CARCEL: When Women Prisoners in Peru Get their Hands On Crafting Edgy Slow Fashion

It took Carcel almost a year to launch their first collection made out of 100% Baby Alpaca wool and produced by female prisoners in Cusco, Peru, and that's exactly what makes their approach so special. We spoke to the newborn Copenhagen based brand going big on social mission after their launch party earlier this week. Watch out, as this is the most unique seasonless slow fashion brand you'll have your eyes on this August. Interview with founders Veronica D’Souza and Louise van Hauen.

Words: Hanna-Amanda Pant

CARCEL Founders: Veronica D'Souza & Louise van Hauen #Savant

What was the main catalyst for starting with Carcel? 

The idea came when Veronica visited a women’s prison in Nairobi, Kenya. There she saw how the majority of women were ordinary people from the village, who were mainly incarcerated due to poverty-related crime. The African women were, much like in Peru, sewing and creating small items every day while in prison. But without a market, designs and proper materials, these women could not depend on this for a steady wage. We decided to start in Peru, because of the intersect between high female incarceration rate due to poverty along with the availability of local material, Alpaca. We are using Baby Alpaca wool, which has a long and strong cultural history within Peru and Peruvian craftsmanship.

  Carcel: Production in Peru / Photo Credit: Carcel.

Carcel: Production in Peru / Photo Credit: Carcel.

What's your brand's manifesto now that you've started?

We aim to produce quality wear that solves a problem instead of creating one. At the same time, we hope to be able to turn lost time into something valuable for the women in prison. We use only 100% natural materials and source these within the countries we operate in.

What meaning does the brand name, Carcel, carry?

Carcel is Spanish for prison. We found the word meaningful, yet simple, elegant and quite easy to pronounce for many different nationalities.

You are bringing together social entrepreneurship with a creative approach. What's special about your vision?

We are the only global fashion label in the world that makes quality wear in 100 natural materials made by women in prison. Our unique vision is to add to the quality of life of these women. We aim for creating beautiful designs that our customer will love for many years. Even if they don't know the story, they should simply be drawn by the design aesthetic of the styles.

  Carcel: Production in Peru /   Photo Credit: Carcel.

Carcel: Production in Peru / Photo Credit: Carcel.

What led you to using imprisoned women in Third World as workforce? What regions are covered?

Even though Peru is not a third World country, the distribution of income is very unequal and there is a lot of poverty. Peru is also similar to Columbia, concerning the extensive illegal production and distribution of cocaine. The dangerous job of trafficking drugs often lands on women with low education, who need money to provide for their family. With a fair wage, they are able to cover their basic living costs in prison, send their children to school, and even save up for a crime-free beginning. The idea of helping women in prison to get better living conditions for themselves and their families, while creating quality clothes, is something we want to do across the globe. We are now looking into setting up production in Thailand, with the aim of helping imprisoned women and creating styles made of 100% silk. We chose to invest in this type of setup because this group of marginalised women have very few options to make a better life for themselves. They are sentenced to prison for 8-15 years. Their time in prison can be transformed into something valuable by providing them with the right skills, techniques, materials and designs.

"We chose to invest in this type of setup because this group of marginalised women have very few options to make a better life for themselves."

  Carcel: Rocio's Story /   Photo Credit: Carcel.

Carcel: Rocio's Story / Photo Credit: Carcel.

What's the most incredible aspect about these women and their stories? What perhaps makes the project difficult?

Setting up production in prison is not the easiest thing to do. Everyday communication tools, such as internet connection and cell phones, are not allowed inside of the prisons. That creates challenges with communication. We are therefore very dependent on our Peruvian production and design manager that oversees the daily production and work with the women. 

The stories of the women are very different due to their age, background, and reasons for doing crime. Some have children and are single mothers, while others are young women still in their teens or twenties dreaming of college and education. Some were more or less scammed into carrying drugs, while others did it as a last resort to make money for their family.

"We hope to be able to turn lost time into something valuable for the women in prison."

  Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

What materials are you using? Where do they come from?

Our first styles are made from 100% Baby Alpaca wool sourced from the local yarn suppliers in Peru. The term ‘Baby Alpaca wool’ has sometimes created confusion, but this only means that it is from the first shearing of the Alpaca, often when they are around one year old. Furthermore, it’s only the wool found on the long neck and underbelly of the animal.

  Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

Creative direction wise, what has inspired the collection?

We are not working around traditional seasons or collections, but with exclusive online drops of new styles. This is to avoid wasteful stock and to respect the pace of the rather unique production. We love shapes and textures that are flattering and make you feel smart without trying. We balance the beauty of classic and current, topped with a cool, considered and casual attitude. We believe that high quality and timeless design are key to your long-lasting favourite fashion pieces.

What's the most rewarding thing about seeing such creative project come alive?

We still have much exciting work ahead of us, but it’s been absolutely amazing to experience the support from people all over the world. The interest has made it possible for us now to expand and set up new productions, which means we can meet and work with new imprisoned women hoping for a better future.

"We have also introduced some of the women in our journal on our webpage, to make the distance between the producer and user way shorter."

  Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

Carcel: Lookbook / Photo Credit: Carcel / Nikolaj Møller and Moon Intl. 

What are the issues related to sustainability you aim to tackle?

We have a big social sustainability focus throughout our work with the women and our aim is to provide them with better opportunities while in prison. Our work is based on slow fashion principles, where simple shapes and great colours change the relation between the customer and the product. We use only local materials, which is a way of respecting the natural resources of a country. This way we also have a much better opportunity to learn about the full production chain of the material, get knowledge from the locals on production and techniques, and understand the properties of the fiber. By using 100% natural materials, we’ve also considered the biodegradable aspects of the item.

I guess what shocked me the most is the female prisoners letters written in their own handwriting. What's your take on that?

Because we provide jobs, we get access to some of the most secluded parts of the world. This also means that we get to hear stories that are not often told. We believe that sharing these stories is powerful and meaningful. This is a part of our transparent approach to running a fashion label. The social impact that we are working with is crucial for us. We believe in it as a part of our business model. All of our styles carry the name of the woman who made it, which is connecting and the women and our customers. A somewhat simple initiative that adds value to the product and gives credit to the women, who made the item. This creates a dignifying transaction.

We have also introduced some of the women in our journal on our webpage, to make the distance between the producer and user way shorter. The personal stories as very important for us: their handwritten letters telling stories from the life in the inside made a huge impression on us. We are also sending the imprisoned woman hand-written letters from our office in Copenhagen.