The Artisans of Coopa-Roca

The Artisans of Coopa-Roca

COOPA-ROCA, ( The Handicraft and Sewing Cooperative of Rocinha Ltd ) is a community outreach program based in the Rocinha favela in Rio Janeiro, Brazil.

The cooperative members are artisans who carry with them traditional handicraft techniques ( such as embroidery, crochet, knitting, and patchwork ) by applying their skills, they are reviving and strengthening these traditions.

The co-operative was founded in 1981 by Maria Teresa Romeiro Leal ( aka Tete ) to provide and improve working conditions for it’s 150 members who live in Rochina ( the largest favela in Rio), to work from home – improving their quality of life and allowing them to better contribute to family survival without neglecting their family and domestic duties, hence

An arts educator by training (mentored by the famous educator and theorist, Paulo Freire ) Maria Leal has empowered this group of artisans from home sewers and craft workers to form creative partnerships with some of the foremost fashion, interior and installation artists around the world.


COOPA-ROCA‘s mission is to provide flexible employment opportunities to women from low-income families who live in Rocinha, particularly opportunities for single mothers to work from home.

COOPA-ROCA trains, manages and coordinates the work of women artisans of Rocinha to produce handmade pieces for fashion and design markets.

COOPA-ROCA’s products are all handmade and based on the principles of quality and creativity, united by a philosophy that promotes collective participation and transparent management.

COOPA-ROCA’s vision is to expand the social impact of its experience in Rocinha, becoming a national reference for the social integration of low-income communities.

COOPA-ROCA’s headquarters is up an alley in a favela, hemmed in by homes, barbershops, and small stores. Walls and floors are covered by graffiti or moss. Overhead, pirated wires stretch from utility poles. Loud music booms from storefronts, and the shouts of kids and parents echo down the tight alleys.

The design and construction of the new COOPA-ROCA headquarters (below) by architect João Mauricio Pegorim was approved by the Ministry of Culture.

This is a major achievement for the Cooperative, which will soon be equipped with adequate facilities to accommodate current needs and growth potential for its different production and management sectors. The headquarters now facilitating new activities and programmes ( such as activities to promote women’s health)

The administration office is still based in the old space in the middle of the favela.

All decisions are made collectively and the women share the responsibilities of production, administration and publicity.

Most women work from home, but they come to the office to bring their finished pieces and to get more fabric

COOPA-ROCA estimates that 40% of its artisans had previously been formally employed as cleaners, maids, and cooks. The main reason for leaving these jobs was their lack of time to take care of their children, their houses, and their health, which brings us back to one of COOPA-ROCA’s objective: allow the artisans to work at home.

The payment that they now receive from working at the cooperative not only contributes to the family budget but, in some cases, is the only source of family income, in situations when unemployment affects the husband and/or one of the children or when difficulties are faced by divorced women or single mothers.

In addition to allowing artisans to work from home and supplement their family income, COOPA-ROCA contributes to improve their vocational skills, and to fostering their individual self-esteem and community reliance.

Coopa-Roca has taught its members awareness of issues such as women’s health and has just signed an agreement with the Avon Institute to give workshops designed to raise self-esteem, teach proper makeup techniques, and show ways to check for breast cancer

With a professional approach, COOPA-ROCA values artisanal production based on the continuous improvement of cooperative members. The co-operative has gained an international reputation for the quality of their work and for being an exemplary socially inclusive project.

COOPA-ROCA New Generations Project

As the project has grown, Tetê has been able to focus on training younger women as new leaders in the community. Although conditions in the favela are still difficult, the women say the co-op has given them a chance to improve their quality of life dramatically.

Project “New Generation” promotes the professional initiation of young women from Rocinha by teaching them craft, production and management techniques, along with other classes in general knowledge, dance, co-operativism, and sex education – taking into consideration that Rocinha’s rate of teenage pregnancy is one of the highest in Rio de Janeiro.

“It was rewarding to pass on what I knew, and the girls learned a lot,” said Maria Romana Faria Rodrigues, a member for four years who teaches basic sewing during the five-month course. “Most have never even turned on a sewing machine before.”

With the construction of the new building, the old headquarters have now been dedicated exclusively to working with young people in Rocinha

About the Rocinha

Rocinha is located in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, between the districts of Gavea, Vidigal and Sao Conrado. Today, the notorious region is considered the largest favela of Latin America, with more than 150,000 inhabitants.

