Eight years ago, just a few months after graduating with a degree in visual arts, US-native Liz Gleeson decided to take a leap of faith and fly south to Buenos Aires to get to know the city. Today, in her tiny studio in Palermo, the self-proclaimed designer dreams of stimulating local textile production through her entirely hand-made clothing line, URSA, an independent label that seeks to take advantage of the raw materials that Argentina has to offer in an attempt to “bridge a gap at being responsible, ethical, ecological, and being well-marketed,” explains Liz.
Fascinated by her boyfriend’s family-owned textile factory, an aspiration emerged in Liz’s heart to revive something that has been lost, while at the same time finding a new way to produce textiles and work with traditional handicrafts. Despite lacking a background in fashion – or any experience – her enthusiasm to challenge the Argentine textile industry’s association with mass-produced, poor-quality clothing (that is often manufactured in clandestine sweatshops by illegal immigrants) developed to the point where she began collaborating with three women’s cooperatives in the manufacturing process of her clothing line.
After several attempts to find the workforce that she had envisioned, two years ago Liz began working with a women’s knitting cooperative in Villa 31. In addition, she works with a women’s weaving group in Tigre, which she found through the NGO Talentos, as well as a sewing group in Villa Lugano and a Peruvian tailor. Although Liz admits it has been challenging to establish a business relationship with people who don’t use e-mail and, in some cases, don’t have cellphones, she takes pride in the knowledge that URSA’s manufacturing process is indirectly involved in the eradication of sweatshops, whilst admiring the skill that the women that she works with bring to the label.
“That’s my favourite part of what I’m doing. It’s working with these people who are really making an effort to sort themselves out, to get their lives together, and to advance through their own skills,” she says.
A key theme of the business model is her commitment to “ethical textile”, which she defines as being aware of what is happening in every stage of the production chain and making sure that those involved have a voice. “I feel like part of what I’m selling is trust, you know? Trust in that you can count on me, I’m telling you, this is how it’s made. I am involved in every stage and I’m vouching for what all this is, I’m vouching for the label to say that I know who made it, I’m the one who delegated this and I control every aspect of it,” she proudly emphasises.
Discrimination and racism are also protagonists in the textile industry, as Liz sees that clothing depreciates in value in the eye of the Argentine consumers when made by immigrants. She assesses that the public turns a blind eye to those immigrants who are toiling away and being exploited in clandestine sweatshops. A supporter of La Alameda, a non-profit that functions as an anti-sweatshop taskforce in Buenos Aires, Liz is convinced that there are more levels to the underlying issue of exploited immigrants that are not taken into consideration, as she has silently assumed on her previous visits to the women’s houses in Villa 31 that their current situation must be better than the one they come from.
“It’s really hard, I think, to dip your toe into that whole situation. It’s hard to believe that living there is better than what people came from. But in the end, I don’t know their experiences and their reasons for doing this and, in a lot of cases, they’re doing it for their children so that their kids can be Argentine and get ahead here and have that possibility for their future. They’re the first step in what I suppose is a whole chain and they’re just doing what they have to do. I think the whole thing is quite complicated, it’s very easy to simplify it and say, ‘this is bad, this is good’. I think it’s important to be attentive to different points of view in this particular issue and be open to what other people have to say or maybe what the real situation is.”
In her studio, colourfully decorated with designs and sketchbooks, Liz keeps a stack of sheep’s wool from Patagonia, from where she currently sources all of her raw materials.
However, she excitedly announces that she will be producing her own materials at her in-laws’ factory soon. Liz plans on incorporating goat, guanaco, and llama hair to her clothing line in the near future, as well as leather. While trying to actively integrate the community to her line, Liz aspires to start training programs in different communities in Patagonia, where she would like to teach the locals how to cure sheep hides to turn them into sheep leather that can be commercialised.
Using watercolours for the colour combinations and working with basic geometric shapes, Liz designs all her products, mainly relying on the women’s cooperatives, to turn her designs into something that can be worn. Once the designs are finished, Liz takes her sketches to the cooperative meeting, where they discuss the technical side of knitting. The next step is in the hands of the cooperative as they work on a sample, a process that takes approximately a week. Once they bring back the sample, they discuss the adjustments to be made, the whole process usually takes a couple of weeks, before they collectively decide how many they want to produce and a price. The artisans will then deliver the items to Liz on a rolling basis. Liz prepares the items for sale, putting all the buttons and tags on. Liz favours this model because of the flexibility it gives to the producers – they can take more or less work as desired, as she always pays per piece.
As Argentine products have a higher value in the international market, the artisans are shocked to hear Liz elaborate on how much people like their products in the big cities of the United States, where Liz is transferring the sales aspect of her company from being based in Buenos Aires to the city of Philadelphia. Still clinging to the idea that the fashion industry will take part into the evolution that we’re seeing on the way people relate to their food – preferring ethically sourced, quality products above those mass-produced – Liz believes the transition will be a slow one. For the time being, people aren’t willing to pay the price the pieces deserve.
Luckily for the business aspect of URSA, “in places like the US, knowing that something is made by hand, by a women’s cooperative in Argentina, that’s huge, people love that,” explains Liz as she goes through the autumn ‘15 line that is hanging in her studio which will soon be sent to the US to commercialise.
All of a sudden, I could feel a sense of disappointment in Liz’s voice as she expressed that her original plan wasn’t to export a majority of her clothing line but it was necessary from a business perspective. “I’m really shifting, I mean it’s not what I wanted to do, I wanted to make items that are made here and have this added value to them because of the whole production chain that we put together and the transparency behind these products and things that I think are so special. That’s not appreciated here, they just won’t pay for it, not the prices that they deserve … That’s really hard for me to accept and I still kind of cling to the idea that someday people are going to realise this is great stuff.”
URSA’s products are sold at: Autoria (Suipacha 1025, Microcentro), Salmón Tienda (Cabello 3629, Palermo), and Puntos en el Espacio (Carlos Calvo 450, San Telmo), or via their own online shop: cyberursa.com
All images courtesy of URSA.