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She Slays: How Reese Fernandez-Ruiz has shifted the fashion industry to open doors for the unseen

By Brooke Villanueva Published Mar 24, 2022 5:07 pm

It’s no secret seeing the many struggles of start-up companies, even more so in the midst of the pandemic. For Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the president and co-founder of social enterprise Rags2Riches, having been able to power through it all for 14 years is her greatest accomplishment. She, however, doesn’t put all the credit to herself—it’s the fashion and design house’s continued mission to empower community artisans in the Philippines with its every move.

By her own admission, she isn’t “super fashionable.” She even considered different paths in her career, including nunnery, as her mom used to be a missionary worker. “I had many, many interests. I loved singing, dancing, making art… I also liked communicating with people,” she told PhilSTAR L!fe.

R2R as a social enterprise 

Reese, in her own words, got into fashion "by accident." In fact, she took up management in college. The brand, too, did not start as a fashion company, but as one that wanted to partner with community artisans from Payatas to provide sustainable livelihood for them. From creating well-woven and solid-colored foot rugs, the start-up has evolved into a place for both fashion and design, “weaving joyful stories and colorful fashion accessories for world-changing women.” 

“We collaborated with fashion designer Rajo Laurel during our first year in R2R, that was in 2007, and that is how I got introduced to fashion. It wasn’t because I sought fashion but because fashion was a way for us to create more positive impact for our communities,” she recalled.

In an industry that’s filled with newness, it’s interesting how Reese wanted it to remain as a social enterprise. But her exposure to the realities of the world—from poverty to lack of opportunities—spoke volumes. “I got to where I am or I got to graduate from university and all of those things happened not because I was exceptionally talented or really, really smart, but because I was lucky and a lot of strangers, friends, and family helped me,” said the Ateneo graduate. 

“I attribute a lot of my success not to me, because I’m probably like a small percent of that. That’s the reason why I got into what I do. It’s because I want to be that small percent for others also. If I can be that small percent for someone else to be able to make a better life and then make other people better also, then that would just make life worth living.” 

Reese put it simply: the community artisans that R2R is working with don’t need a project, but a lifelong partner. “If we’re just a project like a few months old and then tama na after Christmas, that’s helpful, but not for the long term.” 

That being said, she takes pride in her small firm’s longevity as it plays a big role in helping Filipino artisans rise from poverty. “The fact that we’re here, that we gained the trust of our community artisans, that we’re still working together and we’re able to create livelihood every single day for the past 14 years, sometimes, it's the most boring thing in the world,” she confessed, “but stability and regularity is so important and you wouldn’t know unless you lose it.”

I attribute a lot of my success not to me, because I’m probably like a small percent of that.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Reese—R2R has been through a financial crisis, not to mention, this pandemic. “But whatever form it takes, whether it’s making bags or clothes, as long as it does that mission, as long as we can fulfill our purpose, we’ll take it.”

R2R by mostly women, for women

On top of shifting the fashion industry to open doors to the marginalized, Reese—who looks up to female leaders like her mom, Michelle Obama, Jacinda Ardern, and Leni Robredo—is managing a team comprised mostly of women.

According to a 2021 study, the fashion industry “remains a male-dominated business, wherein women spend 226% more than their male counterparts, but men still hold majority of the power in regards to running the fashion houses.” Reese is well-aware of this. “It’s still true. There are still many fashion houses, even if you see female leaders or women models or women spokespeople, the ones who hold the money or the ones who hold the power are men. I could think of companies that are still male-dominated from the inside but look like they’re not,” she said. 

There is absolutely still a lot of work to be done in terms of gender equality and women’s rights in the fashion scene. “I think women with power and resources could do a lot of good things. I think throughout the supply chain or value chain of fashion, there are still many things that we could do for women,” Reese pointed out, putting emphasis on the garments industry and manufacturing sector as well as the unrealistic beauty standards for women on the marketing and sales side. “There’s a lot of abuse in those areas,” she shared. 

In the fight for gender equality, Reese highlighted her refusal to have only females carry the burden of women empowerment. “I want the world to carry the burden of women empowerment because that is the essence of women empowerment,” she declared, “is that we all share this burden of helping lift each other up because it’s gonna be for the better of all of us. It will make us all better.” 

I want the world to carry the burden of women empowerment because that is the essence of women empowerment.

“Women empowerment doesn’t just empower women for the sake of, it also makes the world better for everyone, every gender and sexual orientation, lahat because that is what equality does. We make more people hold more power in more areas, that just means you have a better chance of finding a great scientist, a great doctor, so ang daming pwedeng magawa when we empower each other.” 

In pushing for that advocacy, the R2R co-owner believes it starts within our own communities and the little things we do, such as being “intentional” about our words. “I think we still need to look at ourselves now and question the things that we say or the things that we put out there and ask ourselves if this is empowering women, if this is for equality, or it is a product of some internalized misogyny,” Reese suggested. 

It's paramount to take a stand on women empowerment, continued the entrepreneur, because it’s “not something that happens every Women’s Month only, but it happens intentionally... every. single. day,” she concluded.