Why you should care
Because less guilt, more shopping.
Anyone who’s played tourist south of the border has seen them: stands teeming with shirts and dresses all adorned with identical machine-sewn flowers. This array of primary colors may be what white grandparents call “Mexican clothes,” but its manufacturers do little to nothing to give back to the communities that generated the aesthetic they’re now capitalizing on — and the high-fashion designers toting similar designs in the boutique around the corner aren’t much better. Fábrica Social is here to change the game.
The company was founded in 2007, when 29-year-old Dulce Martínez de la Rosa, a Mexican designer with a masters in social anthropology, saw an opportunity to bring social justice to the world of traditional Mexican clothing through a high-fashion twist. The results are incredible: surprising color combinations, sexy, simple cuts that recall the modern as much as the ancient, and patterns the typical norteamericano has never seen before — not to mention many improved lives.
The Fábrica Social boutique is located at the end of the courtyard-esque hallway in an old stone building in Roma Norte, Mexico City. Though you can see it from the street, you have to ring doorbell No. 7 to gain admission. The door of the boutique itself is lined with white Christmas lights, and as you pass through that threshold into the gorgeously simple store, you’re told that the neighbor’s baby laughs every time she sees them.
“We don’t work with indigenous women because they’re poor. We work with indigenous women because they’re incredibly talented …”
Dulce Martínez de la Rosa
You run your fingers along the colorful garments lined up along the wall. You feel suppleness, a rough sort of rawness and the contours of hand-woven patterns. The garments rest on wire hangers that reach to the ceiling, making their movement unfamiliar as you pull them toward you. And that feeling of strangeness is matched by the clothing itself: Whether meandering flowers or complex geometric patterns, the designs you find here are as new to the foreigner as to the local, though they’ve been around for centuries.
“If I had to describe our style in one word,” says Martínez de la Rosa, who now runs the company with Daniela Gremion, “I’d choose ‘diverse.’” We’re at a hip five-table cafe filled with the devious smell of Nutella-filled croissants. Graceful and jolly, she tells me that ancient textile traditions are still practiced in indigenous communities throughout the state of Mexico, many of which are very poor. Fábrica Social learns from the women in these communities while providing them fair and steady incomes, classes in design and business management and credit (by name) on every piece of clothing they help to produce.
Martínez de la Rosa’s interest in traditional Mexican clothing construction dates back as far as she can remember. Her grandmother worked in fabric construction in one of these communities using a backstrap loom. “I loved to visit my grandmother. I loved the community, the fact that they spoke another language, their food, the rural landscape.” And Martínez de la Rosa wanted to learn her grandmother’s weaving techniques — but “it just wasn’t something that you’d teach a little girl from the city.”
The designer brings up the issue of cultural appropriation (of which some accuse her company) before I can. Fábrica Social says it tries to avoid that kind of exploitation by recognizing that every collaboration is different, carefully crediting their collaborators, and treating them – financially and otherwise – with respect. Martínez de la Rosa emphasizes the strength and individuality of these women, saying, “we don’t work with indigenous women because they’re poor. We work with indigenous women because they’re incredibly talented and have an amazing wealth of knowledge.”
Fábrica Social exists, Martínez de la Rosa explains, so that “the traditional techniques of clothing construction don’t disappear, that they stay alive – because… then the communities that make them also stay alive.” At a 2006 antiques bazaar in Yucatán, for example, Fábrica Social came across a beautiful pattern its designers had never seen before: fist-sized flowers sprung up out of a honeycomb-like netting, reaching out to one another with pointed leaves. They learned the technique had died out because it was very work-intensive – but the resources allotted by high-fashion prices enabled them to revitalize it.
In part through Fábrica Social’s efforts, the pattern can now be found everywhere from markets to airports. Its traditional name? Renacimiento, or “rebirth.”
This article was updated on Jan. 24, 2017.