A recent fashion show in Manila's business district was in full swing, with models walking the runway slinging brightly colored purses of different styles from Philippine Fashion powerhouse Rajo Laurel's latest collection. The high-fashion purses have come a long way from their humble beginnings: floor mats made of old rags discarded in one of the largest dump sites in the Philippines.
The evolution of the rags to riches started five years ago with a vision held by a Jesuit seminarian who was assigned to a parish at the Payatas dumpsite, northeast of Manila; about 60,000 people live around the dump's fringe. Father Xavier Alpasa said he saw exploitation flourishing as he ministered in this deeply impoverished community.
Women were buying dumpsite scraps that scavengers picked and sewing them into rugs to be sold commercially. "Middlemen were coming in and buying the rugs at 9 pesos and selling them to department stores for 35 pesos," Father Alpasa said. "Then I was asking, 'Where did all the profit go? Why is it all going to the middlemen? How come the women would only get 1 peso as a profit?'"
Father Alpasa, who is known as "Father Javy" (pronounced "HAH-vee"), was a successful professional for 10 years before he was called to the priesthood. He took on the role of middleman for the women. At their first bazaar the rugs sold out in an hour. Father Alpasa and several friends who wanted to help tapped Laurel for ideas on how to make the rugs more marketable.
Laurel took the rugs and, in one evening, created Fashion Accessory concepts out of the big squares. Folding the material, he saw wine-bottle holders, wallets and purses. He said he no longer saw rags. So the for-profit fashion company Rags 2 Riches was born with a goal of doing good while also increasing its bottom line.
"We coined the name Rags 2 Riches because it is what it is. It is that, and richness can be defined in many ways, not just financially. For me (it can be defined) morally," Laurel said. Father Alpasa encouraged a budding entrepreneur and Payatas volunteer teacher, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, to take the reins as president when she was 22. She said the last five years have been "a ride."
"It's been life-changing both for me and for the artisans that we're supporting," Fernandez-Ruiz said. "It always validates the belief that there is hope in the world, and you can really do something to make other people rise above poverty." Today the weavers fill orders for Rags 2 Riches, making quality rugs and high-end accessories out of garment factory leftovers, organic materials and indigenous fabrics. They sell at specialty boutiques in five-star hotels and high-end malls, so each piece is made to very high standards.
With the bar set high, the weavers who attended the fashion show said they do not mind doing the work over and over again. "But I keep on trying," she said. "It's really a challenge to have it accepted because, unless it's accepted, you're just not fulfilled. It would be like (doing all that work for) nothing. ... Besides, you're earning." Father Alpasa explained that a larger share of profits goes directly to the makers, while about 20-40 percent of the price of any one product is invested in operations, for now. In Laurel's line, a small clutch purse sells for close to $50; a larger tote runs about $120.
The artisans work from home and are paid per piece, which gives them time to raise their families. They have the potential to earn the minimum wage of $10 per day or for every eight hours worked. Individuals can earn more as trainers. The company also provides education in financial literacy, business operation and family values formation. The skills learned can be a lifeline for someone who comes from a poor community where the average family's size is six and there is barely enough to feed the children.
Rosanna Alipao was one of the first rug makers from Payatas. She said her husband once regarded her work as a waste of time. "Now, he doesn't have any work," Alipao said. "That's what is putting food on the table for us now." Alipao's husband recently joined the group of weavers, which has seen a few men enter its ranks. The group has swelled to 550 from the original three.
A few dozen members have formed the Rags 2 Riches cooperative that manages production, and they expect to see dividends once the company becomes profitable. Profitability is just around the corner, according to Fernandez-Ruiz, who said the company is growing exactly as the founders dreamed. The founding partners are looking ahead to the next five years when they expect to employ at least 3,000 more weavers in the hope of filling orders for international fashion retailers.
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