"Retail Therapy", Vogue Magazine, March 2004
Monday 01 March 2004
Charlotte di Vita has devoted her life to promoting ethical trade through her charity Trade plus Aid. For her latest project, she is selling art specially created by celebrities - sweet charity, indeed. By Julia Llewellyn Smith
The best description of herself that Charlotte di Vita ever heard was when she was in the Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford. We were with a Japanese buyer, who keep asking "but who is she?", she laughs. "The Lane Crawford man replied 'She is a compassionate capitalist,' and I thought "Yes, that is exactly what I am". Meet di Vita, however, and the first word that springs to mind is simply "glamorous". Sitting at the dining table of her Fulham loft, in spiked heels and a Diane Von Furstenberg dress, she has the looks and magnetism the world associates more with red-carpet premieres than remote African villages.
Di Vitas has used her charisma to change the world. Since it was founded in 1992, her charity, Trade plus Aid, has raised over $5 million, and helped communities in 21 developing countries to become self-supporting. She has built schools where there were none, helped drought-stricken farmers survive looming famine, and opened shelters for the destitute. "Meeting Charlotte was such a revelation," says her friend, the actor Ewan MacGregor. "She has spent her whole adult life not only setting up and working charities, but also doing it in a wholly focused and productive way."
Di Vita, 36, fundraises not through tin-rattling or playing on our guilt (Trade plus Aid does not even accept donations), but by helping communities produce beautiful items we covet, regardless of where the profit goes. "Whether we like it or not, money rules the world. I am turning that on its head. My friends spend a fair portion of their salaries in Prada and Moschino, but I know if I took them to Africa and got them to spend the same amount on a school, they'd get the same buzz of retail therapy. I can't do that so instead I get them to buy something gorgeous, the profits of which will fund a school."
Having received an MBE at 32 for her charitable work, di Vita is now preparing her most ambitious project to date, entitled 21st-Century-Leaders. Her plan is to exploit our twin preoccupations with celebrity and shopping by setting up a global brand selling "fun and beautiful products". To endorse it, di Vita sent 120 leaders in their field - politicians, sportsmen, royalty, actors, musicians, designers and writers - an "activity case" containing all the materials needed to produce an artwork, and asked them to send her in return a self-portrait, a simple message and a symbol of hope.
Di Vita shows off some of the artwork she's already received: a satirical cartoon on the Middle East from George Clooney; a globe from Christopher Reeve; a stick figure with huge breasts from Jerry Hall; a wobbly-handed cartoon of a woman holding a tennis racquet from Martina Navratilova.
Initially, the designs will be put on porcelain plates (produced by Thai women who without this opportunity, might otherwise be forced into prostitution), but di Vita plans to produce a wide range of items that will be sold worldwide (Donna Karan has promised a concession in every store and is lending her late husband's sculpture studio for the New York launch in November). "Jewelry, scarves, wallpaper...The possibilities are endless!" she cries. Next, she is planning to approach Fidel Castro, Thabo Mbeki and Bill Clinton.
"It's 15 minutes of their time to do an artwork, and its not just for a one-off sale or auction - I can use it to create employment and royalties that will help the charities for years."
Di Vita has always been compelled to help. "When I was nine, someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said 'Alleviate poverty'". At boarding school, she made glass bracelets and necklaces, selling them to classmates to raise money for guide dogs. After reading PPE at Edinburgh University, she set off for Brazil to save the rainforests. But as no one would take a "blond, female, 25-year-old" seriously, she approached the Prince of Wales and asked him to patronize an international conservation conference. "With him on board, I went straight to see Brazil's President Collor and persuaded him to close the Central Bank for three days to provide a secure venue. We ended up with 300 of the world's top conservation specialists in one room." Within a year, she had raised $1.25 million, and established a conservation park, larger than Britain, in southern Amazonia.
She soon moved on to Africa and the idea for Trade plus Aid was born when she fell ill with dysentery in a remote corner of Ghana. The villagers, who nursed her back to health, told her they were about to be driven from their land after a terrible drought. She offered them her last £800 of traveling money, but, as they were too proud to accept the money as a gift, she spent it commissioning local craftsmen to carve 800 wooden pendants in the shape of Ashanti goddesses. "I lugged them back to London, where I roped in volunteers to sell them at Portobello and Camden markets. They became the fashion accessory of the early Nineties, worn by celebrities such as Naomi Campbell. Within 2 years, di Vita had raised enough money to ensure the survival of 6,000 farms, employing 25,000 people, and importing goods from 18 more communities in Africa and South America.
Soon, however, it was time to expand. "I was tired of producing trendy stuff that only lasted six months," says di Vita. "I wanted to build a brand." Having decided to create a range of teapots, she set off for China, where in a remote mountain village she tracked down the only man in the world familiar with the seventeenth-century enameling techniques she wanted to use. A factory was built, and the first teapot collection was snapped up by buyers at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. Within a year, the output had increased and 526 people in this desperately poor region were being employed. "We have a bonus scheme, a cinema, and a canteen there now", she enthuses. "And all this from people who tell the time by the moon and sun; who've never even seen a watch."
Her enthusiasm is utterly inspiring, yet she is touchingly deprecating about her achievements. "I know I mustn't bore my friends about it", she says. "I traveled to New York recently with a girlfriend who was going to Harry Winston to buy her engagement ring, and I started ranting about the diamond market. By the time we arrived, she was wailing 'I don't want a diamond anymore'. I felt terrible."
It is increasingly rare to meet such selflessness nowadays, but di Vita plays down her own worthiness. "People always say to me: 'Your work must be so satisfying, you must sleep so well', but in fact I rarely get any sleep. At the end of the year, I give away all the money I have raised so I am always under financial strain and having to start afresh. But it's true, when 750 children run up to you and say, 'Thank you for building us a school', you feel pretty good about life."