The phrase ‘Eco-friendly fashion’ is enough to strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting fashionista. Images of hippy-style hemp trousers with a suspiciously musty smell and jumpers that appear to have been crudely stitched from an old burlap sack come to mind.
Well beautiful people of Buenos Aires, fear no more! The alternative? Mestiza’s line of thoroughly modern bags hand-woven from recycled Lycra remaining from a tights factory. These trendy handbags are at the forefront of a growing sustainable fashion trend in Buenos Aires and there isn’t a hemp leaf or burlap sack in sight. Available in a variety of colours and styles, they are also of course extra stretchy to fit in all your essential girly necessities.
The Mestiza brand was an innovative idea conceived by three friends – textile artist Rosa Arena, graphic designer Irene Guntsche and entrepreneur María Sarobe. “We were preoccupied by all the rubbish we produce as a country that ends up in already overflowing landfills and we wanted to find a way to re-use this rubbish,” María explains when I ask her how the concept was born.
“We started experimenting with various different textile products and spent three years carrying out research and tests,” she adds. “We looked for women with experience in textile design and had to teach them our unique weaving technique from scratch. There are no tailors who use this method so each woman we contracted had to be trained.”
I ask María if she can explain the weaving process used to make Mestiza products. “I can go one step better than that, I’ll show you,” she tells me, revealing a little bag and emptying a pile of nylon scraps onto the table. “This is all done by hand, our consciousness of the environment means we don’t use machines. Ours is a handicraft,” she assures me, and begins to weave the scraps of nylon between her fingers in a criss-cross fashion and knot them together. “You need nimble fingers to do this!” she exclaims. “You then go on to use a wooden frame as a support. For now this is our only technique but maybe in the future we will go on to develop more.”
Mestiza follow socially as well as environmentally conscious practices in their production process. There is no factory; the products are quite literally home-made. “We go to poor neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires and give women who can’t go out to work the chance to earn their own living from home. These women may have families to support and a household to run, preventing them from leaving their barrio,” explains Irene.
I ask if these disadvantaged women are paid fairly and am told that the weavers receive a consistent 50% of the sale price of the product. The bags typically sell for between $70 and $120 and Mestiza have produced around 300 of them since starting out three years ago.
Scrap nylon is the principal material used in the production of Mestiza’s range of bags, belts and shawls. Other textile leftovers are utilised for details such as fabric flowers and denim handles. They show me a rainbow-coloured bag, the effect of which has been created with stamps and coloured ink. I am told that the search is currently on for discarded leather in an effort to develop the range of materials recycled. I ask where they get these materials from and Irene explains that no official agreement with the fabric factories they collect scrap materials from exists but they hope to organise a proper programme soon.
María is in charge of marketing for Mestiza and I ask her to describe the profile of the typical Mestiza client. “We mainly sell to young professional women from the age of 30 to 40,” she explains. “Unfortunately most of these women aren’t buying out of environmental consciousness, rather they like the design and the reasonable price… Only very recently have people started becoming interested in the ethics of eco-fashion. The market in Argentina is still small. Our bags have to be attractive because we are competing with all other handbag manufacturers.”
For the above reasons, Mestiza products seem to be rather hard to come by. María, Irene and Rosa started out selling a small range of handbags in open-air markets and fairs around the city three years ago. Last year Argentine fashion label ‘Las Pepas’ ordered a range of handbags to add to its Summer ‘07 collection after the team took a selection of bags to display to them and presented them with a lucrative business proposition.
The Mestiza company would like to open stores in Buenos Aires with other prestigious designer labels, but for now their products are only available via their website. “We would like to sell to clients overseas some time in the future but sending packages abroad is expensive and at this time we lack the economic means,” says Irene. “We plan to seek governmental help in the form of part-funding,” says María hopefully.