Salvador de la Bahia, Brazil's third largest city, is growing at great speed – recalling the rapid pace of church construction, back in Medieval times, when 350 churches were built. The number of churches remains relatively steady today, while the population has doubled in twenty years. It is a city where discrepancies become manifest in the social segregation of neighbourhoods: Some neighbourhoods have a Human Development Index (HDI) at the global top together with countries such as Norway, whereas others are more in-line with conflict and poverty ridden countries such as Tajikistan.
For one group of people, Salvador is the place where the rather glamorous and superficial world of cat walks and fashion joins hand with those that live in grim Favela communities. It is a story that starts nearly a decade ago with Mulberry, the well-known exclusive English fashion and accessories label: In 2002, the London based charity Bottletop struck up a collaboration with said top-end fashion brand. In a then unique move--a campaign based around a range of products that were distributed and sold throughout Mulberry stores worldwide--the exclusive fashion brand supported the charity. The sale of the Bottletop collection generated large bottom-line benefits, as well as highly acclaimed publicity and recognition.
The key item of the collection was a bag made from recycled bottletops –hence the name of the charity–by Kenyan and South African artisans. Suffice to say that it became the best-selling bag for Mulberry that season. The bag was highly popular with mainstream fashionistas and VIPs alike, sold out rather quickly, and to this day is a landmark non-profit product in the notoriously short-lived and unsustainable fashion industry. The concept was reused now and again, although on a smaller and more discrete scale, in order to raise funds for Bottletop's projects as well as awareness amongst the fashion crowd. But was eventually laid to rest.
It was not until 2007 when the idea surfaced again by mere coincidence. At the time, Bottletop was working on a Brazilian themed fund-raising CD when they were given an item made from recycled, crocheted ring-pulls, purchased from a Brazilian street vendor in Italy. Next, they discovered that similar items were being made by some of the Favela co-operatives in Salvador–home to their partnering Brazilian record label--and sold to tourists and passers-by for a living. Soon the idea was born to sell ring-pull accessories as merchandise at the album launch. And this ad-hoc collection was, like Mulberry’s version years before, more successful than could have been imagined. Specifically, the bags were popular with the event attendees and sold out he same day. What was meant to be one-off merchandise suddenly seemed like a viable, popular product that could add a more hands-on dimension to Bottletop's activities.
But nothing is quite as easy as it seems at first. With the decision to take the leap and launch an accessories collection made from recycled, crocheted ring-pulls, the sourcing of a reliable and skilled supplier was the next hurdle. Much to their dismay, Bottletop discovered that the co-operative they had produced the merchandise collection with, and whom they had in mind as producers for the retail version, was in fact 'owned' by a single individual, a woman, who skimmed off the lion's share of the profits, while paying her workers mere pocket money. The project was at the verge of being abandoned entirely. After all, the collaboration would have meant to abet strikingly abusive practices, while the original idea was to support the disadvantaged Favela communities.
Everyone who saw the film City of God has an at least superficial idea of what it means to live in one of Brazil's slums: fathers excel through absence, and mothers struggle to feed their children. From a tiny age on, children are left to care for themselves during long hours while their mothers either try to make money as a street vendor, or as a maid for the better-off. Since they are easy prey, the children are targeted and groomed by the Favela gangs. The kids first get to make some money as under-aged drug couriers, and gradually become a full-fledged member of a specific gang, participating in the drug trade, kidnappings, robberies and more. Once a gang manages to get his claws on a child, the mother has lost all control. All she can do is to pray that her child will not be the next shooting or murder victim. A lot could be achieved in breaking this cycle of violence and poverty if more mothers were able to earn money while working from, or close by, their homes.
Trying to find solutions to their supplier problem, fate seemed yet again to be on Bottletop's and the Favela community's side. It happened that their partnering Brazilian record label supported a charity that builds medical centres and education facilities in the Favelas around Salvador. The director of the charity, Luciano, is young, has grown up in the Favela community himself, and has a reputation and a track record for being genuine and reliable.
Luciano's proposal was simple: Why not try and start a ring-pull accessories crocheting workshop themselves? The idea would naturally combine the commercial aspect, creating accessories that could be sold in the United Kingdom, with the development aspect: creating reliable and fairly paid work that would generate income for the Favela community’s single mothers.
In the first training session, eight rather lost-looking attendees were given a crochet hook, ring-pulls, yarn and a brief introduction on how to use the materials. But it was not until sometime later, when they received payment for their finished items, that they “got” what Bottletop was after. The small group of workers has flourished since into an organization with forty-four female and one male worker from two Favela communities, with many more aspiring to become Bottletop crocheters. The majority of the workers specialize in crocheting the ring-pulls together into the different accessory designs. Only a few with a talent for sewing are in charge of the finishing, i.e. adding the lining, the zippers and brand labels.
The first eight crocheters “graduated” from merely experimenting to producing belts within a month of their first tries, and by the second month one of the women had come up with the design for a bag. New items emerge as the crocheters go about their work, experiment with their craft, and from interaction with their co-crocheters. At the time of writing, a whole range of products has been called into existence, among them several types of belts, bags and purses of different designs and sizes, and rose-shaped brooches.
The Bottletop 'ring-pull collection' contributes in reality in more than a single way to the local economy. In addition to creating jobs for their crocheters, all materials are sourced locally. For instance, the ring-pulls are bought from locals who make a living by first collecting recyclable trash such as aluminium cans or glass bottles, and then selling them by the kilo to the best paying entity. The fabric for the lining and the thread for sewing come from local mills, and finally, the zipper was sourced until recently from a local manufacturer, who lost the battle against cheap, low quality Chinese imports and went out of business.
Bottletop's next project will be a full-circle back to its roots in fashion – a world that seems to be part of the organisation's DNA since its inception: Their first ready-to-wear range is currently being designed in a collaboration with the French design studio “Atelier du Sartel” and scheduled to be launched in Autumn/Winter 2011.
To learn more about Bottletop and their ring-pull accessories, visit their website and Youtube chanel. The ring-pull bags and belts are also available online from Bottletop's online shop.
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).