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Rags2Riches' Reese Fernandez-Ruiz Braves The COVID-19 Crisis And Turns Tough Times Into Something Beautiful

The thread and fabric that go through the hands of her partner artisans transform into many beautiful things. Likewise, thoughts about a crisis do not become musings of loss and hurt, but rather ideas for opportunity and innovation, when going through Reese's visionary mind

Thirteen years ago, if you had pitched a business idea with the keywords "social enterprise," "local artisans," "eco-ethical," and yes, "rags to riches," how many investors, partners, and consumers would have been interested? A few, perhaps, and they would have likely been limited to a handful of forward-thinkers, those who really took the time to dig into the complexities of the fashion industry and consciously made the decision to strongly support business owners who believed in putting sustainability first.


They would have been the very definition of a niche market. 


The 2000s was a different time.


Filipinos hadn't yet fully embraced the beauty of loving local and educated themselves on the value of businesses that were kind to all its stakeholders, most especially those in the first steps of the supply chain—the workers whose primary capital were themselves, those who used their hands, their eyes, their imagination to craft a product that ends up on a store front, and eventually in your closet, or in more current terms, your social media OOTD photo. 


So what was a young entrepreneur like Reese Fernandez-Ruiz to do, when her bright idea was born out of a deep desire to help the women of Payatas, a place known for being home to many urban poor families, in an ambitious, never-done-before way—through fashion?



One can imagine the few (or the many) eyebrows that were raised when Reese, then a teenager, first verbalized her vision: have women empowerment and sustainability at the core of her social enterprise, which focused on creating stylish pieces that the many fashionista would take notice of. 


But never underestimate the underdog who knows she has an idea worth fighting for.  


In 2007, Rags2Riches (R2R) came into being, a fashion label that has the following description of itself on its website: "...A fashion and design house empowering community artisans. We make things that matter and weave joy into every story. In a world where fashion and design are often seen as excess, R2R is proof that style and sustainability can coexist."


It took several tries—and likely, several blows to Reese's idealism and perseverance, too—to find the right people to give her a foot up. But when she did, the ROI was even more phenomenal than she could ever imagined.


And we don't just mean returns in terms of finances, either.


In 2020, Reese and her team are proud to have become a leader in social entrepreneurship in the Philippines and have become such by making the supposedly impossible, possible, by breaking ground in consumerism's shift to preferring ethical business. They're now a mainstay in the sustainable fashion industry and have earned the support of names like Rajo Laurel and Amina Aranaz Alunan, among many others. 


This remains the same even as the country wrestles an invisible opponent; the COVID-19 crisis has not wrought havoc on a business like Reese's. 


Think again if you assumed that Rags2Riches' resolve had weakened in a time like this. 


It hasn't, not at all, thanks to this business' beginnings that sharpened Reese and her team to be tough as nails, that taught them to hold on tighter instead of let go.


"R2R has been through a lot. We have gone through really, really tough times, which prepared us for this in some way. Because of everything we have been through, our culture and values have been tested and strengthened. This is why we were able to move fast and united through this crisis," Reese begins.



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Every single business is hustling these days; from the small-time sari-sari store owner, to the bigwig execs that sit on top of massive corporations, every kind of Filipino business owner is reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic. 


It's easy to put one's self interests first these days. No one will blame business owners for thinking of self-preservation—but not Reese.


Even with responsibilities of being a mom to small children and a wife, she manages to portion her heart and give parts of it to those she loves just as much as her family: the artisans who create R2R's collections. 


She explains, "We identified ourselves as a social enterprise not because we wanted a label to differentiate as a 'responsible' enterprise, but because we wanted to advocate for all kinds of enterprises to be more meaningful and responsible."


"We cannot go on this world thinking that we are in our separate bubbles. Every single decision we make as individuals or businesses will affect someone in a positive or negative way. This is a wake up call among many wake up calls that we have to be more intentional about our decisions," she adds. 


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Like the rare breed of Filipino entrepreneur that she is, she exhibits the value of true malasakit, ensuring that her business not only stays afloat, but that it also protects and gives back to the people behind it. 


"Our artisans are still able to rely on us as their life and livelihood partners but for most of them, their family members have already lost jobs and opportunities. This means that many of our artisans are now emerging as sole breadwinners. So if their situation before this crisis was already tough, it has gotten even more challenging, and we are expecting this to even be harder in the future," she reveals. 


