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The Bottletop story: Recycled ring-pull accessories bridge the gap between European fashionistas and Brazilian Favela dwellers

Bottletop Bags and Logo

Bottletop Bags and Logo (c) Bottletop

This article has originally been published in the online version of the HandEye magazine, and is republished with permission.

Salvador de la Bahia is Brazil’s 3rd largest city, and as varied a place as the colours of its carnival. The city is growing at a speed akin to the fervour the city’s 350 churches were built in, back in Medieval times, nearly doubling the number of inhabitants over the course of the last 20 years to a total of 3 Mio. It is a city where discrepancies become manifest in the social segregation of neighbourhoods: Some neighbourhoods have a Human Development Index (HDI) at the global top together with countries such as Norway, whereas others are more in-line with conflict and poverty ridden countries such as Tajikistan.

Salvador de la Bahia (c) Bottletop

Salvador de la Bahia (c) Bottletop

For one group of people, Salvador is the place where the rather glamorous and superficial world of cat walks and fashion joins hand with those that live in grim Favela communities. It is a story that starts nearly a decade ago with Mulberry, the well known exclusive English fashion and accessories label: In 2002, the London based charity Bottletop struck up a collaboration with said top-end fashion brand. In a then unique move – a campaign based around a range of products which were distributed and sold throughout Mulberry stores worldwide – the exclusive fashion brand supported the charity. The sale of the Bottletop collection generated large bottom-line benefits, as well as highly acclaimed publicity and recognition.

Original Bottletop Mulberry bag (c) Bottletop

The original Bottletop Mulberry bag (c) Bottletop

The key item of the collection was a bag made from recycled bottletops – hence the name of the charity – by Kenyan and South African artisans. Suffices to say that it became the best selling bag for Mulberry that season. The bag was highly popular with mainstream fashionistas and VIPs alike, sold out rather quickly, and to the day is a landmark non-profit product in the notoriously short-lived and unsustainable fashion industry. The concept was initially reused now and again, although on a smaller and more discrete scale, in order raise funds for Bottletop‘s supported projects and awareness amongst the fashion crowd, but was eventually laid to rest.

It was not until 2007 when the idea surfaced again by mere coincidence. At the time, Bottletop was working on a Brazilian themed fund-raising CD when they were given an item made from recycled, crocheted ring-pulls, purchased from a Brazilian street vendor in Italy.
Next, they discovered that similar items where being made by some of the Favela co-operatives in Salvador – home to their partnering Brazilian record label – and sold to tourists and pass-byers for a living. Soon the idea was born to sell ring-pull accessories as merchandise at the album launch. And this ad-hoc collection was, like years before the Mulberry version, more successful than could have been imagined. Specifically the bags where popular with the event attendees, and sold out on the day. What was meant to be an original one-off merchandise idea suddenly seemed like a viable, popular product that could add a more hands-on dimension to Bottletop‘s activities.

But nothing is quite as easy as it seems at first. With the decision to take the leap and launch an accessories collection made from recycled, crocheted ring-pulls, the sourcing of a reliable and skilled supplier was the next hurdle. Much to their dismay, Bottletop discovered that the co-operative they had produce the merchandise collection with, and whom they had in mind as producers for the retail version, was in fact ‘owned’ by a single individual, a woman, who skimmed off the lion’s share of the profits, while paying her workers an amount akin to pocket money. The project, in short, was at the verge of being abandoned entirely. After all, a collaboration would have meant to abet strikingly abusive practises, while the original idea was to support the disadvantaged Favela communities.

Everyone who saw the film ‘City of God’ has an at least superficial idea of what it means to live in one of Brazil’s slums: fathers excel through absence, and mothers struggle to feed their children. From a tiny age on, children are left to care for themselves during long hours while their mothers either try to make money as a street vendor, or as a maid for the better-off. Since they are an easy prey, the children are targeted and groomed by the Favela gangs. The kids first get to make some money as under-aged drug couriers, and step-wise become a full-fledged member of a specific gang, playing their role in the drug trade, kidnappings, robberies and more. Once a gang managed to get its claws on a child, the mother has lost all control and say. All she is left to do is to pray that her child will not be the next shooting or murder victim. A lot could be achieved in braking this cycle of violence and poverty if more mothers were able to earn money while working from, or alternatively close by, their home.

Trying to find solutions to their supplier problem, yet again fate seemed to be on Bottletop‘s and the Favela community’s side. It happened that their partnering Brazilian record label supported a charity that builds medical centres and education facilities in the Favelas around Salvador. The director of the charity, Luciano by name, is young, has grown up in the Favela community himself, owns a reputation for being genuine and reliable, and in addition has a track record of delivering on promises.

Luciano’s proposal was simple: Why not try and start a ring-pull accessories crocheting workshop themselves? The idea would naturally combine the commercial aspect, creating the popular accessories items that could be sold in the UK, with the development aspect: create reliable and fairly paid work that would generate income for the Favela community, specifically single mothers.

The Bottletop Crocheters (c) Bottletop

The Bottletop Crocheters (c) Bottletop

In the first training session, 8 rather lost-looking attendees where given a crochet hook, ring-pulls, yarn and a brief introduction on how to use the materials. But it was not until sometime later, when they received payment for their finished items, that they ‘got’ what Bottletop was after. The small group of workers has flourished since into an organisation with 44 female and 1 male worker from 2 Favela communities, with many more aspiring to become Bottletop crocheters. The majority of the workers is specialised in crocheting the ring-pulls together into the different accessory designs. Only a few with a talent for sewing are in charge of the finishing, i.e. adding the lining, the zippers and brand labels.

The first 8 crocheters ‘graduated’ from merely experimenting to producing belts within a month of their first tries, and by the 2 months mark one of the women had come up with the design for a bag. New items emerge as the crocheters go about their work, experiment with their craft, and from interaction with their co-crocheters. At the time of writing, a whole range of products has been called into existence, among them several types of belts, bags and purses of different designs and sizes, and rose-shaped brooches.

The Bottletop ‘ring-pull collection’ contributes in reality in more than a single way to the local economy. In addition to creating jobs for their crocheters, all materials are sourced locally. For instance, the ring-pulls are bought from locals who make a living by first collecting recyclable trash such as aluminium cans or glass bottles, and then selling them on by the kilo to the best paying entity. The fabric for the lining and the thread for sewing come from local mills, and finally, the zipper was sourced until recently from a local manufacturer, who tough then lost the battle against cheap, low quality Chinese imports and went out of business.

Bottletop‘s project has since gone full-circle back to its roots in fashion – a world that seems to be part of the organisation’s DNA since its inception: Their first ready-to-wear range is currently being marketed in a collaboration with the French design studio ‘Atelier du Sartel’, and their most recent shortlisting for the Observer Ethical Awards 2012 ‘Fashion & Accessories’ category are the prove that their hard work is paying off.

Bottletop Bag Collection (c) Bottletop

Bottletop Bag Collection (c) Bottletop

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