Subject to prejudice and racism, the often under-educated residents, also become the under or unemployed, creating the raw material for the rampant drug trafficking gangs in the area. Denied opportunities for lawful and legal employment, most people will do what they must to support their families, leaving many few choices.

According to people who live or have lived in Rocinha, the community’s first inhabitants arrived after World War II, from Portugal, France and Italy – countries whose economies were severely affected by the conflict.

As a result, the population of Rio de Janeiro spiked from 1.4 million in 1930 to 2.5 million in 1950. Maintaining these growth rates throughout the 1950s and 60s, the cities of the Southeast, especially Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, experienced a virtual demographic explosion.

Fleeing drought and famine (in the north east of Brazil), migrants were attracted by the industrialization of the South, and its enforcement of labor laws (at the time was virtually restricted to urban areas)

While Brazil went from rural to urban in the space of 30 years, poor infrastructure in the cities could not accommodate the influx of residents. Migrants soon discovered that to survive, they needed to live close to work. With no alternatives, they continued building homes along the hillsides, some of which later became low-income neighborhoods like Rocinha.

These pioneers came to live off the land. Selling their products in the nearby town of Gávea, they maintained small farms called “roças,” from which Rocinha got its name.

The favela itself is a cubist jungle of cinderblock apartments, one teetering on top another, often several stories high, rising up the hill situated between two of the richest areas of Rio, Gavea and Leblon, home to Rio’s elite gated communities and private schools. Many Rochina residents are domestic workers in the wealthy gated communities nearby.

Disparities between rich and poor in Brazil are stark, with public health and education incomparable between neighbors. Rocinha ranks as the 6th worst municipality in Rio. There is not one single local hospital or doctor for that matter within the confines of the favela.

The residents have an average of 4.1 years of formal education, with less than 1% of the adult population earning a degree above high school diploma level.

Although most houses have basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity, the streets are narrow without gutters, turning them into rivers during the rainy season, with make shift electrical wires criss crossing the narrow streets

Prejudice against people who live in favelas means that education and employment opportunities are few, though the entrepreneurial spirit in the favelas is strong.

Maria Teresa Romeiro Leal – Social Entrepreneur – Modern Hero

A social entrepreneur identifies and solves social problems on a large scale.

Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss in order to improve systems, invent and disseminate new approaches and advance sustainable solutions that create social value.

Social enterprises are businesses designed to solve critical social problems. Unlike traditional business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs primarily seek to generate “social value” rather than profits.

And unlike the majority of non-profit organizations, their work is targeted not only towards immediate, small-scale effects, but sweeping, long-term change.

“Social entrepreneurs identify resources where people only see problems.

They view their fellow locals as the solution, not the passive beneficiary. They begin with the assumption of competence and unleash resources in the communities they’re serving.”

The job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize when a part of society is stuck and to provide new ways to get it unstuck. He or she finds what is not working and solves the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.

Ultimately, social entrepreneurs are driven to produce measurable impact by opening up new pathways for the marginalized and disadvantaged, and unlocking society’s full potential to effect social change.

Identifying and solving large-scale social problems requires a committed person with a vision and determination to persist in the face of daunting odds.

Nothing is as powerful as a big new idea if it is in the hands of a first class entrepreneur.

Maria Teresa Romeiro Leal ( aka Tete ) had a vision for revolutionary change, and she put her life on the line to stand up for a cause she believed in.

She is an everyday person who went on a journey to create lasting impacts on her immediate world.

Her courage, dedication, and compassion combined with empowering solutions to end social problems, makes her a true modern day social hero

About Maria Teresa Romeiro Leal ( aka Tete )

Maria Teresa Leal lives in two worlds.

In one, she leads the women of a sewing cooperative in Rocinha, a sprawling hillside shantytown of more than 180,000 people in Rio de Janeiro. In the other, she goes to Paris, New York, and Brasília, Brazil’s capital, to meet with international sponsors, fashion designers, and government and media elites. She is equally at home in both.

But wherever she goes, the purpose is always the same – to improve the lives of her seamstresses.

Tetê comes from an upper-middle class family with a tradition of philanthropy and social work.

She was strongly influenced early in life by three family members.

Her father, a leading physician, was one of the first doctors to volunteer every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Her mother, a teacher, encouraged her to broaden her education to understand all of society’s ills and opportunities.

Her oldest sister founded Rio’s first Arts Education School, the first school to teach education and the arts to mixed classes of wealthy, middle-class and favela children. The school, which opened in 1960 and still operates today, grew out of her sister’s civic work. From age nine to seventeen Tetê attended classes at the school, and later taught there on weekends.