Sharing how she ensured the survival of her business, she says that she made sure to move quickly to safeguard everyone's safety, first and foremost. Weeks before the word "quarantine" was on everyone's lips and social media feeds, she was fast at work behind the scenes, implementing the health and hygiene protocols in their office, workshop, and other places where they were necessary. 


She also proved just how attuned she is to the market and the potency of her business acumen; R2R was one of the first businesses to produce reusable face masks, the sales from which have been one of the biggest contributing factors to their bottom line now that her patrons' normal shopping habits have changed. 



It's what makes R2R so admirable; no one gets left behind. Even with changing tides (and the tides could not have changed any faster than how they did in the last three months!), Reese moves her team as a united front. 


And united they remain as they weather yet another storm in their colorful history, as well as in the future that lays ahead that's packed with uncertainties and blind spots. 


"The future"—they're words that send shivers down the spines of business owners. After all, it poses more questions than it gives answers, and society's "new normal" has been very unkind to businesses, indeed. Reese admits that she is not immune to this, but what sets her apart from many a worried businessperson yet again is her ability to plan ahead.


She knows change is inevitable. In reality, change shouldn't even be addressed in future tense as it's already arrived, and boy did it make a grand entrance that no one could ignore. 


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Coronavirus-changed causes are widespread, but Reese agrees that fashion is definitely in the battle for the top spot of most affected industries. There's no getting around the necessity to revamp the way people in the business, well, do business. 


"While it may be inevitable for some businesses to close up shop and hopefully just start again, many fashion businesses were able to pivot and go back to the reasons why we are here in the first place," she says, sharing a different take on how fashion-centric enterprises can make it through. While many businesses have taken less ideal steps (such as laying off employees, imposing early retirement, halting production, decreasing output, or declaring bankruptcy altogether), Reese suggests an alternative less discussed: this is a time to reevaluate the reason for a business' existence, and that that reason should be their North Star. 


It's another reflection of the kind of person she is.


"If they go back to the purpose of their founding, they may also be able to pivot guided by their 'why.' R2R was founded because we wanted to make fashion and design means for us to support the life and livelihood of artisans. The means could change around the purpose. While we are already pivoting and developing products for the new normal, we are always guided by our purpose," she shares.



To be more specific about her plans for R2R's overhauled future, there are many things R2R fans can look forward to. 


There will, of course, be a new focus on online learning and teaching, especially for artisans. They're going to have to figure out a way to surpass the lack of physical meetings, as well as how artisans do not have access to critical tools like something as basic as a sewing machine. 


New sources of income, product-wise, are also in the works. It's an unexpected direction that Reese's R&D people have gone in, but they're taking it all in stride, forever reminding themselves that even though things are hard—oh how difficult it can truly be on some days!—they are still blessed, and very much so. (The facts that regular salaries are still on the table and artisans were even give rice packages speak volumes). 


"While we have been working on a lot of products that are needed for the current new normal such as masks, we have also been developing products for the next new normal, since we know that times will be changing fast and we have to adapt so that our artisans can continue their livelihood. In the very near future, you'll be seeing bags that are designed for work-from-home-to-office, comfortable and ethically produced lounge wear, PPE innovations, and the like," Reese says. 


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Truly, the life of a social entrepreneur is one that will always be lived alongside, and often for, others. 


It's a point of reflection that Reese has immersed herself in as she enjoys time at home, in-between her weekly Monday and Friday meetings with staff. She's seen how she's privileged in comparison to thousands of other Filipinos who have born the brunt of the COVID-19 burden, but she's transformed this realization into lessons she wishes to share with others: 


"We are just as strong as the most vulnerable member of our society. We know this in theory but this health crisis exposed it in a very real sense. And this is why we really are responsible for one another," Reese shares.


That, and how despite the age-old saying that Filipinos are some of the most resilient people on the planet, this is no excuse for those who can afford to help to not offer to do so. 


"We are resilient, but that does not mean that we don't need help and we don't need to help. We can rise above this just like how we have risen above many challenges in the past. But we have to be intentional about rising together while taking as many as possible with us to the other side... We can only get out of this a better country if we find ways, no matter how small, to help someone in some way," she continues. 



In the same way that Reese has turned rags to riches, there is no doubt that they can turn this time of crisis, hardship, and struggle into a lush opportunity and something beautiful. 


Photos from @reesefernandez @rags2richesinc