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Difference Maker

Maria Teresa Leal helps women stitch together a way out of poverty

The Coopa-Roca co-op, in one of Rio's poorest neighborhoods, sews high-fashion garments for international labels and designers.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / January 11, 2010

Maria Teresa Leal helps Rio women sew for co-op clients that include Lacoste and Agent Provocateur. She holds a lamp covered with her seamstresses’ crochet work.

Marcos André Pinto/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Rio de Janeiro

Maria Teresa Leal lives in two worlds. In one, she leads the women of a sewing cooperative in Rocinha, a sprawling hillside shantytown of more than 100,000 people in Rio de Janeiro.

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In another, she goes to Paris, New York, and Brasília, Brazil’s capital, to meet with international sponsors, fashion designers, and government and media elites.
She is equally at home in both. But wherever she goes, the purpose is always the same: to improve the lives of her seamstresses.

“It’s difficult. You need to speak different languages, and I don’t just mean Portuguese and English,” says Ms. Leal, an always cheery former sociologist. “Each area has its own codes, and you have to adapt. But the goal doesn’t change. What motivates me is developing the work of Coopa-Roca.”

Coopa-Roca is the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative Ltd. Leal started it in 1987 after noticing how women in the favela loved fashion. Leal had gone to Rocinha to help with a program that recycled trash, like tin or paper, into children’s toys. But when the women were given scraps of cloth, they used it to make clothes and accessories. Leal decided to organize these gifted women.

The seamstresses’ work has focused on customizing garments. They adorn clothing with their trademark embroidery, crochet, sequins, and beads. Sometimes they add their crochet or patchwork to products or packaging.

Their handiwork has contradicted outdated notions that work from favelas – Brazil’s impoverished shantytowns – is of poor quality, and Coopa-Roca now has a worldwide reputation for craftsmanship. Its client list includes lingeriemaker Agent Provocateur; Carlos Miele, the first Brazilian designer to hire supermodel Gisele Bündchen; and Lacoste, the French label that recently hired Coopa-Roca to sew hundreds of limited-edition polo shirts.

Such coups have cemented Leal’s reputation and won her numerous awards, both at home and abroad. She was named a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1996, and she was honored by the Ashoka Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs, in 2000, and the Avina Foundation, which promotes sustainable development in Latin America, in 2004.