Photograph by Pat Mateo
Culture Spotlight

How a Payatas trip inspired Reese Fernandez to build a label that saves lives

One immersion activity in college opened the eyes of the Rags2Riches founder, and led her to create her now popular social enterprise brand. “All of us are here to serve a bigger purpose. We’re here to serve our community, and our country, and hopefully our world,” she says.
Mandy Altura | Jul 19 2019

As a fresh graduate, Rags2Riches president and founding partner Reese Fernandez found herself on an unlikely path that soon became a big part of her future. During a post-college immersion trip to Payatas, Quezon City, Fernandez quickly noticed the high degree of poverty and struggling workers that were ever-present in the community.

Reese shares the trials and tribulations she faced while running her social enterprise with Dan Mejia of H&M in an episode of Heroes and Titans. She also shares a few memorable experiences about her time with Rags2Riches. Heroes and Titans is ANCX’s video conversation series on making the world a better place.

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"And we saw that the artisans there who are mostly women, who are stay at home mothers, were weaving foot rags out of fabric and were only earning 10-16 pesos a day," Fernandez recalls of that visit to Payatas as a student. "That startled us a lot, and we started thinking about our role in this whole social injustice.”

Rather than choosing to accept this as just the reality of things, she thought instead to offer a long-term solution. “We decided that it shouldn’t be just be a project, it should be a business that would be dedicated partners for these artisans.” Now, thanks to R2R, impoverished workers across Payatas are finding more opportunities to escape poverty, and have a viable income.

Fernandez wasn’t satisfied with making a mediocre product. That's why she partnered with designer Rajo Laurel in an effort to increase the quality of her designs. “He really opened up our eyes to the possibilities of what can be done with fabric that the artisans weave out of scraps. He opened our eyes to the world of fashion and design and made us realize the possibilities.”

 

An Important Place

That Payatas trip opened Reese's eyes to the world around her. “Immersion lets you see what is happening. Fernandez became more appreciative of what she had, as there are many others who are not as fortunate. And after wanting to grow from this experience, she soon came to a greater realization.

“Some takeaways are deeper, like ‘yes I’m fortunate and now what? What am I going to do?’” says Reese. “It's similar to the realization that with great power comes great responsibility, with great privilege comes great responsibility.”

Fernandez also credited the sense of community that she felt with people of Payatas.

“When we went there we saw real people with real lives and real stories that we can relate with. And it ceased to become just a place that we write down on our case studies and people ceased to be just statistics that we read in the news,” she says. “They became friends and family members. When that happens you don’t just leave them and you consider them part of your circle, you consider them part of your life.”

 

Idea of Progress

Fernandez admits that she while she didn’t create the name Rags2Riches, she values the symbolism of the brand, and what the words stand for. “It was the idea of one of our co-founders, and that was before we thought we were going to be in fashion. We just owned it. Like we started with 'rags' and we’re hoping for progress.”

And how well is it doing now? “It’s doing well and we have learned a lot in the past 11 years and we’ve realized that: it’s not just about how many people you are able to support or provide livelihood to, it’s the quality of the livelihood, the consistency of it.”

She says it's all about the long game. "Things aren’t achieved by thinking of the short term and just deciding and creating actions based on the short term,” Fernandez expounds.

Fernandez says that one of the biggest challenges that Rags2Riches has faced was building a relationship with artisans, considering their vastly different lives until that point. “I think, anywhere you go, it’s hard to build trust, especially if you’re from different backgrounds. Because they’re also coming from a different place, they’re coming from different pains,” she says. “It was hard to hear, because we were there to really be supportive and be a partner so it was sad that we were not as welcome in the beginning.”

 

More Pressing Dilemmas

While the success of her venture has already provided income to many impoverished families, Fernandez hopes to one day tackle bigger, more global problems.

Fernandez reveals that it’s much more complicated to manage waste. “It’s hard to demand from someone that they should think about the earth right away when their kids are hungry,” she says. “To do this, we have to solve fundamental issues, as well as poverty.”

She later explains that actions that seem small can go a long way in solving these problems. “Like an activist who posts stuff on Instagram about saving everything, or using metal straws and things like that,” she says. “With every single thing that you do, it also matters that you think about it, it matters that you use less plastic, even if you don’t think so, because it’s less waste than yesterday. Then that’s much better.”

 

ANCX Heroes & Titans is in partnership with Organique. For more details, visit Organique.com.ph and Lazada.com.ph/organique