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Social project meets fashion brand, South America's Ruralanas

By Cynthia Ijelman

Apr 4, 2019


With the attempt to improve the quality of life of rural women in Uruguay, the fashion brand Ruralanas was created in 2003 by the Gastesi Foundation Marticorena. The company produced items made by local women using traditional techniques, including weaving 100 percent wool. In 2009 the Ruralanas became independent, remaining in the hands of designer Virginia Montoro. Today, it now employs over 100 craftsmen and produces own-brand fashion as well as items for 17 other firms.

Although Montoro does not have his own brick and mortar stores, he sells his products in the main tourist points of Uruguay and exports to countries like Germany, Switzerland, the US, Chile and Brazil. He has also introduced the project to communities in Colombia and Ecuador.

After presenting at the latest edition at MOLA, the sustainable fashion show that took place in Montevideo in March, Virginio Montoro spoke with FashionUnited about the history of Ruralanas, its social and commercial viability and its launch in other countries.

The history of Ruralanas

In 2003, the Gastesi Martinicorena Foundation created the project based on the idea of helping women from the rural areas of Salto and Artigas. In 2006 and 2007, it was sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and towards the end of 2009, the initiative became difficult to sustain and so it was separated from the foundation. "I worked from the beginning as a designer and I was enthralled by the project from day one. The company was offered to me, provided that it continued with the same social purpose. At the time the project was not profitable and if its philanthropic purpose changed, they would close it. I said yes almost immediately. That was when a second stage began, with successes and mistakes, but all these experiences have allowed us to get where we are now, "said Montoro.

At that time, the need arose to make the brand known, and as Montoro didn’t have the capital to do so, he thought of his closest resources: “I used to work with a team helping them to fit out and refurbish establishments and we built a wooden cabin in a restaurant on Route 3. It was frequented by a lot of Argentinian and Paraguayan tourists during the summer and that was how the brand came to be known and that was how this stage started”.

When in doubt, be creative

In 2011, the possibility arose to open a branch in Chile, which was not profitable, and in 2013, they had to close it, recording substantial losses of money. Montoro didn't give up and instead resorted to creativity - an idea that would mark a turning point based on successful products created at critical times: he made little boxes with handwoven caps and scarves whose packaging indicated that they were handmade with sheep's wool in Uruguay. "They were cheap for people wanting to take an accessory with them as a present because they were high-quality items,'' he explained.

The first thousand boxes were sold to a supermarket and then they increased their offer to include gloves, neck warmers and other items.

How do they work?

Beyond being a company, Ruralanas is bound by a high level of social commitment. It now works with over 100 craftsmen in Uruguay and communities in Colombia and Ecuador. "We are reaching out to groups, often through foundations. What is most important is our eagerness and interest that we are trained for. They gradually improve over time. It is important for people to feel good and work as a team. There are people who worked here before the change and we kept them on. Our job is to design for craftsmen, see what items they produce and sell them in large quantities as handmade products That can be repeated and easy to sell,`` said Montoro.

The project outside Uruguay

The little box initiative caught people's attention abroad and Ruralanas started to work with communities in Colombia and Ecuador. "They called us, so we went and trained people in need and most of them work for us. With training, they can work for Ruralanas or for other companies. They are free to choose. The good thing about our project is that the working method can be repeated in different parts," said Montoro.

Global Fashion Stories shares inspiring stories from fashion entrepreneurs around the world, as FashionUnited believes fashion professionals can inspire one another, no matter who they are or where they are from.

Photo and video credit: Ruralanas and FahionUnited

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Virginia Montoro