly agreed that the whole premise, the idea, had to revolve around that: women in prison with lots of skills but nowhere to put them.
What did you do then?
We thought we should do really desirable products, but not for charity. Nonetheless, Veronica was working somewhere else and couldn’t leave. So we had all these women all over the world with lots of time, knowledge and skills, but who couldn’t do anything with them.
Carcel Metalmagazine 22.jpg
How did you go from Kenya to Peru? The idea started in the former, but the first clothes were made in the latter.
To choose the places where we wanted to be, we drew a world map trying to figure out where were the highest rates of female incarceration and women in prison because of poverty. It was also very important to find good natural materials; Kenya wasn’t good enough in that matter, and that’s why Peru came up as one of the first countries to start the production. There are a lot of women in prison because of drug trafficking, and they also have an amazing material, alpaca wool, which is completely underestimated in the rest of the world. They also have an amazing tradition and culture related to the material.
Veronica went to the prison system and said she wanted to make a brand. The prototypes were made and then, it all happened. I had just moved back to Copenhagen when she came back from the trip, she wanted my opinion of the prototypes. So she basically made the whole business plan for it and just needed an opinion on the products. And I loved them. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Peru.
So the idea started in Nairobi while she was visiting the prison but you never did anything there. In that way, the materials are a central point to the whole project.
No, not really. We just bought the things from the prison shop, we were both full-time working somewhere else, and then at one point, we tried to make some prototypes. But the materials and the finishing were not good enough. Then, Veronica left Nairobi, got pregnant and came back to Copenhagen. I stayed there with my full-time job. I think the timing just wasn’t right, but the bases were created there. She really worked on it and sort of gave herself some time and space to think about it all through.
While reading about you, different concepts to describe you are repeated constantly: timeless, sustainable, ethical fashion, and materials are some of them. Do you feel comfortable with these concepts? Which do you think describe you better?
I think it’s interesting to mention all those kinds of words. For instance, we are very ethical, but not in a traditional way. We are trying to be quite progressive, very modern and cool, but also sustainable and ethical. Timeless is also a word that we use quite a lot. We think it’s ‘seasonality’ that’s not sustainable in the fashion world; it doesn’t make sense to present new collections every three months. The fashion industry is built on a technology that is fifty years old; everything is super quick but the technology behind is broken. Seasons are a clear example of that.
So we think of design as less seasonal. It’s modern but it’s not created to last just four months and then go on sale. The garments we produce can be styled up and down, some are trendier and some are more classic, but in general, we try to do something different and more lasting. We want consumers to think of our products as investments to keep in their closet.
Carcel Metalmagazine 25.jpg
The brand’s name is Carcel, which means ‘prison’ in Spanish. Could you tell us why?
I think it was just because we started in Peru. Different names came up but then we chose Carcel. We took away the accent over the ‘a’ so it wasn’t that literal. It was also because we thought it was easy to say. I think it looks exclusive without really knowing where it comes from (unless you speak Spanish). It was like an emotional thought.
You’ve said that poverty is a key factor when it comes to why women commit offences that result in prison time. They end up in drugs trafficking, prostitution, etc. Maybe, if they hadn't been in a certain environment, they could have been successful. I feel like with this project, you try to give them a second chance to thrive, to feel useful. It’s like helping them to find another way of living. Is that your ultimate goal?
Yes. There are different reasons to why we employ women imprisoned, but one of them is definitely turning things around. There are a lot of women incarcerated all over the world because of poverty, and when they get out, they’re super stigmatized – they’re in an even worse situation that they were before. We are trying to give them dignity and an opportunity to prove their skills, as well as giving them possibilities to provide for themselves, for their families, and their children.
We’re trying to say that they’re humans, they are skilled and have lots of dedication, and that shouldn’t change because they’re incarcerated. We don’t judge them; we treat them the same as if they were outside. We respect and educate them. It’s been a really big change for them, they even look physically different. That has been the most rewarding for us. They are very keen and they are putting so much concentration and dedication into it. They see a future now, they have ambitions. That’s been a really big game changer.
How’s your personal contact with these women? Was it difficult at some point? Despite the circumstances, they are imprisoned for committing some kind of crime, be it small or big.
We know them very well. I’ve been in prison three times. We’ve also started producing in Thailand, so I went there this summer – we started with the training program in June, and with the production in July. We feel very connected to the women we work with. The last two times I went to the prison, I brought my son because he knows a lot about the women; we are all like a big family.
