Allpamamas is a fashion brand from Ecuador that makes roughly the same kind of bohemian, free-spirited clothing that stores like Free People and Anthropologie have been selling for years now. But while those brands’ practices don’t exactly align with hippie values, Allpamamas is the real deal. The clothes are made by Indigenous artisans using crafts like embroidery and textile weaving that have been honed over generations of living sustainably on the land. It’s no coincidence that “Allpamama” means Mother Earth in Quechua, a language spoken in the Andes Mountains.
The co-founders of Allpamamas, Ecuador native Vanessa Alarcón and Spanish-born designer María Puente Silva, never actually set out to start a fashion brand. For Alarcón, who was working as an innovations consultant for global corporations, it began as a “spiritual quest” to learn more about her Ecuadorian roots. For Silva, it was a bit more technical. Having previously designed collections with upcycled materials, she was searching for an opportunity to research sustainable fashion in a meaningful way.
Eventually, their paths crossed when a mutual friend introduced them. “We both started with an interest to meet the people, learn, and see what came from that,” Alarcón told the Cut. “We had a purpose that was completely aligned.”
There are roughly 2.5 million local artisans out of about 17 million people in Ecuador, according to Alarcón, so they weren’t difficult to find. An embroiderer Alarcón had known for years introduced them to her family. Then, an Uber driver told Silva her mom was an embroiderer, leading them to an even larger artisan community. After getting to know the Indigenous artists, the two realized that practicing historic crafts wasn’t a stable source of income. If the artists couldn’t find a way to commercialize their craft, they’d stop, and centuries-old technique and tradition would be lost.
Alarcón and Silva began developing the brand alongside communities in Imbarura, a northern province in the Andes Mountains. Together, they chose the brand’s name: Allpamamas. They wanted to achieve a sort of feminine, bohemian aesthetic that highlights the embroideries and the textiles themselves, but first they wanted to address the needs of the women who would be working for them — a rarity in an industry that often views sustainability and fair treatment of workers as mere marketing terms. Whenever they begin collaborating with a new community, they start the same way: by asking the artisans about what their days look like, what their responsibilities are, how much free time they have, what expenses they have, and how they pick the prices for their textiles. By respecting the responses, they figure out working hours, payment, delivery times, and the maximum capacity of each collection. Silva brings in her technical expertise of how to turn it all into a sellable product.
Faithful to the Andean way of life, Allpamamas works with what’s around: natural fibers, sheep wool, alpaca wool, and different colorful plants for natural dyes. Silva says they’re currently working with five techniques: upcycling, embroidery, and three different types of loom weaving (one particularly laborious method includes hand-spinning wool before weaving it). Even in the design process, everything is a product of collaboration. “It’s about letting your designer ego go, opening your arms, and doing it together,” Silva said. “I still do have to work within limits, though, which, as a designer, makes me think of new ways of creating.”
Silva tries to design with as close to zero waste as possible, so the patterns themselves are maximizing the use of the fabric. Whatever is leftover is then incorporated into different designs, like ’70s patchwork jackets. For the embroiderers in particular, the technique has been passed down from generation to generation and is used almost daily to decorate their own shirts. But as Alarcón notes, European colonizers seem to have influenced the designs used nowadays, which can be similar to Hungarian embroidery. That’s why they’ve worked with the embroidering communities to create new imagery that represents their time together and their shared experiences.
For the first collection, the artisans wanted people to know where the garments were coming from. Silva drew animals and plants from the area for them to embroider. For the third collection, Silva wanted to examine religion and how it can create separation and an identity that people don’t get to choose for themselves. Her idea was for the women to make collages from magazines of how they each perceived God. The designs were then illustrated by Silva and embroidered on ivory cotton dresses and jackets. The latest collection was about transformation, while getting the artisans to draw — something that they’ve actually been intimidated by. “We want them to be involved in the actual aesthetic of the brand,” said Alarcón.
Silva says that all the clothes are about being comfortable and free. Their intention is to create fewer pieces that are versatile and can be worn in many ways. The Ikat Dress, for example, uses just two pieces of fabric and can be tied in various ways. Tie both the front and back panels at the waist for a more conventional look, or just tie the front panel and let the back panel dangle like a cape. But as simple as the dress appears, it takes about a week to make. The weaver spends one day handpicking the plants that she’ll use to dye the threads, which takes about two days, including drying. Then weaving each of the two pieces of fabric with traditional prints takes three days before everything is assembled in Quito.
The co-founders say they have found something meaningful through the process. “It’s so inspiring not only being in these incredibly beautiful natural environments, but also learning through them — how to connect with it and how to sense all the spirits that are there, cohabiting and co-living with us during our work,” Alarcón said. “We have learned a lot from the women about how to live a lifestyle that is in relationship and in communion with Mother Earth.”
Although they’re a young brand, Alarcón and Silva believe that they’ve found something special, but they don’t want to keep it to themselves. They hope to eventually be a model of sustainably and successfully working with artisans. “We can build networks by cross-pollinating these different communities that all hold this ancestral knowledge, and not only maintain their traditions, but also innovate together,” said Alarcón. “One of the blessings of being in Ecuador is that we’re not trying to be reactive about sustainability, because the country never stopped being sustainable. There are many things that will make fashion sustainable in the future, like new technologies, but we can risk losing what we already have. Instead of just looking at the future, we have taken it upon us to look at the past and make sure that tradition isn’t forgotten.”