The Little Green Dress - It Takes a Village

by Natalie Bencivenga


July 21, 2020 

As the fashion industry searches for new paths forward, it can be overwhelming to think of the many challenges that designers, artists, and craftsman face when working towards solutions to global problems like pollution and unethical labor practices that mark the style landscape. 

In times of great struggle, however, great innovation and vision can be born. Tereneh Idia, founder of Idia’Dega and 2004 Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar of Kenyatta University in Kenya, is ready to not just think big, but create a project so big that it takes, well, a village to complete.

Having always been interested in the idea of bridges and connections, she wanted to explore all of the different facets of community through a new work of art. “I have loved fashion since I was a little girl. Looking at magazines like Vogue or Essence...I saw where indigenous cultures were being copied or appropriated or used as inspiration. But you didn’t get a sense of where these ideas originated from,” she said. 

Her inspiration for eco-global fashion also drew from the relief work she was involved in while studying in Africa. “We worked for famine relief in many rural communities who are experiencing climate change induced famine,” she said. 

Because of climate change, the millennia-old agricultural processes that had been passed down for generations were not working. “Either everything was too wet or too dry. Planting at certain times wasn’t creating crops like they would normally yield. It was eye-opening to see how all of this is connected,” she said. 


She was talking to a traditional cotton farmer and he shared how he wanted to get away from the conventional process of cultivating cotton. 

“It uses so much water and toxic chemicals. He wanted to transition into organic cotton but he said to me, ‘Who will buy it?’ So I told him, ‘I would.’” It was then she realized that if she was going to become a designer, the only way forward would be to use sustainable materials. “Or I wasn’t going to do it,” Idia added. 

After teaching at Parsons - The New School for Design in New York City and as Visiting Scholar on global fashion at Yale - National University of Singapore, she began her own designing studio. Idia’Dega was born. 

Idia, Tereneh’s middle name that she now uses as her last name, means Queen Mother, specifically one Benin Queen Mother who was an advisor and military general during her son's reign as king. 

The saying goes, "No women go into battle, except Idia." 'Dega is short for Diondega, the Seneca Native American name for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her hometown. Dega also means Truth in Wolof. “I used both for the brand because I wanted to pay tribute to both indigenous African and American peoples,” she said. 

She notes that we don’t acknowledge that we are at this point in human history where some things may stay, and some may leave. “We have to acknowledge the originators of ideas and designs before it is too late,” said Idia. 

So it would seem only fitting that her inspiration for her latest project would not only pull from this idea, but tangibly incorporate it into the work. Knowing that the pandemic would disrupt her fashion presentation for February 2020, she started to shift her thinking about what would make sense to showcase in this brave new world. “It felt weird to just post about dresses or jewelry. I wanted to connect people through fashion and also make a statement about this moment in time,” she said. 

She began thinking of a garment that would incorporate the three rivers of Pittsburgh. “The shape of the dress I designed is inspired by the rivers. The Ohio river makes up the torso, legs and train. The Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers are the sleeves. And I wanted the whole city involved,” said Idia.


And so, OAM was born. The Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela extend from the Golden Triangle which represents the head of the person who would wear this garment. “I requested that people send me swatches of fabric that they have in their homes. I wanted to repurpose people’s pieces to talk about how we can create together even when we aren’t physically with one another.” 

The stories associated with the fabrics being sent to her are just as extraordinary as the idea itself. 

“Crocheted yamachas that someone sewed for a wedding while going through chemotherapy, fabrics from a family of tailors from the 1940s, pieces of face masks worn during the pandemic… all of these stories will be woven together,” she said.

Using tulle that she rescued from Creative Reuse as the base of the gown, Idia hopes to capture the spirit of the people of Pittsburgh with their gifts. “It’s been so emotional. I have cried so many times. I have been humbled — and I don’t throw that word around--and so grateful for people who have trusted me with their heirlooms. I feel so much joy in doing this and I also feel this huge responsibility to make the most beautiful piece that I possibly can.” 

It is important to Idia that the pieces have room to express themselves and work in a conversation together. “I imagine this to be an evolving garment that is never really finished. Maybe it will always be added to. Sort of how we are. Our stories live on long after us. We are never really gone, I think we all continue to live on in different ways. This is just one expression of that.” 

Want to contribute a piece of fabric for the OAM Project? CLICK HERE.


Natalie Bencivenga is a regular columnist with The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter.