Cover An artisan of Rags2Riches (Photo: Julian Abram Wainwright)

It all began with a small group of artisans—mostly mothers—14 years ago in Payatas, Quezon City. Now, Rags2Riches has helped 200 artisans across eight communities to uplift their lives.

"It feels like Rags2Riches (R2R) started such a long time ago," R2R co-founder and president Reese Fernandez Ruiz says as she opens up her conversation with Tatler. "And yet it still feels like there is still so much to be done!"

When Ruiz and her friends started this fashion and design house that focuses on empowering community artisans about 14 years ago, its main mission was cutting the middlemen in the vicious cycle of business among weavers and sellers of foot rugs made out of scrap fabrics. With this, the artisans (mostly mothers struggling to make ends meet for their families) were given the opportunity to earn more and hone their raw talent and skills. Eventually, R2R had proven that style and sustainability can coexist via eco-ethical fashion and home accessories out of upcycled, overstock cloth, and indigenous fabrics. Now, the artisans across eight communities of R2R include men and women of varying ages. R2R provides training for the artisans, which runs from three to six months, before they are launched into the business program of the brand.

"Because of the lack of access, they were sandwiched in between long chains of middlemen which resulted in unaffordable raw materials and severely undervalued prices that the artisans had no choice but to accept," Ruiz recalls. "Back then, even when the artisans worked for the entire day and weave, say 10 rugs a day, she'll only get 12 to 16 pesos for the whole day's work. This was the scandalously unfair situation we encountered back then that made us (the co-founders) decide to start R2R," she explains.

Ruiz's passion for social entrepreneurship might have sprung from many influential people in her life. For one, her mother, who inspired her to tap into her entrepreneurial spirit. Her husband as well, another co-founder of R2R, has been a big source of energy and inspiration for her. "Entrepreneurship is hard enough, but we decided to commit to a social mission on top of trying to sustain a business, so it was even more challenging," Ruiz shares. "I also have an amazing team of professionals and artisans who keep me inspired, grounded, and motivated."

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Since it was founded, R2R has gone beyond Payatas and now has eight urban communities around Metro Manila. Ruiz finds commonality in these communities when it comes to the social issues they are facing. "It will take a few paragraphs or even a book to mention all the social issues, but if I could name one of the common threads, it is the lack of opportunities [to alleviate oneself from poverty]," Ruiz says. "Poverty is not just about having no financial resources, it is also about not having access to many opportunities that could lift people out of it."

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In the beginning, the biggest challenge for Ruiz and the co-founders was building trust with the artisans. "They have been struggling and striving to survive before we came in and have been promised much only to be disappointed," Ruiz recalls. The corrupted system has been deeply etched in the communities that it seemed hope was the last thing for them to expect. "It took us years to really build a relationship with our artisans and just like any relationship, the trust-building will never stop."

And with this, Ruiz attributes the achievements of R2R not only from the awards and recognitions it has received over the years, but most importantly, the development in the lives of the artisans.

"The lives of our artisans and their children! Awards and recognitions are signals given by other people that you are doing something that inspires them. And that's great! But the real achievements are the actual fruits of the work. Today, the challenges are more 'par for the course', that's because we have learned so much along the way and built the right muscles to balance sustainability and profitability," Ruiz shares.

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Although R2R has been in the industry for a while now, Ruiz believes that there is still more work to do. "Now we are still learning new things, new ways to upcycle scraps, new ways to improve our social impact," she says. "Our status quo will be 'always striving to do better'. The social problems we are seeing now are even more complex, especially these days when the pandemic changed a lot of the so-called 'rules'. So if we ever feel that we have 'made it' already, that's the time when we stop growing."

Ruiz reiterates that we all have to do our part in achieving sustainable social development, the government included. "It is a powerful institution and the impact it creates is truly scalable," Ruiz thinks. "But it still takes small, agile, and grassroots-based enterprises like R2R to bridge the realities on the ground to the policies and programs that are being implemented by the government and vice versa." For the R2R co-founder, she finds this 'connection' starts with safe spaces for collaboration. 

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"The government is such a game-changer and impact-scaler which is also why I don't believe in being apolitical as a company," Ruiz says. "Having no stand when it comes to the future of our country is a stand-in and of itself. So while we should work with the government to create a more positive impact, we should also advocate for better leaders and leadership."

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