Art Atlas: A dream that came true

8 December 2011
ITC News

The story of Art Atlas Peru is proof that shrewd business and a commitment to social welfare can go hand in hand. Art Atlas Peru is an ecological and socially driven enterprise that produces sweaters and cardigans from the highest quality natural fibres, such as alpaca wool and organic cotton.

Jessica Rodriguez, the company’s founder and commercial manager, fell in love with Peruvian fibres in the late 1990s while working for the largest producer of alpaca yarn in southern Peru.

‘I was amazed by the local artisans and the beautiful work they created by hand,’ Rodriguez says. ‘I also had the opportunity to learn about export requirements, and I knew there was demand in Europe for organic products in natural colours.’

At the time, many companies in the Peruvian highlands were moving to the capital, Lima, or closing. Unemployment was high and opportunities were scarce. In this context, Rodriguez felt she had an opportunity to start her own business – one that gave her a stronger sense of purpose and embodied her values. With her business partner, Rodriguez launched Art Atlas Peru in 2000. They developed a production model that created opportunity not only for its workers and artisans, 85% of whom are women, but for everyone along the value chain, from collaborators and clients to the final consumers.

‘Running the company has been an enriching experience, and we have overcome many challenges: teaching our customers about the benefits of natural fibres, finding good partners that share the same philosophy and gaining access to markets,’ she says.

During the economic crisis in 2008, the textile sector was deeply affected. Orders dropped drastically, so to retain its workers and artisans, the company had to be flexible. Diversification, creativity and innovation were important factors in Art Atlas’s survival.

‘We offered our clients different types of products – such as home textiles – using natural colours and low-impact dyes,’ Rodriguez says. ‘We created new blends using different combinations of luxury fibres, and invented new techniques for stitching and production in knitting. We were able to maintain our revenues and our people during that difficult year.’

Today, Art Atlas Peru produces a wide range of knitwear, from light fine sweaters to chunky ones, using a range of machines, from those run by hand to fully computerized models offering a wide variety of stitches. The company also has a line of handmade clothing, crafted by a group of 150 women who specialize in crochet and knitting. Art Atlas products can be found in Paris, New York, London, Tokyo – in all the fashion centres around the world.

What began with two people now supports 500 families who receive work from this initiative – 180 directly and 350 indirectly. For them, the benefits of regular, sustainable employment are being realized in better education, food and homes.

‘In February 2011, ITC and SPINNA – The Women’s International Alliance – facilitated our connection with buyers through a customized showroom event during New York Fashion week, which resulted in new clients and sales,’ Rodriguez says. ‘The new knowledge and tools we were equipped with beforehand, as part of the project delivered with Promperu, has been a catalyst for the launch of our own collection and brand label for women and babies, called Anntarah.’

Improving quality of life through jobs and training

The Art Atlas Foundation was created in 2003 as a not-for-profit association allocating a percentage of Art Atlas sales to improving the quality of life for people in the Arequipa region through jobs and training. This includes education in various aspects of the textile industry and promoting entrepreneurship among women and young people. One of the foundation’s programmes provides women and young adults with capital to start their own business producing knits. The foundation also provides school supplies to children and supervises the construction of shelters for alpaca farmers in highland villages – with practical and educational results. The Art Atlas Foundation helps families set up their own workshops in spare rooms or garages, and is able to supply these micro-enterprises with sustainable work.

‘I believe strongly in giving a hand to others because I see the vast differences in opportunity that are available to different people,’ Rodriguez says. ‘I also participate in women-empowerment initiatives around the world, including Pathways to Prosperity, the new APEC Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy, and ON Women. Empowering women to improve their lives and achieve their goals is my great passion. To help one woman is to help the entire family and the community.’