From Favela to Fashion
'You can see the invisible!'
This is what Tete Romeiro was told when did the unexpected and paid off a bank loan, long before it was due, for the building that she built for the women's sewing cooperative she founded in the early 1980s.
And it’s true. She was able to see what others could not: the potential for a successful high fashion business in a Brazilian shantytown.
When most people think of haute couture, they conjure up images of bone-thin models in high heels sporting vivacious designs on the runways of Paris, London, or New York. Yet, it is in Rocinha, South America’s largest favela, or shantytown, where some of these designs are born.
For Romeiro, it was not difficult to see the possibilities in the talented women that surrounded her in Rocinha, even amidst the obvious challenges of living in this area. The members of the initiative she founded, Coopa Roca, are women who arrived in Rocinha from northeast Brazil and who scored high in sewing skills but less so in marketing vision. Most of its 150 seamstresses have migrated to Rocinha from Brazil's drought-stricken northeast region, trading the danger of rural starvation for the risk of urban violence.
Prior to their work with Coopa Roca, none of the women had a bank account, savings at home, or health insurance. The vast majority of them were homemakers with no income and little opportunity for independent wealth.
And that’s where Romeiro stepped in. She had been an art educator and social scientist, and was coordinating a children's program, when she received a random donation of fabric scraps. Her students' mothers said, "Don't give that material to the kids. Let us use it instead," recalled Romeiro – and they stitched up quilts and pillows. Romeiro was impressed with their brilliant color combinations and spontaneous style, but she noticed that the products took a long time to sew and rendered little income. She realized that she needed to find a way to extend their reach to those with more financial resources.
And thus began Coopa Roca’s journey from patchwork pillows to haute couture.
Romeiro networked in her hometown of Rio, which was becoming a part of the international fashion scene, to identify designers who would offer pro bono lessons to Coopa-Roca members with two purposes: teaching the basics of clothing production, and heightening members' awareness of trends. She got luxury textile factories to donate fabric remnants. They refused to deliver to the favela because of security concerns, so a German partner paid for a mini-van to gather the donated cloth, resulting in a no-cost solution to the raw materials supply issue.
Coopa Roca quickly got attention. Soon after the first training session, Elle and Vogue magazines came to report on the co-op. Once their work began appearing on fashion runways, national and international media recognized the uniqueness and high quality of the seamstresses' work, and brand equity in the Coopa-Roca name grew.
"It's a huge joy. That's when we feel we are Coopa-Roca," says Marta Moreira de Mesquita, a seamstress with three children who has been part of the co-op for ten years.
Membership in the cooperative grew from eight members in 1982 and has surged to 150 steady members today.
Members sew, crochet, and stitch patchwork in their own homes, so they don't have to get outside help to watch their children. They determine their own workloads, sew at their own pace, and set their own hours.
The able fingers of Coopa-Roca members have spun bits of stray cloth into a new source of income for themselves, and a new social awareness for both consumers and fashionistas.
There is nothing invisible about that. You can see it for your own eyes right here.
Reported by Shannon Albran