It’s difficult to talk about ethical fashion in the country without mentioning Rags2Riches, the 13-year-old fashion and design house founded by Reese Fernandez-Ruiz. For over a decade, Rags2Riches has been providing sustainable livelihood to artisans through “joyfully woven” pieces—artisanal items that have landed on international runways and pages.
Aside from the glitz and fame that Rags2Riches—also known as R2R—has achieved over the years, the creative enterprise has achieved something even more extraordinary: proving that sustainable fashion could thrive in the country.
“When we started, sustainable fashion was such a niche concept in the Philippines. And throughout the years, we have seen many brands emerge and adopt sustainable practices in their supply chains too,” Reese shares. At the time, the fashion industry was rocked by a tidal wave of global fashion brands, each one-upping the other on the multitude of style trends they could cash on.
Today, local brands are dime a dozen, each driven by the purpose of breathing life into old fabric and shining the spotlight on Filipino craftsmanship—a path that R2R helped pave.
“I believe this movement is because of the direction of the world in general but I do think R2R became one of the examples that it can be done,” Reese explains, adding that R2R proved that style and sustainability could co-exist.
Ethical fashion and sustainability may now be common in the fashion world’s lexicon, yet the journey to get there was filled with trials and bumps in the road, each leading to rich and colorful experiences that make up the fabric of R2R today.
From rags: R2R’s humble beginnings
Although much has changed in over a decade, R2R’s reason for being remains the same. “I was part of the founding team of R2R 13 years ago,” Reese shares, “and the reason why we started is still the reason why we are here.”
According to the R2R founder, the social enterprise began with a straightforward goal: to help augment the income of artisans who were earning below minimum wage for their craft. “We met a group of artisans, mostly women, who were weaving foot rugs out of scrap fabric and were only earning 10 to 16 pesos a day for almost a whole day’s work. So at first, we started out as a simple solution to this unfair trade. We thought that we should create a business that will partner with the artisans and provide them with direct access to the market,” Reese explained.
Beginning with a modest donation of 10,000 pesos, Reese and her founding partners pooled together their own resources, from money to time and effort, in building R2R from the ground up. “I could still remember the very early days when we would go to the communities where the artisans would be weaving panels from their homes. We also started with one shared table and closet in the NGO office of one of our founders,” Reese narrated, adding that they took a DIY approach in their early days. “We would print our own invites, burn our own CDs for events —those were the CD days—, and did everything from carrying boxes to doing strategic presentations.”
Reese cherishes those founding memories, adding that she tries to maintain the business’ scrappy nature even today. “Even if we are a more mature company now, I’m still happy that we are still very agile, scrappy, and in touch with our advocates. We don’t ever want to lose that personal touch. Because we believe in our purpose, there is no task that is beneath us. Every single task keeps our mission and leads to our vision.”
In between the fabric: beyond “joyful weaving”
R2R was meant to be a simple solution. Yet like the intricacies of its weaves, the issues underneath proved to be more complex—yet another sign that Reese and her team needed to continue growing their ideas and propel the brand even further.
The enterprise developed comprehensive programs for its artisans, such as the Artisan Academy and the Quality of Life Program. “The Artisan Academy is our set of modules that cover values formation, financial literacy, business development, skills training, and other modules that are designed to enrich the lives and livelihoods of our artisans,” Reese explains. “The Quality of Life Program essentially starts with individual savings accounts for our artisans to be able to save and thus, plan for the future.” The Quality of Life program has also expanded to include access to investments.
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Through their livelihood and programs, many of R2R’s community partners have become empowered individuals leading their families and communities. “We are happy that many of our artisans have progressed in R2R and became community leaders themselves. Their children are in school, some have even finished college! Our artisans also have savings plans and can plan for the future, which is a huge deal when the goal is to get out and stay out of poverty,” Reese shares, adding that many of R2R’s artisans now feel empowered and have control over their lives and future.
This includes Zenaida Alvarez, one of the pioneer makers in R2R’s Payatas community since 2007, who used to sew rags sold in the local market. “Noong nasa R2R kami, nagkaroon kami ng savings, nagkaroon kami ng account sa bangko tapos kapag nagigipit sa bangko na pumupunta hindi na kami nag-uutang pa sa kung saan saan,” Zenaida recounts, adding that her secure livelihood with R2R has allowed her to purchase a smartphone for her child’s online learning in the midst of the pandemic last year.
