Above the assumed frivolity that is plentiful in the fashion world, there are initiatives that use crafts and cultural tradition to empower women and give them the freedom they need to live. Pura Utz is much more than a brand, it’s a project with a purpose where economic benefits are a symbol of a rupture with the established reality, an opportunity to empower the women on the team to make their own decisions, to shape their own future. You won’t find the true beauty of Pura Utz in its stunning glass bead embroidery, take a closer look to discover the authentic signature of this brand by the hand of Anna Waller Andrés, the co-founder and creative director of Pura Utz. Its products might seduce you, but it will be its story that you will fall in love with.
Pura Utz is a project that was born with the purpose of empowering the women who are involved, what is the situation of the average Guatemalan woman and why is this empowerment so important?
Not claiming to be an expert on what is the average situation of every woman but what I can tell from my experience of working there throughout these years is that a lot of Guatemalan women, especially these women, they are very marginalised. They don’t have access to health care, resources and education, so a lot of them are depending on a husband or someone else to provide for them. Making your own money and being the owner of your own life is very related to having a job and also being able to invest in a better future for yourself.
After working so many years in Guatemala, I realise that all these amazing women are super resilient and entrepreneurship often has many ways of working and navigating life, they don’t need me to teach them anything, they just need to have access to making their own money. The empowerment came from this idea that Pura Utz the brand, and their own craft, could be the best way to have more agency in their own life, their future and their families.
You’ve mentioned that you've had a bond with Guatemala since you were a child, what was your first contact with Mayan bead embroidery and what made you fall in love with it?
My bond with Guatemala started with my mom, she was a college teacher and made this exchange program, so she brought us there when we were children. The country and the people have been in my life since I was a kid. Then I started travelling back on my own, and I worked there as a volunteer, first as a teacher and later as a nursing student. I made my thesis on the empowerment of Mayan women’s reproductive health behaviour and that’s when I learnt about women’s rights and that the fundamentals to make critical and reflecting decisions come with having all your basic human rights and needs covered.
What is most important in your life before you can take really critical actions is, for example, having a piece of land that’s yours and the opportunity to open a bank account where you can save some money so you don’t have to live day-to-day.
There was a moment when I thought: ok, so all these amazing women that I meet all the time actually know this craft and maybe that can be the way forward instead of trying to help them from the healthcare sector. It wasn’t necessarily the bead embroidery, we actually started Pura Utz 7 years ago with textiles and textile embroidery because a lot of the women know that. The whole idea is to create a product with the talent that the women have and let the talent and craft decide what kind of product we do.
What was the triggering idea that made you think that Mayan craftsmanship could spread and have an interest around the world?
The triggering idea wasn’t that the craft could have an interest, it was more an idea of how women could have more control of their own lives and so the crafts just became the result of that. Something that might be confusing with Pura Utz is that people think that we wanted to start a brand and then we went to Guatemala and found a way to have a sustainable action, but it was more the other way around. We wanted to find a way to create an income using the craft and the abilities of the women. We spend a lot of time finding the right women, skills training, doing quality control, searching how we can make products and how they can actually be sold on the international market with a high price point because we don’t have any other choice when we want to pay so well to the women.
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One of the leading figures in Pura Utz is Bernabela, co-founder and head of operations in Guatemala. Both of you come from very different worlds and yet you consider yourselves soulmates, how do you complement each other?
Bernabela is my partner in crime in this company, we are really good friends. She is an amazing woman, super strong and resilient and so funny but she is also very special. She has empowered herself throughout her life, she didn’t go to school and she came from a very poor background but she is one of those people that has this resilient mindset you cannot break. Pura Utz would have never been able to be a brand without Bernabela because all the products we make are based on her skills. There are lots of techniques that you have to reinvent and combine, I can only come up with an idea but then we have to work together, solving the logistics behind this idea, that’s what makes her so special.
On the other hand, I have access to the market and try to brand the products in the context where we can actually sell them to provide all the work that we want to do with the women. Bernabela and I have the same dream, I always wanted to have a partner in Pura Utz from the beginning and I can’t even imagine someone being more perfect than her, we are so aligned, we make all decisions together. We are a really good match, I don’t know if I believe in loving soulmates but I really feel that Bernabela and I are in the sense of friendship and in this project that we are creating together.
Are the Pura Utz designs inspired by Mayan culture or have you decided to innovate and draw your own creative direction?
Our designs are inspired by the techniques of the women that make them but we have definitely tried to also find products that were more commercial. This is seen as a bad word in this day and age, but the matter of fact is that if we want to be able to provide full-time employment and an actual change for the women in our team, so we have to make products that we can actually move. That has been a struggle for me, to get the tone, but it’s a reality, we need to make something that people will love.
In the beginning, it was hard for you to find nearby suppliers, where do all the beads with which the accessories are made come from?
Yes, it was definitely hard to find quality zippers at first. We can easily find the beads in the village because it’s a very ‘beady’ village but we also buy Japanese beads and ‘preciosa,’ which comes from the Czech Republic, both glass beads of the best quality. It might be more expensive but it’s about creating a product that will last and not fade.
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For those who don’t value sustainability, what is the main difference between someone purchasing your pieces instead of getting something similar from a big company?
