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Rio's Shantytown Seamstresses Create High Fashion - 2002-07-23

This week is fashion week in Rio de Janeiro. One of the most anticipated presentations is by a group of seamstresses from the city's largest shantytown who have created a cooperative of high fashion.

Judite Perreira feverishly works her sewing machine in a small workshop overlooking Rocinha, Rio's biggest hillside slum.

This is the Coopa Roca cooperative where 80 women from northeast Brazil got together to make designer clothes. They earn up to $200 a month, usually much more than their husbands.

Rosangela de Sousa was a housewife until she joined two years ago. She has been elected the cooperative's president.

She says it is very pleasant and gratifying to work at Coopa Roca. She says workers grow as human beings, that they are respected as women and recognized as professionals.

Upstairs in the small two-story structure, Coopa Roca founder, social worker Maria Teresa Leal, is discussing swimsuits being readied for the next fashion show.

Coopa Roca specializes in using recycled or surplus fabric and handmade traditional craftwork to make cutting edge fashion, such as patchwork swimsuits, leather fringe tops and crochet on evening gowns.

With barking stray dogs for a backdrop, Mrs. Leal explains that, while the clothes may come from the Rocinha shantytown, the models showing them will be professionals. "We don't use models from Rocinha because it's important to have different references when we are talking about Coopa Roca; it's important to show beautiful clothes showing a beautiful woman," she said. "It's important to mix those different references and to provoke people to understand that the clothes are really beautiful, [even though] they are made by the women of Coopa Roca. We must have those different references and possibilities; the clothes of Rocinha while the women are very professional models."

The coop is getting recognition from the fashion industry. Top Brazilian fashion designers are integrating Coopa Roca creations in their shows here and in Europe. It is so popular, in fact, that sometimes designers say an item is from the impoverished Rocinha slum even though it isn't.

The cooperative is branching into other fabric creations. The next CD by Brazilian music legend Gilberto Gil will be wrapped in a Coopa Roca patchwork fabric.