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Jobs first, jewellery second. The accessories brand that’s really a social impact project

Jobs first, jewellery second. The accessories brand that’s really a social impact project

Words: Elizabeth Anne Brown

Photos: Anna Waller Andrés / Pura Utz

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For most fashion companies the focus is firmly on the end result: creating that must-have item we’ll all want to wear. Pura Utz is different. It was founded to empower the artisans it employs, enabling them to earn a living wage. Along the way, the fun, fruity beaded jewellery also gained a cult fashion following.

Smiley face bags, necklaces with delicate beaded lemons, headpieces decked out with dozens of tiny bananas. This is Pura Utz: an Instagram-ready accessories brand fizzing with Y2K nostalgia.

Pura Utz, which started out less than three years ago, is precocious by fashion industry standards, with early write-ups in Vogue and Elle Denmark. It’s already stocked by such internationally renowned stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Selfridges.

Which makes it all the more surprising that, for founders Bernabela Sapalú of Guatemala and Anna Waller Andrés of Denmark, it’s not about the jewellery. Pura Utz – meaning “pure good” or “pure quality” in a local Maya dialect – was conceived as a way to provide sustainable employment for Guatemalan beadwork artisans. “Our mission is to give work to the girls and women here in our village,” says Bernabela. 

But the pair discovered that running a successful fashion business while ensuring equitable pay is easier said than done.  “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Anna says.

Founders Anna Waller Andrés and Bernabela Sapalú together with the Pura Utz team in Guatemala.

An empowerment project

Anna and Bernabela met about five years ago through a non-profit organisation working to provide employment to female artisans in Guatemala. They were both inspired by the project, but quickly found themselves craving the freedom to develop the business further. “That’s when we decided to part ways with them and go on our own,” Anna explains.

Bernabela and Anna settled on the jewellery that has made Pura Utz a social media darling because of the high level of skill that local women possess in mostacilla, a beadwork technique. Bernabela says the tradition of mostacilla began some forty years ago, when an American entrepreneur introduced glass beads. “And from there the whole town began to work in that,” she explains. It’s no wonder the practice caught on here – Guatemalan artisans have produced intricate and brightly coloured huipiles, embroidered blouses inspired by the natural world with flowers and birds and butterflies, for hundreds of years.

“Our mission is to give work to the girls and women here in our village”

Bernabela Sapalú / director and co-founder

In present-day Santiago Atítlan, Bernabela says mostacilla is the primary form of employment for women. “What they make most often are bracelets, fabric, keychains, bags,“ Bernabela explains. “In the stores here in our town, on the main street, it’s sold for very cheap – two, three quetzales.” That’s the equivalent of about €0.25-0.35. “I had to work like that too,” says Bernabela. “But it really hurt – I like to work a lot and I didn’t earn anything,” she says. “That’s where the idea for Pura Utz came from.”

The luxury of paying well

Currently, Pura Utz has thirteen full-time employees who work from a studio at Bernabela’s house. Six other artisans work from home – several have childcare responsibilities.

Julía Choy, 32, has been with Pura Utz since the start, and is now head of production. When she made mostacilla for another employer, “I would earn 20 quetzales a day,” Julia says, the equivalent of €2.29. “We barely bought food to eat.”

“Now… they are paying a minimum salary – 100 quetzales each day,” or €11.44, Julia explains. Julia’s three younger sisters have since followed her to Pura Utz, she says. “My family is happy because we earn good money and we help my mother and father” with household expenses like the electricity bill. Pura Utz displays its workers’ pay prominently on its website.

“If we pay well, we have to position ourselves as a semi-luxury brand. We don’t have another choice”

Anna Waller Andrés

For fashion producers like Pura Utz, raising wages can be a tough decision, because of the markups that retailers demand on top of the cost of production. An example receipt on the Pura Utz website cites a typical retail markup of 250% of the production price. “A difference, let’s say, from 30 kroner (€4) to 55 kroner (€7.40) in the production cost of the piece makes an enormous difference in the final price… if you have to multiply that by 250%.”

Pura Utz has become known for its fun, fruity designs and intricate beadwork.

Bernabela Sapalú, director and co-founder working on a strawberry bag

“If we pay well, we have to position ourselves as a semi-luxury brand,” Anna explains. “We don’t have another choice. We have to promote the products to a certain kind of client and be in a certain kind of store, because not just any store can sell products at this price class.”

She’s not kidding – an banana earring costs €28.95 (yes, an earring – Pura Utz sell them individually so you can mix and match), while the fruit salad crown will set you back €301.95. The orange necklace – Pura Utz’s first fruity necklace, which debuted in 2018 – is their most popular design, retailing for €102.95.

The company also invests in environmental responsibility. “We produce everything to order for our shop and retailers, so no unnecessary or wasted products,” says Anna. “All our paper packaging is made from recycled paper, boxes and so on.” The products are designed to “last and be loved and reused”.

“In fashion, so much is hidden. We don’t want to hide anything”

Anna Waller Andrés

Nothing to hide

Transparency about how it treats people and planet is at the heart of Pura Utz. But Anna has found that this openness can be a double-edged sword. Even though the company pays several times the local average, some customers are still shocked by the workers’ wages, which seem unbelievable by European or American standards. “Sometimes it hurts people to see reality,” Anna says, even when that reality is a positive one for the employees.

In the coming year Pura Utz plans to pursue certification as a B Corp, which demands high standards of environmental responsibility and ethical treatment of workers, verified independently.

“In fashion, so much is hidden,” says Anna. “We don’t want to hide anything. It gives the power to the consumer to make their decision – ‘if I want to pay this or not, I know at least where my money is going.’”

’Tis the season

Why not opt for a gift this year that’s as fair as it is festive? Pura Utz has a wide range of handmade beaded accessories to choose from.

Explore here
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