What It Takes To Build A Fashion Brand That Empowers Female Artisans

In the Philippines, one of the biggest areas for urban poverty lies in Metro Manila. Here, residents who lived alongside a landfill would dig through the junk to find items they could sell or recycle to earn money to support their families. These individuals, mostly mothers, had spent years weaving rugs out of scrap fashion fabric, earning around twenty cents a day-until an enterprising group of young adults came along to empower these female artisans.

When Reese Fernandez-Ruiz met these women and listened to their stories, she realized that instead of just accepting this inequity as normal, she should do something about it.

Just 21 at the time, Fernandez-Ruiz and a group of nine cofounders came together to form a social enterprise, born equally out of compassion and frustration. They wanted to address this social injustice by partnering with women and empowering them through fair wages and skills-based programming that includes financial literacy and enrichment training.

What resulted was the fashion and design house called Rags2Riches (R2R), whose chic accessories have since made their way into U.S. stores like Anthropologie, garnering international accolades along the way.

Previously, these community artisans were stuck in between middle men who would trade their goods and pay them unfairly. Now,  R2R works with one of the best designers in the Philippines and partners with these local women to create eco-ethical fashion and home accessories out of upcycled, overstock cloth and indigenous fabrics. By professionalizing home-based craftswomen, R2R has found a way to merge high fashion with community artistry, creating pieces that are meaningful and have sustainable impact. 

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A Rags2Riches artisan demonstrates the signature basket weave with R2R cofounder Reese Fernandez-Ruiz.

“By virtue of existing in the world, businesses have the responsibility to make the world a better place,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “It wasn’t just important to me to create a mission-driven company. For me, it was the only way to go.” 

Envisioned as a solution to improve the lives of community artisans in the Philippines, Fernandez-Ruiz knew it was an ambitious goal. Ten years later, the business has successfully trained 1,000 artisans and supported hundreds of families, yet Fernandez-Ruiz is the first to admit there were a lot of bumps along the way.

Armed solely with a college degree, minimal work experience and a decent amount of hubris, she thought she knew enough to launch a business, as long as she had an open heart. “Although we knew it would be challenging to build and sustain an artisan-centric business in a world of fast fashion, we thought it would be worth it,” she said. 

Initially, the challenge for R2R was gaining the trust of the women in the community. Then, the fear was not being credible enough to establish a real and lasting partnership with them. Fernandez-Ruiz’s youth and inexperience quickly became apparent as she navigated newfound challenges like market penetration, cash flow, managing boards, and seeking investments, yet she relied on grit to push through the obstacles. Trust was built, broken and rebuilt over time, yet regardless of how difficult things became, she refused to give up.

Running a social enterprise added another complicated layer that included things like identifying and approaching the most marginalized and seemingly unemployable citizens, training them and providing them with meaningful work that could ultimately lift them out of poverty.

When R2R launched, participating women started earning more, which enabled them to send their children to school, put more food on their tables, and plan for the future. R2R artisans experienced, on average, a 54% increase in incomes, accompanied by a sense of security afforded only by a stable livelihood and access to opportunities that were not previously available.

Now that R2R has demonstrated measurable success, Fernandez-Ruiz has her sights set on an expansion project. To further scale impact to more communities, R2R recently launched Things That Matter, a “joyful (online) marketplace that creates positive impact and inspires an intentional lifestyle.”

More than just a one-stop shop for beautiful and meaningful products, Things That Matter is also a community of advocates that is creating a better world, one intentional purchasing decision at a time. The site features cause-driven brands from the Philippines and creates a network of social entrepreneurs who are learning and growing together, something Fernandez-Ruiz would have benefitted from personally when she began building her business.

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One of the Rags2Riches female artisans proudly lets customers know who made their bag.

For women thinking about launching a social enterprise who aren’t too sure how to begin, heed the following advice learned by the R2R team over the years:

Start with the right reasons.

If your main reason for starting a business is to feel good about doing good, look deeper, because doinggood does not always feel good. Enduring reasons don’t fade away easily, so you need a strong why, a purpose that you can nurture, nourish, and let flourish.

Show up when it gets tough.

No matter what happens, show up. Building something unique that is good for the world is hard and there will be days when you won’t want to send that email, answer that call, or make that painful decision. Do it anyways.

Always inspire hope.

There is a difference between being vulnerable and being defeated. Be vulnerable, but avoid being defeated – even in words. As an entrepreneur who creates impact for a living, shed light and share hope, even in your darkest moments.

“This journey is a joyful one,” said Fernandez-Ruiz, “oftentimes filled with unexpected challenges, yet always worth it.”

source:-forbes