When she attended the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, she sought out the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, for special tutoring. Tetê graduated with a degree in social science and a license to teach elementary school–-a combination that prepared her well to launch Coopa-Roca.

It was and still is unusual for a middle-class or wealthy Brazilian to set foot in a favela. Tete started visiting Rocinha in the 1980’s with her family’s housekeeper, learning about the reality of the Favela and thinking about how she could implement Freire’s ideas about popular education and solve the economic difficulties of the women she met.

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. Leal had gone to Rocinha to help with a program that recycled trash, like tin or paper, into children’s toys.

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.

Nordestinas, or women from Brazil’s Northeast, are famous for sewing. She saw that many poor women in the favela were skilled seamstresses — yet they had no opportunity to use their skills to generate income.

The seamstresses’ work has focused on customizing garments. They adorn clothing with their trademark embroidery, crochet, sequins, and beads. Sometimes they add their crochet or patchwork to products or packaging. Tete watched as the women fashioned all manner of home wares from these unwanted scraps of fabric, working with techniques like patchwork and fuxico ( a type of patchwork that is made from circles of fabric gathered into a centre and attached to each other ).

Leal decided to organize these gifted women. She had the idea to start a co-operative, which would recycle fabric remnants to produce attractive quilts and pillows to sell at local fairs. Gradually, as the women gained experience and developed skills in manufacturing and marketing, the work grew more professional.

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.

The cooperative gave Tetê its full approval in 1988, seven years after it was founded, when Tetê helped buy a headquarters building with a small loan from the now-defunct National Cooperative Credit Bank.

Since all Coopa-Roca decisions were (and continue to be) made collectively, Tetê and the group argued over how the headquarters should be used. Tetê recalls, “Everybody wanted a big, lovely kitchen, because nobody had one at home, but I insisted that every square meter be dedicated to production.”

The wisdom of this choice became evident when Tetê used the manufacturing site as a base to raise more money and paid off the loan early. The cooperative’s president told her, “You can see the invisible.”

In the early 1990s Tetê attracted interest from Rio’s fashion world, and in 1994 Coopa-Roca began producing clothes for the catwalk.

The shift to high fashion occurred amid the public excitement generated by Rio de Janeiro’s international fashion shows in 1994, when Tetê and Coopa-Roca members realized that well-designed clothing could bring much more income than common products ever could.

In 1994, they presented their pieces for the first time in fashion events, at Rio’s Fundicao Progresso and Banco do Brasil Cultural Center and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Brazil . It was so successful that they won the admiration of renowned international brands such as: Ann Taylor, Paul Smith and Cristian Lacroix.

We are not making multicolor rugs for tourists. We are providing them with design and culture” said Tete.

Tetê sought out donations from mills that produced pure silk, linen, and poplin–fabrics normally unaffordable to poor tailors. Factories agreed to give Tetê end-bolts and remnants but refused to deliver them. A German partner linked to the European Fair Trade Association paid for a mini-van for Coopa-Roca to collect the donated cloth.

Tetê networked in Rio de Janeiro to find fashion designers that would donate their time and talent to teach Coopa-Roca members the basics of clothing production.

One day after the first training session, Elle and Vogue magazines came to report on the cooperative.

Seeking more press coverage, Tetê uses fashion shows and national media as an outlet for Coopa-Roca’s merchandise. Tetê has continued to place Coopa-Roca’s clothes in the best fashion, lifestyle, and home decorating magazines.

Tetê organizes expositions as well, not only to bring in new clients and publicize Coopa-Roca, but to recognize the individuals responsible for the collective’s success.

Entering the world of fashion has removed Coopa-Roca from the “ghetto” of small producers and has enhanced the self-image of workers and other residents of Rocinha, who identify the products with their community.

Unemployment is the bane of life for migrants who have settled in shantytowns, or favelas; but development programs have failed to help the poor find reliable income.

Tetê realizes that, despite good intentions, small enterprise programs fail on several fronts: they fail to produce high quality goods, they fail to understand and develop markets, they fail to make best use of their workers’ skill, and they fail to see themselves as viable, competitive manufacturers competing in a global economy.

Rather than organize poor women to produce poor goods, Tetê is raising both the standard of the product and the living standard of the people.

This philosophy guides her cooperative, which makes expensive high-fashion clothing and sells it to Rio de Janeiro’s elite.

