Mexican Artisans Turn Trash into Fashion, Send Candy Wrapper Purses Globally
LA SOLEDAD, Mexico Empty candy wrappers, potato chip bags and cookie packages that once littered roads and filled Mexican dumps are now making fashion statements in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Indian men and women from the central state of Mexico have converted the food labels into colorful women's clutches, shoulder bags and hip belts that are selling on Web sites and in upscale U.S. boutiques and department stores for up to $200 apiece.
The idea began here with the nonprofit Group for the Promotion of Education and Sustainable Development, or Grupedsac, an organization that since 1987 has helped poor Mexican Indians become self-sufficient through development projects that also aim to preserve the environment.
Solar energy, water cisterns, irrigation systems, organic food cultivation and housing construction are among the many initiatives the group has brought to dozens of residents in La Soledad and other poor communities in Mexico State, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides.
Making purses out of nonbiodegradable packaging started about eight years ago, after a visitor to Grupedsac's training center taught a group of women how to mold candy and food-wrapper chains into small change purses.
The classes inspired Edith Samanao, a social worker with Grupedsac who at the time was teaching women how to sew and make stuffed animals. Samanao learned from her mother years ago how to weave suspenders and belts out of wrappers, but she didn't know how to make the purses.
"We realized that it was actually very easy to do," she said, adding that soon she and her students began making larger purses as well as designing and manufacturing their own backpacks, bracelets, earrings, and placemats. Recently, they added a new item to their collection: belts made from metal beer-can tabs.
In early 2004, Grupedsac began looking in earnest for ways to market the purses, initially distributing them to small gift stores and boutiques in Mexico, project coordinator Olivia Mogollon said.
Later that year, a daughter of Grupedsac Executive Director Margarita Barney de Cruz brought a few purses with her to show to friends in Palm Beach, Florida, where they quickly caught the attention of retired British textile manufacturer Stanley Cohen and his wife, Elaine.
The couple were so attracted by the bags' designs and socially conscious origins they began buying them in bulk from Grupedsac in 2005.
The organization currently provides the Cohens with up to 150 bags, plus dozens of belts, a week. The Cohens resell them to Bloomingdale's branches and small boutiques throughout the state of Florida, as well on their Web site, http://www.Sweetiepurse.com .
"Customers love them," said Stanley Cohen. "They sell from age 8 to 88."
Miami-based entrepreneur Jonathan Marcoschamer began buying the purses more than two years ago -- first from a woman who learned how to make them at Grupedsac and now directly from the nonprofit group.
Marcoschamer says he has distributed the purses to 250 high-end boutiques in Los Angeles, New York, and other major U.S. cities, as well as to other countries, including Japan.
"The product has a really significant 'wow' factor," he said.
Marcoschamer says the product also appeals to the socially aware.
"In the U.S. and Europe and around the world, there is more consciousness toward the environmentally friendly," he said. "We try to communicate the fact that the products are one-of-a-kind, made from materials that would have ended up in landfills, that are now giving people the chance to earn a living."
Keeping up with production isn't easy for the 40 women from Grupedsac who manufacture bags for export. Due to their elaborate, handmade construction, each artisan is able to turn out only five small purses, or two large purses, each week.
Grupedsac pays the Mexican artisans somewhere between $10 to $20 per purse, depending on each product's size and complexity. The group then marks up the bags by 20 percent to 25 percent for export, investing all proceeds back into the nonprofit organization, said Mogollon, who along with Barney volunteers her time at Grupedsac.
Graciela Cristobal, a housewife and mother of four, said before Grupedsac came along, many men in her small community of San Lucas Ocotopec emigrated to the United States because they couldn't make a living as subsistence farmers.
"By selling our products, we have some income to help our husbands stay here and continue working the land," she said.
The purses can be found in Mexico, both in outdoor markets and small specialty shops. Some are distributed by Grupedsac, while others are peddled on the street by unrelated artisans who have picked up the technique on their own.
The women of Grupedsac make the purses in their homes and occasionally get together as a group, as they did on a recent day here in La Soledad.
Displayed on one of the artisan's work tables was an elegant black and white clutch purse that upon closer inspection revealed the secret of its design: hundreds of bar codes cut out of product packages and woven together. A shiny shoulder bag that glimmered as if made of copper was actually composed of the inverted wrappers of chocolate cookies.
"We never thought they would become so fashionable," Barney said, "or that they would end up being sold in New York."
Source: Associated Press