Favela Fashion Brings Women Work
A highly successful cooperative of women in Brazil has shown that it is possible for outsiders to make it in the fast-paced world of fashion. Despite being based in one of Rio de Janerio’s slums, or favelas, the women have developed a reputation for high-quality merchandise and even put on fashion shows.
Fashion earns big money around the world: The global clothing industry is estimated to be worth more than US $900 billion a year. But fashion also has a reputation for relying on sweat shops, poor pay and poor working conditions. The poor are the most at risk of exploitation in the industry – upwards of 90 percent of sweatshop workers are women.
Yet the COOPA-ROCA cooperative – or Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Co-operative Ltd – has pioneered a way to involve poor women in the business, build their skills while creating high-quality products, and be flexible enough to make time for their families’ needs. It particularly helps single mothers.
The cooperative was founded by Maria Teresa Leal in Rocinha – the largest favela in Rio, home to over 180,000 people. After visiting her housekeeper’s home in the favela, Leal was impressed by the sewing skills of the women but found they weren’t making any money from their work. She decided to found the cooperative in 1981 and start making quilts and pillows. By the early 1990s, the cooperative had attracted the attention of Rio’s fashion scene. And in 1994, it jumped into making clothes for the fashion catwalks. Fashion designers in turn taught the women advanced production skills and about fashion trends.
Today, the coop has established a hard-won reputation for quality and sells its clothes to the wealthy elite of Rio. Its success has led to contracts with major clothing stores, including Europe’s C&A.
“Creativity is an important tool for transforming people and raising their consciousness,” Leal told Vital Voice. “My great passion is beauty. Beauty has the capacity to inspire, to touch individuals in a more subtle way. For this reason, I like to make beautiful things with the artisans of COOPA-ROCA.”
Leal realized that most small businesses helping the poor fail despite their best intentions. They often make the same mistakes: they fail to produce high quality goods, they fail to do market research and understand who they are selling to, they fail to develop the skills of their workers, and most importantly, they fail to see that they have to compete in a global economy with lots of other enterprises. How many people have seen crafts and knickknacks for sale that nobody really wants?
Slum dwellers are on the increase across the South. As the world becomes a more urban place – and 70 million people move every year to the world’s cities (UN) – the growing population of poor women and households presents a dilemma: how to provide meaningful work so they do not fall risk to exploitation? Without work opportunities, women can feel pressured to turn to prostitution, or even be trafficked by gangs for work or sex. And women in slums experience greater levels of unemployment than those who live elsewhere (UNHABITAT).
Women now make up the majority of the world’s poor: 70 percent of the world’s poor are women, as are a majority of the 1.5 billion living on less than US $1 a day (UNESCO).
Established in 1981 from a recycling project for local children, COOPA-ROCA started with finding ways to use thrown away scraps of cloth to make clothing. It eventually evolved into a cooperative. It focused on improving traditional Brazilian decorative craftwork skills like drawstring appliqué, crochet, knot work and patchwork.
“COOPA-ROCA works with traditional handicraft techniques that are widely used by women around the world,” explains Leal. “As COOPA-ROCA works with fashion, and fashion is always linked with media, the COOPA-ROCA artisans inspire other women who recognize in themselves the potential to do the kind of work that COOPA-ROCA does.”
For its first five years, COOPA-ROCA concentrated on building the organization and the skills of the artisans. Once a production structure was in place, quality control workshops were set up to increase the quality of the products so they could compete better in the marketplace.
“Many social projects believe that money is the only resource required to begin their work. The COOPA-ROCA case proves that social organizations must use a more entrepreneurial vision to understand the concept of resources.”
The cooperative’s mission statement is to “provide conditions for its members, female residents of Rocinha, to work from home and thereby contribute to their family budget, without having to neglect their childcare and domestic duties.”
By doing this to a high standard, the profile and reputation of traditional crafts has been raised.
The COOPA-ROCA hopes the work shows others how they can increase income in poor communities. The cooperative has 150 members and has partners in the wider fashion and decorative design markets.
The women equally share responsibility for production, administration and publicity. While they work at home, they come to the office to drop off the completed pieces and pick up more fabric.
The success of the cooperative has led to donations of funds to build a new headquarters designed by architect Joao Mauricio Pegorim.
Despite the cooperative’s success, it is still not easy to work with partners. “There are many negative preconceptions about Rocinha and the people who live there, both within and outside of Brazil. COOPA-ROCA is consistently rejected when it applies for loans,” Leal said. “Furthermore, the cooperative’s commercial partners usually do not enter the favela themselves, and I must serve as a bridge between the two worlds.”
But Leal is still ambitious for bigger things: “I envision COOPA-ROCA expanding to include 400 women artisans, producing for commercial partners, selling their own brand in Brazil and abroad, and carrying out fashion and design projects in the new headquarters in Rocinha.”
1) The online service CafePress is a specially designed one-stop shop that lets entrepreneurs upload their designs, and then sell them via their online payment and worldwide shipping service.
2) Tips on how to start your own t-shirt business.
3) Once inspired to get into the global fashion business, check out this business website for all the latest news, jobs and events.
4) iFashion: This web portal run from South Africa has all the latest business news on fashion in Africa and profiles of up-and-coming designers.
5) Kiva: Kiva’s mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty.
6) Betterplace: Is another great way to solicit funds for NGOs or businesses in the developing world.
7) Viva Favela: The first Internet portal in Brazil. Viva Favela has a team made up of journalists and “community correspondents” – favela residents qualified to act as reporters and photographers.
8) Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass by Mayra Buvinic (1998).