Lifestyle | Fri Mar 7, 2008 6:33am GMT

From rags to riches: Filipino weavers trade up

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Filipino rag pickers are turning trash into high fashion after joining forces with a designer to produce upmarket bags and rugs from scraps of cloth collected at a garbage dump.

Women from the community of Payatas, Manila's main garbage dump, for years eked out a living by weaving bits of cloth dumped by textile companies into multi-colored rugs.

Last year, their lives took an unexpected turn after a group of young professionals formed Rags2Riches, an enterprise designed to help the women by training them to become entrepreneurs. In October, the organization partnered with local fashion designer Rajo Laurel.

"What I give them is not only the opportunity to improve their lives, but the opportunity to change the way they see themselves," said Laurel. "A lot of these women consider themselves as victims -- and I think it's about time we change that."

Laurel produced 11 designs for products made from the rugs including bags, clutches, a beach tote and a yoga mat case, for the first limited-edition collection under the label RIIR.

The women used to earn 1 peso ($0.02 U.S. dollars) for each rug sold to middlemen who would in turn rake in 25 times that amount. They now sell each rug for about 50 pesos, after Rags2Riches cut out the middlemen and taught the women to improve their design and produce high-quality rugs.

Ana Alipaw, a mother of four, appreciates that she can make a living while still taking care of her children.

"We're not only homemakers who wash clothes, clean and cook, right? We may be simple mothers, but we have a source of livelihood and we are talented," said Alipaw.

Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, a socio-political organization that has been working with the Payatas community for years, linked the women with Rags2Riches. The women now directly supply a number of upmarket boutiques in Manila instead of marketing their products through middlemen.

"Our main concern has always been the customers, the clients; but now, it's certain. We don't need to look anymore, we don't need to try and sell on the streets," said Cynthia Cabrera, one of the women of Payatas.

Cabrera is also a member of the Rags2Riches management committee. Their aim is to train the women to run the enterprise on their own, with hopes of exporting the bags and rugs in the future.

Laurel will be working with the women of Payatas on a new RIIR collection for 2008.

(Writing by Sophie Hardach)