Rio co-op raises worker standards, fashionably

On a hillside slum above the oceanfront condos and blue seas of Rio de Janeiro, a few women sit hunched over sewing machines, their feet pumping pedals and their hands carefully working strips of cloth under chattering needles.

Though located in a favela, the Cooparoca women's sewing cooperative in Rocinha is the antithesis of the stereotypical sweatshop, where workers are paid pennies to sew baseballs or T-shirts for multinationals, which then sell them at a huge profit in the US and Europe.

The top earner here might make $600 a month - more than eight times Brazil's monthly minimum wage of $71. A part-timer may earn only $20, or just take classes. The choice is up to the individual.

"I worked in a shop before, and I hated it," says Lucélia Carvalho, Cooparoca production manager. "It's like one big family here. Everything is discussed, and you don't have a boss on your back all the time," Ms. Carvalho says. "The money is better here, but I don't do it for the money, I do this because there is a good atmosphere."

Far from the stereotypical poorly-lit dungeon churning out tatty garments, Cooparoca - the name stands for Rocinha Cooperative of Women's Artisans and Seamstresses - is located in a pleasant three-story building that is as spacious and airy as it is possible to be in one of Latin America's most populous favelas, or slums.

Even more surprising than the conditions are the clothes. The women here produce garments for M. Officer, a Brazilian fashion house so cool, it was among the first to hire supermodel Giselle Bundchen, the girlfriend of "Titanic" star Leonardo di Caprio.

Cooparoca's partnership with M. Officer has proven that favela workers are capable of making haute couture clothes to the exacting standards demanded by top designers - and has made the coop a well-known name in the Brazilian fashion industry. In the past few years, Cooparoca has worked with German designer Karl Lagerfeld and Brazilian pop star Fernanda Abreu, and has given clothes to supermodels such as Naomi Campbell.

The firm is expected to double last year's turnover and bring in $100,000 in 2001, most of it from M. Officer contracts, says coop coordinator Maria Teresa Leal.

Ms. Leal started the coop in 1981, after noticing how enthusiastic - and creative - Rocinha's northeastern immigrants were about fashion. She convinced big textile companies to donate surplus cloth and materials, and gathered women into a cooperative to make cushions, pompoms, and crocheted covers. In addition to teaching women how to sew, the coop holds classes on women's health and contraception.

After a few years of selling the products informally to friends, Cooparoca was formally registered in 1987, and won grants from the United Nations Development Program and a government credit line that enabled the organization to buy the precarious hillside shack that later became its headquarters.

The big break came in 1994, when a friend agreed to let Leal show off Cooparoca's designs at a Rio fashion show. The only problem was that the women had no experience making clothes, and with just a couple of weeks to learn they produced outfits that were ill-fitting and poorly finished.

The critics loved it.

"They said we had been influenced by the Belgian deconstructionist designers that were trendy at the time," says Leal. "But really, we didn't know how to construct. It was madness; we didn't know what we were doing, and we had no money. But it worked. The next day, the editors of Vogue and Elle were at my house. I think it was just one of those occasions when you are in the right place at the right time."

Since then, Cooparoca has gone from strength to strength. In 1997, it was given 41 industrial sewing machines by the Banco do Brasil and three other Brazilian companies, as well as receiving grants from UNESCO, the Rio state government, and a host of local businesses.

The deals helped bring Cooparoca to the attention of the fashion world. The contract signed last year with M. Officer, the chic Sao Paulo fashion house that has been at the forefront of the Brazilian fashion boom, enabled the coop to increase its workforce almost tenfold. Today, it employs 80 people. The youngest is 18, and the oldest is 65.

Leal is the brains behind the organization, but the workers run their own show. Big decisions are made democratically, and the seamstresses set their own production targets and may work from home, allowing them to care for children while they work. Each woman is paid on a piece-rate basis and decides in advance how many garments she will sew per week. The only demand is that workers meet their stated target.

That democratic atmosphere was important to Carlos Miele, M. Officer's innovative head. Mr. Miele, the first designer to use disabled models in catwalk shows, admired the concept behind Cooparoca and wanted to contribute to its growth.

The designer asked Cooparoca seamstresses to produce the custom-made denim frills, patchwork squares, and crocheted rings that adorn his clothes. He recently showed off their work in London and is considering offers to sell Cooparoca's multicolored lamp covers at Barney's in New York. If sales continue to grow, Miele hopes to provide jobs for 120 more people in Rocinha.

"We have a society that is about excluding people, and my work is about including people," Miele says. "All I did was give them a chance, and now I am happy because I get a great product - and they are happy because they get work."

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