The main difference is that you buy a product that a woman is actually benefiting from. We pay the girls so well that they are all saving up and buying new clothes, investing in their education and other things. It’s actually a product that does good. Our team puts so much love people can see that our products have the detail and quality that you won’t find in fast fashion. This is a product that has been made honouring the women behind it. I would say that especially the beadwork industry is the most marginalised, often bead workers in India, Bangladesh and so on are paid so little that it’s not even a minimum wage, that’s the major difference.
Have you ever been copied by a major brand? How should it be fought?
Yes, we have been super copied by fast-fashion brands, especially. It’s so sad, first of all, because when you think about those artisans who have made that product they have probably been poorly paid and mistreated. The whole purpose of creating a banana or cherry necklace is that it's not just because it's cute, it's because we are finding products made with the craft and technique that women master, that people purchase so they can make a great living from their talent. It totally defines the whole purpose out of a banana necklace. At the end of the day, it’s just an earring but what makes a difference is what it means to the women who made it and those who will probably wear it. If you are connected to the product and whoever made it then you should really support the smaller businesses.
I’m not sure that I can answer how it should be fought because we have zero resources to fight against these big companies. We mostly look away and try to focus on our own and become better. People who follow us do so because they love the girls in our team, they love our transparency so we have to just be confident in that aspect. Of course, we get really sad when it happens, and sometimes we react and write something on social media to raise awareness but we know that it won’t change anything in the industry.
You have collaborated with some brands such as M2Malletier a or Laura Dalgaard, can crafts have a place in a larger brand or is it only possible to develop on a small scale?
Crafts do have a place in larger brands but there will always be a production capacity and that’s what we reach all the time. When we did the collaboration with M2M, we had on board so many women in our team – it’s not like going out and poking someone on their shoulder, there is a lot of training and quality control developing. We worked with sixty-five women at that time and that was like complete capacity for us because it’s just Bernabela, Elisa and me doing all the quality control. Having so much production was crazy, we worked day and night for three months but it was also amazing to place our brand in that context.
I think craft definitely has its place in the larger market but we always have to keep it small because it is handmade and it takes time, skills and patience. We can’t just press a button and go from twenty bags to a hundred and then a thousand, as I think you can in fast-fashion. All our bags are a hundred per cent handmade which takes the time it takes, it can’t be scaled but it definitely has its place in the larger market.
I think it will have more value in the coming years as consumers start to wake up and stop just buying and throwing away. Consumer behaviour is really changing right now or at least I hope it is because that’s important for us that consumers understand the story behind the product.
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It takes two women, three working days, 24,400 glass beads and a whole lot of know-how, cultivated talent and patience to make just one of your beaded pouches. Do you make to order or do you produce a specific number of each piece?
We only produce to order, so the advantage about being our own manufacturer is that the source can place an order that we produce specifically for them, this way we don’t have stock and we don’t make things we don’t need. We produce a very small number all the time; for our own webshop we usually only have like three bags in stock. We have an ongoing production instead of it being seasonal, so we don’t have to overproduce and put more products into the world.
In a post you have mentioned that you suffer from impostor syndrome, how do you manage that?
I don’t really, it is a returning thing for me because I don’t always feel that I have the confidence to face what we are building and have built so far and all the responsibility that comes with it. At the same time, you have this huge idea that you want to do and goals you want to reach for the girls in the team but then you're faced with your own low self-esteem and it's like, ‘well you don’t know anything why are you thinking you can do all that?’
It’s really hard but I’m not alone in this, I have Bernabela and Elisa, so if I have days when I’m feeling defeated I can talk to them about it. Bernabela is much better at being focused on what is in front of us. She is not very concerned about big political discussions, fast fashion or colonialism, she focuses on the twelve girls in our team and what it means to them and how their lives are better. So when we discuss all these things I lean on them, honestly.
What is Pura Utz's long-term goal?
Bernabela and I have this big dream of building our own beautiful place in Guatemala that can serve as a funnel for more work and developing possibilities for all the women in our team. We are not in this business to sit for the rest of our lives, it would be great to build the most beautiful production place on Earth that could also develop job opportunities.
Our long-term goal is just to create an incredible workplace in Guatemala where women can come, develop and make a lot of money and then move on if they wish to do so. We really want to revolutionise the value chain of the fashion industry but what we do is a hundred per cent self-funded so we have to do one cent at a time. We are also working right now on being B Corp certified.
What has been the happiest moment you have lived as a brand? Which one do you have left to live?
Around 2 years ago, when we started having success, we took a field trip with our team. We rented a boat and everybody brought their families, we climbed a mountain, we went to this big house where there was a pool and a lake to swim in and we had a barbecue in the evening. I remember Bernabela and me like ‘oh my god, what happened from the moment when we decided to go solo until now?,’ we have this beautiful dream team that we have dreamt about. Being the whole team together on a sunny beautiful day, going swimming and eating barbecue... it was an amazing moment.
Which one do we have left to live? It’s definitely the day Bernabela and I walk over the land of our beautiful production place in Guatemala where people are happy, prosperous, eating well, sharing wonderful moments. That would be the one we have left to live.
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