“Before R2R started, our artisan partners were already amazing and inspiring individuals who just did not have the right opportunities to propel them forward,” Reese reflects. “Our partnership in R2R opened so many doors for them and gave them a platform to fulfill their potential. But they were not the only ones who improved in this journey. We improved, too! I improved, too. I started out in R2R as a young leader with a lot of heart but only a little experience and expertise. But our artisans taught me how to not just be a better leader, but also a better person.”
As R2R grew over the years, the company continued to receive awards and investments that helped fund further education and training for the artisans, creating products that were sold through market fairs, their website, and eventually, the brand’s own stores.
From their pioneer Payatas community, R2R works with and supports several partner communities all over the Philippines, keeping weaving traditions and local textiles alive while providing sustainable livelihood to Filipino craftspeople.
Reese acknowledges that in spite of the awards and distinctions R2R has reaped, the brand still has a long way to go, and work still to be done. This means collaborating with others in order to realize this vision. “Poverty and lack of access to opportunities are complex problems,” the founder says. “We don’t have all the answers or all the solutions so we partner with those who have and will work on what we can.”
To riches: Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary
Reese believes that the magic in R2R lies in seeing the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary things. “We started with seeing the potential in our amazing artisan partners and what they can achieve given the right opportunities. We realized the potential of deadstock fabric and the beautiful pieces they can become. And we did all these together, in collaboration with each other. The many minds and hearts that built R2R are the reasons why we are able to see extraordinary things out of the ordinary,” the founder explains.
Reese understands the value of finding the right collaborators—like-minded and like-hearted partners who believed and shared in the brand’s vision.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Reese knew that the priority was to ensure the safety of her team and communities, while ensuring that their livelihood continued. Her team relied on online channels to keep the business going while remaining safely connected in their homes.
In a period of massive disruption, technology provided R2R the avenue to adapt to the needs of the time, while remaining true to the brand’s core. Partnering with the right provider was crucial in ensuring the brand’s survival during an unprecedented period.
“We pivoted our sales channels to be fully online. We were able to communicate well with each other, connect with our advocates, and sell products online, because of digital tools and the internet with Globe as our provider. We would not have been able to keep our artisans’ livelihood going without technology.”
Reese and the R2R team found the right partner in Globe Platinum, as they launch their Owning the Extraordinary campaign.
Globe Platinum and R2R collaborated on a collection called Mundo, a travel capsule collection for now and better days ahead. Mundo consists of three bags and a parka—a Carry-On Carry-All, a multi-functional bag that Reese says can be used for “weekend trips for now and longer global vacations in the future” with a removable shopping bag; a convertible backpack-slash-shoulder bag with a drop-in purse; a crossbody bag that can fit all travel essentials; and the last piece, a travel parka that can be folded into a drawstring bag. All pieces were handcrafted with woven upcycled fabric, Binakol fabric, and locally sourced leather.
“I wanted us to create a collection that would encapsulate everything we stand for and at the same time go beyond our own experiences so the pieces can fit the lives of those who will receive them,” Reese explains. “Owning the Extraordinary means so much more when you realize that each piece in our collection is intentionally designed, handmade by artisans, and created to not just make something beautiful but empower beautiful lives as well.”
Born out of a simple solution, Rags2Riches grew into an extraordinary enterprise that saw the best in the humble craft of weaving and its communities. “All I wanted was to open opportunities for artisans who were working so hard to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. But throughout R2R’s life and progress, I realized that while fashion is one of the biggest sources of problems in the world, it can also be the source of solutions,” Reese shares.
In this sense, Rags2Riches not only changed what it means to support local craft but helped reshape the perception of fashion as an industry by harnessing its power for good. “Through fashion, we can reimagine ordinary things and transform them into extraordinary statements of who we are as people,” the R2R founder explains. And because of this, fashion can be a way for the raw skills of artisans to be further honed to create a fair and empowering livelihood for them.”
“Fashion may be an industry that creates beautiful things, but I find it inspiring that it can also create beautiful lives.”
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