It’s also about being smart in business, knowing what they’re good at and what they struggle with. It’s about making it organic. That also includes listening to and knowing them. For example, in Peru, when they get a new design, they always laugh at it and think it’s really weird and ugly. Then, after some months, they’re like, ‘ok, now we get it’. In their minds, they think Louise is weird (laughs). But that’s also important to me.
Carcel Metalmagazine 24.jpg
You said something about the training month in Thailand. How do you find the women? Do you make a sort of casting?
One of the reasons why we also choose the origin is because there’s some sort of culture and understanding of the material. In that sense, most women imprisoned in Peru know how to knit and have an understanding of alpaca. But they’ve never made products with such a high quality as ours, and that’s where the training comes in.
We have a really cool collaborator in Lima, she is a knitting expert and she did all the prototypes initially. We’ve sent her to Cuzco three or four times now, first to train the women, and then to spend a lot of time training them in the machines – many of them have never seen something like those before.
In Thailand, we did vocational training for twenty women, and then we chose eleven of them for production. We always start quite small so we can test the whole ins and outs before we scale. The more we teach them, the better they do; they’re improving. And, of course, we help each other: I teach them and they teach me.
The first person you had contact with was Julius Caesar, the director of Cuzco’s prison. How was the experience like? Did he like the project from the beginning?
Well, this was actually Veronica. She looked for the president of the prison system and he was called Julius Caesar, which was great (laughs). She explained to him our project and he said, ‘Just call me when you’re here’. And well, she travelled to Peru and told him all about the idea. I have to say that the prison system in Peru was extremely supportive and helpful. In fact, they have overpopulated prisons and they’re also interested in prisoners turning their lives around and not getting back into prison.
So they were supportive from the beginning.
They like us for obvious reasons: we treat prisoners well, we give them salaries, and we provide good working conditions, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t be supportive.
Above all, we’ve been talking about your production’s philosophy. But I would also want to know what your aesthetics philosophy is like. How would you describe the women who wear Carcel?
If we should try to describe the women wearing Carcel, we imagine someone quite effortless and who has a very high sense of quality. We like things to be clean, confident, but never boring or conservative. I think that’s what our philosophy is based on. If there’s no reason for something to be there, we take it out. It is the same philosophy we have with the business. Everything has to make sense, and the materials are a big part of it, of course. Alpaca, for example, is so beautiful, it has a little bit of a shine; the same happens with silk.
Carcel Metalmagazine 23.jpg
Don’t you think that, for some people, there could be a moral dilemma because the women manufacturing the garments are imprisoned and, above all, they’re doing it for wealthy people?
Well, one of the things we are trying to challenge a little bit is the way we consume. There are a lot of people who would easily spend three hundred euros in clothing, just that in ten different things instead of just one piece. Our prices reflect what we are putting on it. We do retail because in that way, we can hire and employ more women. When you buy a sweater, a third of it is actually the material, another third is all the other costs, and the other third is to sustain the brand, impact controlling, and so on.
We’ve been asked about this before. It’s interesting because the women that make the clothes are being paid a lot more than other people doing the same. We don’t feel that we compromise anything in that sense. There’s something interesting with the price thing, we can see people react very differently with it. Someone thinks, ‘Wow, that’s really expensive’, and others think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you can make it that cheap’. I think it’s because the brand and its philosophy interest a lot of people. We don’t only interest people that would buy at that price point, but we interest all kinds of consumers.
And that’s really nice! Some big brands use certain countries that are poorer to minimize the production costs, not to dignify the people. But unlike them, you work with the people in these countries (and prisons) to dignify them, train them, and pay them well while using good materials.
We are very transparent about what we do and how we do it, and of course, many more companies are doing the same. I think that’s also a part of the current world. The future is being transparent. If you think what you’re doing is ok, then it must be up to the consumer to think the same. For us, transparency is very important. We also put the names of the women who make the clothes. That’s like the ultimate transparency.
Finally, we want to know what’s next for you with the brand.
We’ve been running really fast; we launched the brand just a year and a half ago and we’re already up and running in two countries. We want to do relevant, current, cool, nice wearing clothes and, at the same time, employ women imprisoned. It’s not just that we do knitwear in Peru, we do quality clothes made by women imprisoned. And I think that if we can introduce a new product, it is easier to show the brand as a whole in a way. Because you get a more wholesome image about what the goal is like, what the styling is like. It would be also exciting to introduce the women in Peru to the women in Thailand, show them pictures of each other. It really feels like a global family because we are a very global company.
Carcel Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 11.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 17.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Carcel Metalmagazine 21.jpg