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Weaving Better Lives: Rags2Riches is Making the Business of Doing Good Fashionable

Philippine start-up Rags2Riches is bringing social impact, style, and sustainability in a world dominated by fast fashion.

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BY Pauline Mendoza - 17 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In Payatas, where most of Metro Manila’s garbage are dumped, young entrepreneur Reese Fernandez-Ruiz spotted a win-win opportunity.

A teaching stint in Payatas, home to one of the biggest urban poor communities in the Philippines, had exposed Fernandez-Ruiz to a burgeoning cottage industry formed by the dumpsite’s women residents. These women would scavenge for clothing and scrap materials that they would then weave into rugs and sell on the streets for dirt-cheap prices. 

“For working almost full-time, these women—we call them ‘artisans’—were earning only P10 to P16 a day (roughly 20 to 30 cents in U.S. dollars),” relates Fernandez-Ruiz, whose immersion in the community led her to realize a gap in the market. “There was no opportunity to be a business partner with the community,” she points out. 

This realization gave birth to Rags2Riches (R2R), the social enterprise Fernandez-Ruiz co-founded with eight friends in 2007, right after she graduated from Ateneo de Manila University. R2R produces fashion and home accessories made of upcycled, overstocked cloth and indigenous fabrics.

The big goal? To disrupt the ultra-fast fashion industry, believing that style and sustainability can co-exist. 

Cutting links off the chain

Just like how Southeast Asia’s booming fintech sector aims to bridge the gap between the financial system and the region’s huge unbanked population, Rags2Riches seeks to connect the fashion market directly with the local artisans.

“These artisans are hardworking, enterprising, and joyful, but they are caught between a long chain of middlemen who pass on the raw materials they use, as well as the finished woven products they make, without necessarily adding value to the chain,” shares Fernandez-Ruiz. R2R’s business model ensures local artisans are connected directly to the supply of raw materials, to the market, and to every step of the production and sales process, thereby acknowledging them for their work. “It’s really their artistry, after all,” she says.

Cynthia Cabrera, among R2R’s local artisans, relates she didn’t think such a setup would be possible. “Our main concern is always the market, but now we don’t need to look out there anymore and sell on the streets,” she says in Tagalog.

One of Fernandez-Ruiz’ personal milestones has been seeing the savings passbooks of R2R’s artisans laid out on the table. Once among the unbanked, the artisans now all have bank accounts. “They have access to savings and that’s a very big signifier of the potential to stay out of poverty. When you’re in poverty, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence so you barely have surplus. But if you have savings and you are managing and building on that savings, that means you are not anymore hand-to-mouth. You can now think about the future,” shares Fernandez-Ruiz.

Working ‘slow’ in a fast-paced industry

Fashion is an industry that’s all about the latest trends — it is so fast-paced that what may be fashionable now will be old news tomorrow. In hyper-trendy Southeast Asia, fashion products fly off the shelves almost as soon as they arrive from the runways of Milan, New York, or Paris. 

It’s a challenge for a social enterprise dealing with artisans used to a certain pace and way of doing work. “Everything in fashion is fast and quick, but social development is slow because culture takes time to build. When you put the two together, it’s kind of difficult,” acknowledges Fernandez-Ruiz. “On one hand, you have to think about how to sell the products because they’re the livelihood source, but on the other, you have to look at the community side because that’s where your impact is — and the real impact we wanted to have in the lives of the artisans is that they don’t just have an increase in income, but in confidence and quality of life as well.”

As far as community learning, skills, and talent is concerned, Fernandez-Ruiz attests the local artisans are truly skilled. It was on the business side of things that challenges sprung — “Delivering on time, meeting high-quality standards, and all of those things,” she relates — but overtime, the artisans’ involvement in different aspects of the business, including selling in bazaars, made them see which areas needed improvement.

As far as trends go, R2R is all about crafting timeless pieces. “We don’t just see what’s in season or what looks nice. We’re intentional in the meaning, the story, and the functionality of each of our products. We always think of the specific lifestyles our customers have and what their values are,” shares Fernandez-Ruiz.

Armed with that mindset, Fernandez-Ruiz and her team of local artisans create products that resonate with the local culture and lifestyle. It’s seen in how the brand innovates products like the Casey bag, their best-selling tote, which can be transformed into four different styles. The bag comes in various fabrics and style combinations reflecting the weaving traditions of different provinces in the Philippines: Tinumbalitian from Mindanao, Binetwagan from Ilocos, Kinan-ew and Cuabao from Benguet, and Nautical from Oriental Mindoro.

R2R is also known to partner with such local designers as Rajo Laurel. The collaboration, Fernandez-Ruiz shares, was where R2R got its first big break. Laurel reimagined R2R’s woven panels into designer fashion bags and accessories which inspired the local artisans to elevate their craft by creating beautiful and equally functional fashion and home accessories. This collaboration led to even more partnerships with prominent local designers like Amina Aranaz-Alunan, Oliver Tolentino, and Olivia D’aboville.

The story of its success eventually bagged R2R and Reese Fernandez-Ruiz numerous accolades, including Forbes 30 Under 30, 2015 Eileen Fisher Women in Business Award, and the 2013 Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year, to name a few. International personalities have been spotted with an R2R design in tow — Amal Clooney and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, among them. Such demand has led R2R to expand its presence beyond its online shop and stores in the Philippines — they now have distributors in the U.S., U.K., Benelux, and Switzerland.

Even with the level of success the social enterprise enjoys, R2R is far from finished weaving its story.

“There are a lot of plans, but now we’re focusing on the omnichannel marketplace called ‘Things That Matter’ that we’re creating for R2R and other social and sustainable enterprises,” says Fernandez-Ruiz. Launching this November 2017, Things That Matter aims to inspire positive impact and an intentional lifestyle. It will be a venue for community learning and collaboration.

“We have two major baskets of things that we were able to accumulate over the past 10 years,” relates Fernandez-Ruiz. “The first basket contains all of our knowledge, our experiences, and our mistakes. The second basket contains all of our brand equity, advocates, customers, and everyone that has been supporting R2R over the past years. So imagine if we can share those two baskets with more community enterprises and social enterprises… That’s why we’re building a marketplace,” she shares.

Eventually, the R2R website and brick-and-mortar stores will be converted to accommodate not only R2R-made products but products from different communities across the country.

“This isn’t going to be a general platform like Alibaba,” shares Fernandez-Ruiz. “It will be more curated, more intentional, and tailored to a particular lifestyle because we know that we can’t do everything. Our expertise is not necessarily in tech or logistics; it’s in branding, storytelling, and connecting these local communities. We have to do what we’re good at and then expand from there,” she says.