The same philosophy will guide other small businesses that follow Tetê’s lead and benefit from her efforts to promote and certify small, high-quality enterprises owned and run by the urban poor.

With her co-op as a model, Tetê is now defining an industrial standard that will mark good merchandise produced with the best practices in community development, environmental protection, and fair labor.

The cooperative, Coopa-Roca, is one enterprise employing one group of women in one niche market; but its story shows how Tetê’s ideas add up to a system greater than any one co-op or community.

The clothing manufacturer Triumph International provided Coopa-Roca with six months of technical assistance and paid for staff positions. Tetê took advantage of this short-term support to perfect design, distribution, and marketing systems. Tetê also managed to convince Light, a utility company, to remodel Coopa-Roca’s building. What was once a one-story building is now a three-floor workshop with offices and a meeting room.

Job training is a natural part of expansion, so along with core manufacturing skills such as designing, cutting, sewing, and finishing, staff learn delivery, administration, and publicity.

These jobs offer more than a paycheck: staff improve their math and language as well.

A fierce advocate for COOPA-ROCA, she does not allow anyone to take advantage of the artisans.

Members sew, crochet, and stitch patchwork in their own homes, so they don’t have to get outside help to watch their children. They determine their own workloads, sew at their own pace, and set their own hours.

Tetê adds that Coopa-Roca is not about unloading cloth on seamstresses, demanding that they finish shirts in 15 days, and then handing out cash. “At our weekly meetings, we decide collectively which partnerships to pursue, what to do about financial challenges, and which programs to invest our time and energy into,” she said.

Tetê’s goals at Coopa-Roca are:

1) making Coopa-Roca completely sustainable and self-sufficient,

2) creating more small businesses in other communities,

3) systematizing information and processes,

4) cooperating with interested institutions with questions regarding traditional techniques of Brazilian handicrafts relating to fashion and design, and

5) maintaining the culture of self-esteem, identity, and citizenship in the cooperative model, not at the expense of becoming a sweatshop.

Tetê has already pushed forward on many of these fronts, including training two more groups of women interested in organizing a cooperative to produce clothing and handicrafts. She has also been spreading her strategy by explaining her experience to other poor communities.

Although Tetê began locally, she has set her sights on national success

Coopa Roca Shop Launched

Coopa-Roca recently opened its first store in Rio’s high-end “Fashion Mall in São Conrado.” in May 2012.

On the hillside, Rocinha’s 180,000 residents eke out a living in an area known for poverty and drug-fueled violence. At the street level, near the ocean, the upscale Fashion Mall operates in one of the highest commercial rent districts in Brazil.

In November 2011, thousands of government security forces moved into Rocinha, ousted the narco-traffickers and began the process of pacifying the favela. It was in this moment of peace that the idea to create the first Coopa-Roca store came to light.

So now, after 31 years spent dealing with an irregular demand for its products, the group is finally achieving financial independence

Under a good neighbor policy, the mall does not charge Coopa-Roca rent or any other fees for the space in the mall. In return, Coopa-Roca will not open additional stores.

COOPA-ROCA will sell home furnishings, clothing and accessories, all made by 60 artisans from the community.

“This isn’t a store for the masses because Coopa-Rio’s work is artisanal and unique,” says Leal, who hired three saleswomen from Rocinha.

Through further expansion of market presence and the innovation of its business model, COOPA-ROCA will provide expanded work opportunities for a greater number of female artisans. This will allow COOPA-ROCA to have a deeper social impact in the favela community of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Coopa Roca Fashion & Design

Coopa Roca dress by Osklen

Handcrafted skill is one of the landmarks of Brazil’s identitity heritage and cultural DNA.

In contrast to Europe, much of Brazilian fashion is derived from everyday life in Brazil, reflecting political and social situations. European fashion has evolved from a lengthy history, setting trends for the globalized industry.

Whereas Brazilian haute couture makes use of organic and affordable fabrics, inspired by colors seen on the streets. Brazil goes against the common stereotype of Europe’s model size; they strive to dress the typical Brazilian women with a curvy body.

The products coming out of Brazil from these unique artists and organizations have enabled Brazil to uproot themselves from their common poverty. The percentage amongst the high-class to lower class has positively changed over these past few years, due to the work from various artists/designers by stimulating the economy and creativity of Brazil.

