From the Christian Science Monitor, writer Andrew Downie profiles Leal and her work.
Coopa-Roca is the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative Ltd. Leal started it in 1987 after noticing how women in the favela loved fashion. Leal had gone to Rocinha to help with a program that recycled trash, like tin or paper, into children’s toys. But when the women were given scraps of cloth, they used it to make clothes and accessories. Leal decided to organize these gifted women.
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.
Their handiwork has contradicted outdated notions that work from favelas – Brazil’s impoverished shantytowns – is of poor quality, and Coopa-Roca now has a worldwide reputation for craftsmanship. Its client list includes lingeriemaker Agent Provocateur; Carlos Miele, the first Brazilian designer to hire supermodel Gisele Bündchen; and Lacoste, the French label that recently hired Coopa-Roca to sew hundreds of limited-edition polo shirts.
Such coups have cemented Leal’s reputation and won her numerous awards, both at home and abroad. She was named a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1996, and she was honored by the Ashoka Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs, in 2000, and the Avina Foundation, which promotes sustainable development in Latin America, in 2004.
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.
The work has given the women independence, financial stability, and faith in themselves, they say. They love Leal, but they have learned that this is not a normal master and servant operation, no small feat in such a hierarchical nation.
When asked what she thought of her boss, Marta Pinto almost bristled. “She isn’t our boss,” says Ms. Pinto, one of Coopa-Roca’s veterans. “We work together. But in every situation you need someone to lead, to bring business, to show us what to do. Everything has to be done as a team. Tete [Leal] would be nothing without us, and we’d be nothing without Tete.”