For nearly 20 years Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia, founder and executive director of Mercado Global, has helped indigenous women in rural central American build their own community businesses, using their heritage weaving traditions to create accessories for the international fashion market. Mercado Global products can be found in Shopbop, Bloomingdales, Free People, Zimmermann, Reformation, Nordstrom, Holt Renfrew, Belk, to name a few.
As she walked me through the spring 24 collection of totes, wallets, shoulder bags, indeed an entire travel range, as well as a varied assortment of shoe styles, she gave me the story behind the ikat pattern, basket weaving, macrame, and leather with blanket stitched edging or jute detailing.
“70 percent of the women we work with cannot read or write but are natural weavers, and with a little bit of design guidance, they are able to bring their skills to market,” Álvarez-DeGolia told FashionUnited. “It means they’re gaining major income, often for the first time, which allows them to send their kids to school, buy nutritious food for their families - it’s a game changer.”
Fifteen years ago, two major retailers became Mercado Global's earliest clients: ABC Carpet & Home and Levi's. They still develop a collection with the denim leader every season using the brand's donated denim deadstock which the artisans cut into strips to make new yarn, combine with traditional fabrics and techniques, before weaving it in the ancient Mayan tradition into new products that sell in Levi's stores worldwide.
How the fashion industry can work ethically with artisans
Two decades ago, as an undergrad at Yale, Álvarez-DeGolia was working in rural Guatemala, a region that was reeling from civil war, when she met some of the indigenous women. “They became my heroes. Many had lost their husbands during the war and they were struggling to survive,' she said. “We tried everything to help, including building a local market but there were limited tourists, language barriers and so many challenges. We realized what would really change their lives was reaching an international market.” Álvarez De-Golia spent her senior year establishing a start up fund and set about building a new kind of business at the time that connected indigenous women to the international market on their terms so that they could use the income to change their communities and families’ future. “I remember when we started going to very big retailers whose names I won’t mention, they’d say, ‘That’s so cute, Mayan moms, but you could never work with us.’” Now Álvarez-DeGolia says those same retailers are reaching out to her. “In the early years when others were afraid to take a risk on us, we could say, ‘Well, Levi’s work with us,’ and that really helped.”
The founder described the design guidance she implemented to successfully work with the artisans: “We have a design team of four women from Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala and France. They go into the communities and it’s all a collaborative process where traditional techniques are informed by market trends. Our training team teaches color theory and how seasons work so that the women understand why we are designing the way we do so that they can make greater sales volume.”
Working with artisans who can’t read or write requires creativity and innovative communication skills in order to build quality control systems that satisfy the international market. Said Álvarez-De-Golia, “If you build a great team, there’s always a solution.”
A Mara Hoffman bag collaboration just launched while a partnership with Stuart Weitzman using artisans’ fabrics now commands about 20 percent of the shoe designer’s collection. “Originally it was meant to be much smaller but due to such great early response, they rushed this though in August to design three more collections.”
Empowered women empower women
Mercado Global's aim to establish financial independence for indigenous women, in order for them to overcome poverty, comes at a critical time when other challenges such as the migration crisis and climate change pose extra threat. By expanding the women's knowledge in key areas such as business development and entrepreneurship, health, leadership, and financial management, they then become catalysts for sustainable change in the future. By Mercado Global’s calculations, women invest 90 percent of their wages back into their families, and are more likely to send their daughters to school and improve their family’s health. In the year 2021/22 Mercado Global was able to provide the artisans with 175 sewing tool kits, 70 sewing machines, 15 overlockers, and 7 floor looms. Since 2004, the organization has trained approximately 1250 women, and effected 6 million dollars in sales.
“I am really excited about where we are right now," said Álvarez-DiGolia. "Of course there have been many challenges, but also many opportunities. We’ve had some big retailers bring us in to talk about cultural appropriation and the right way to work with communities. They want to learn and are willing. It’s exciting they want to work with us and our partner artisans which was not the case before. There were years and years where we just wanted them to give us a chance. Now we have shown that it can be very successful.”
The non-profit’s focus will remain on accessories due to the fact that the women work from home, so the capacity to handle anything larger than fabric by the yard isn’t realistic. “We don’t do everything. We can’t do apparel, and that’s fine.”
Retailers and brands are starting to realize that consumers want to buy products that empower other women, but Álvarez-DeGolia believes it’s time for the consumers to do their own research: “To avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing, customers need to educate themselves, buy from brands they trust, and take the time to understand how the products are made.”