As design critic Frederico Duarte suggests, perhaps it is time to reconsider design in Brazil, Beyond the Fruit Hat

COOPA-ROCA has linked the work of home-based women seamstresses and craftswomen with some of the foremost fashion, interior and installation designers and companies around the world.

Coopa-Roca’s success did not come overnight.

As early as 1994, dresses featuring their designs started appearing on the catwalk during the Rio and São Paulo fashion weeks.

The pieces’ originality earned the attention of stylists such as Alexandre Herchcovitch and Carlos Miele (the first Brazilian designer to hire supermodel Gisele Bündchen), who have since partnered with the cooperative.

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 the design and production of a limited CD box set for Brazils Culture minister, Gilberto Gill, covered in patchwork, a special presentation at Selfridges department store in London in celebration of the year of Brazil, which included a magnificent fuxico shirt for Paul Smith

Also a fashion show in Paris in collaboration with Cacharel, with the cooperative reworking and reinterpreting the collection, and various installation pieces for artists, Ernesto Neto, and Tord Boontje, which includes a wonderful hand crocheted light fixture knows as the Come Rain, Come Shine Chandelier.

Other partnerships have included Osklen, Lenny, Agent Provocateur, Lacoste and C&A.

COOPA-ROCA has also decorated lounges at the Salon di Mobili Milan, Rio and São Paulo fashion weeks, and the New York Crafts Fair.

Coopa-Roca founder Maria Teresa Leal (right) evaluates a piece by Maria Medeiros, one of the cooperative’s six artisan instructors

Whenever they are able or find it necessary, the seamstresses meet at the cooperative’s headquarters.

Among the cooperative’s most popular items are the Crystals of Light. Leal points out that more than 30 of these lamps were exported to the United States in 2012 alone. Six of them are featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and eight are installed at the headquarters of the United Nations, both in New York, she says.

The work has given the women independence, financial stability, and faith in themselves, they say.

Leal is proud that her charges are independent thinkers. That has vindicated her years of struggle, and will, she says, keep her going for many more.

“I get 100 times more pleasure out of it now,” she says. “It was difficult, and it still is difficult. But I come here and see people working, and it gives me energy…. I love what I do

Partnership Examples

Artecnica Design With Conscience program

‘Design with conscience’ is a program to manufacture and produce products in accordance with humanitarian and environmentally friendly principles, founded by Artecnica in 2002.

Artecnica had invited talented designers of international fame to contribute new ideas to an ever-expanding design collection and to team with them with artisans in need around the world, invigorating commerce and assisting surrounding communities.

The mission is to promote self-sustaining communities of talented artisans in underdeveloped countries. The model is simple: the value of artisan-made goods has always been appreciated. but with the globalization of trade, village artisans have become divorced from their traditional markets, insulating them from the potential demand for their craft.

Artecnica’s vision is to introduce into the world’s artisanal communities two essential components: the designer and the project producer.

The designer can dovetail the capacities of artisans with the needs of the international market-place. The project producer provides the logistics, marketing, and art direction necessary to bring the work of the designer and the artisan to the consumer.

As the project producer, Artecnica partners with such nonprofit organizations as ‘aid to artisans’ and the ‘British Council’.

The challenge is to develop a competitive product that will encourage the survival of indigenous craft.

Fulfilling this mission requires a smart designer, a savvy and visionary project producer, and a willing and ambitious artisan. out objective is to avoid the mechanization of the artisan, which devalues his work and undermines the project from both a design and an economic standpoint.

In accomplishing these goals they try to avoid the assembly line production, exploitation of third world labor, and displacement of workers that often results from monopoly-oriented marketing organizations with global reach.

Christian Lacroix and Coopa-Roca

Inspired in the drawings of Christian Lacroix that reflect the designer’s passion to detailed handcrafted pieces of art, the COOPA-ROCA artisans created pieces made of iron, satin and shantung


Last but not least, there are super limited editions of shirts which run in 12 pieces each for men and women that are completely made from a compilation of LACOSTE logos.

in 2009 the brand turned to Brazilian design studio, Estudio Campana, to produce four very exclusive limited edition polo shirts for men and women.

These shirts were produced exclusively by Coopa-Roca, a socially conscious sustainable development organization of craftswomen and seamstress.

20,000 pieces of the polo shirt model with a cluster of eight alligator logos intead of the usual one logo on the chest is produced for both men and women.

There are also two other limited editions- one inspired by Anavilhanas islands on the Amazon for men, and one inspired by Lianas vines for women. These are all crafted from a collage of various sizes of LACOSTE logos.

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