The Force of COOPA-ROCA

Fashion and art in a favela

Maria Teresa Leal, known as Tete to her friends, is a force to be reckoned with.The founder, driving force, and visionary behind COOPA-ROCA, the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she has powered this group of artisans from home sewers and craft workers to creative partners with some of the foremost fashion, interior and installation artists around the world.  An arts educator by training, mentored by the famous educator and theorist, Paulo Freire, she founded COOPA-ROCA in the early 1980’s.

Visiting the family housekeeper in the favela (read urban slum) on the weekend, Tete was encouraged by the residents, to establish free Saturday craft classes for the children of the favela. Bored with teaching art to the children of Rio’s elite, she was excited and enthused by the eagerness of the children of Rocinha.  Intercepted by the mothers of the children one day, as she was delivering a bag of textile scraps to her class, she was persuaded that they could put better use to the scraps of fabric than their children. Tete watched as the women fashioned all manner of homewares from these unwanted scraps of fabric, working with techniques like patchwork and fuxico, and so the sparks of what would become COOPA-ROCA were ignited. 

The craftwork produced by the artisans became the idea behind organizing the women into a cooperative. Focusing initially on organizing and evaluating the women’s skill set, a small production force was developed to produce decorative craftwork by reviving traditional Brazilian craft techniques.  Impressed by the range of skills and techniques the women knew, Tete began prompting the women into improving their techniques and standardizing their workmanship.  At first selling the simple hand crafted home wares at local markets, over the years Tete has built the cooperative into an internationally recognized creative powerhouse, partnering with designers such as Osklen, Lenny, Cacharel, Paul Smith, Agent Provocateur, Lacoste and C&A.  COOPA-ROCA have also worked with installation artists Ernesto Neto and Tord Boontje, and decorated lounges at the Salon di Mobili Milan, Rio and Sao Paulo fashion weeks, and the New York Craft Fair. 

The mission of the cooperative is to provide work to the female residents of Rocinha, arguably the largest favela in South America, with somewhere around 180,000 residents, allowing them to work from home, and contribute to the family income without neglecting their domestic duties, hence improving their quality of life.  The cooperative has approximately 150 members along with some important partners in the fashion and interior design, and installation art markets.  Partnerships have been developed through commitment and dedication to networking, along with Tete’s ongoing determination to promote the work done by the cooperative of artisans.  A fierce advocate for COOPA-ROCA, she does not allow anyone to take advantage of the artisans.  

The development of ‘special’ projects has strengthened the cooperatives network as well as served to promote the sustainability of the cooperative in the long term.  Projects have included a special presentation at Selfridge’s department store in London in celebration of the year of Brazil, which included a magnificent fuxico shirt for Paul Smith.  Fuxico is a type of patchwork made from circles of fabric gathered into the centre and connected together.  The shirt involved hundreds of tiny red white and blue striped, and solid fuxico circles, patched together into the design of a Union Jack, and attached to the back of a men’s white cotton shirt. A fashion show in Paris in collaboration with Cacharel, had the cooperative reworking and reinterpreting the collection, by embellishing items with tiny deconstructed patchwork pieces, crochet and macramé. The Cooperative has also collaborated with renowned installation artist Ernesto Neto on several exhibits, including covering giant egg shaped structures with little knots, a technique of hand tying strands of fabric onto a mesh base, producing a giant hand knotted carpet texture of sorts.  Also working with Tord Boontje, most notably on a wonderful hand crocheted light fixture known as the Come Rain, Come Shine Chandelier, produced from a base of tiny crochet circles linked together and covered in hand made, deconstructed flowers raining down from the ball of crochet to amazing effect.

There have been many challenges in the development of the cooperative, however COOPA-ROCA continues to expand their commercial partnerships while increasing the scale of production and the number of its members.  Now moving onto a new stage in their development, they are set to launch the COOPA-ROCA brand, by producing a small collection of mixed fashion, accessories and interior items for sale through their own e-commerce site, in time for their latest commercial collaboration with the Milan Salone del Mobile, opening in mid April.

For more information, please visit www.coopa-roca.org.br/en

Sass Brown is a researcher, writer and blogger on all the different expressions of eco fashion, from slow design and heritage craft skills to recycle, reuse and new business models. Her book, Eco Fashion, published by Laurence King, has been translated into Italian as well as Spanish, and showcases some of the best expressions of eco fashion around the world.  To learn more about Sass, please visit www.ecofashiontalk.com.

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