Paloma Romero and Livia Dubraska Portillo share their inspiring journeys towards sustainability in Mexico's fashion industry
First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day has become a global occurrence with worldwide events involving millions of people. While celebrating our beautiful world and raising awareness of its fragility is very important, we need to go one step further and commit to living these same ideals the whole year round.
One of the biggest threats to our ecosystem is the unbridled consumption of fast fashion: oil-based synthetic fibers are everywhere in our clothing, while plastic packaging and large amounts of wasted stock go to landfills regularly. This is what pushed Mexican fashion designer Paloma Romero to think of alternatives to what she saw around her.
“After my fashion and textile design degree in Mexico City, I worked with a big brand who used to sell in department stores in the city. We were constantly in production and huge amounts of unsold stock lay untouched in our warehouse. The plastic packaging was everywhere, the scale of operations absolutely overwhelmed me.”
At the time, Paloma was busy designing clothes and keeping abreast of the quick production turnaround, and, part as a hobby, part maybe as therapy, she started playfully sketching bags and accessories. She visited a workshop in the neighboring state of Morelos and began collaborating with a few artisans on making palm woven hats, bags, cushions, and mats.
Following the flow of her creativity and the artisans’ slow and masterful work, Paloma gradually developed the concept for Zaavia, her slow fashion brand that today makes beautiful vegan leather and palm fiber products like bags, hats, belts, and more.
The name comes from the Spanish word savia, meaning sap. And just like sap flows slowly but constantly inside plants gifting life and regeneration, so does Paloma work mindfully with her artisans to develop 100% sustainable products that use exclusively organic materials and are made with processes that respect the Earth.
“After I started developing my palm woven products, I noticed similar ones popping up on the market. I understood that I needed to specialize if I wanted Zaavia to survive. So I went back to my family roots in Tlapehuala, Guerrero, and started collaborating with some artisans who have been making hats from palm fibers for centuries.”
Paloma decided to innovate by transposing that ancient technique to the production of bags, while also adding vegan leather to the equation. She turned to Jaliscan company Desserto, which makes vegan leather from nopal, one of the most eco-friendly materials on the market since the cacti need little water to grow, are a naturally CO2-absorbing crop, and only the mature leaves are cut off making the process cruelty-free for the plants themselves.
After some initial surprise from the artisans about mixing techniques and materials, Paloma now has a deeply symbiotic relationship with them. “They are the real magicians. I make some really bad prototypes by hand, literally just piecing together palm and vegan leather, send them bad sketches and pictures, have video calls and they come out the other side with beautiful products!”
A mere 300km from Mexico City where Paloma is based, Tlapehuala has sadly been off-limits for the last few years, since it is still under the firm control of organized crime, making it impossible for her to go visit her artisans frequently. After her initial visit at the beginning of their collaboration, Paloma has been forced to work via Zoom, which makes it all the more challenging. “With the pandemic, the situation has become critical. My artisans have been frequent victims of theft and there is a lot of violence around. People are hungry and desperate. Now more than ever, I want Zaavia to expand so that I can continue to support the families who work with me.”
And sometimes, a small action like buying a sustainable product really is all it takes to change the lives of many and the very fate of the world. This is the founding principle that drove Venezuelan Livia Dubraska Portillo to create her brand Ohja after she moved to Monterrey, Mexico, following her husband’s work over ten years ago.
Dubra, as her friends call her, found out she was drawn to the creative side of business after her Business Management studies back in Venezuela, so once in Monterrey, she took some courses in design and sewing, learning the craft from talented businesswomen and artisans who also helped her understand how business works in Mexico. Sewing machine and sketches at hand, Dubra started making clothes and accessories, experimenting with anything she could put her hands on.
From the outset though, she had the very clear goal of creating a brand that would be 100% sustainable and cruelty-free. Ohja was born from this very inspiration, as the name (an intended misspelling of the word ojha, leaf in Spanish) suggests. Juggling entrepreneurship and motherhood wasn’t easy, and Dubra decided to concentrate exclusively on bags, a more versatile product. Her elegant, minimal designs and classical color palettes make Ohja bags an evergreen item for your wardrobe, while the high-quality eco-leather used makes them a choice for life.
The eco-leather Ohja has developed over the years is an exclusive mix of natural fibers and a very small quantity of polyurethane, with no chemical additions and produced in a cruelty-free environment. The result is a material that looks and feels incredibly like animal leather, is flexible and durable, and allows transpiration. At the same time, Dubra is constantly experimenting with new materials like nopal and piñatex, a leather alternative made from cellulose fibers extracted from pineapple leaves.
Working with a mindful, slow fashion approach, Dubra collaborates with designers and artisans in Monterrey to launch one collection every year, always inspired by different elements of the natural world. The first one, Bloom, was celebrated spring and the very birth of the brand; the Roots collection followed with bags named after trees honoring the flow of natural elements in the environment. Oceanic, the third collection, is inspired by everything the ocean gives us through the regenerative and cleansing power of water.
Launching a collection is a labor-intensive experience, and Dubra normally spends a month working closely with a family of artisans in Monterrey who has been with her for five years now, to prototype designs and iron out issues before production begins. “When I said I wanted to start an eco-leather business in Monterrey, the Mexican capital of leather and shoes, people thought I was crazy! But with time I have found amazing support from my artisans and collaborators, and today it’s great to work as a team instead of as a one-woman show.”
A keen animal lover since childhood, Dubra was adamant from the beginning that no animal would be harmed in their processes, but the journey from being the girl who rescued countless puppies and kittens from the road and gifted them to friends to becoming the founder of a brand of eco-leather products hasn’t always been easy. There were times when Dubra thought she wouldn’t make it, when the lack of formal training as a designer and her being a foreigner looked like insuperable obstacles.
“The reason why I managed to keep going is that I do what do because I am pushed by a deep passion to create a better world for ourselves and our children. With Ohja I hope to raise awareness of the inherent problems of the fashion industry in a subtle way, with beautiful, classy products that will encourage people to look beyond fast fashion and compulsive consumption.”