Bag designer Zarah Juan collaborates with SM and non-profit SPARK Philippines to create totes for a cause.
As the most wonderful time of the year sets in, there’s no better moment to champion those in need. And a stylish way to do so is by supporting a special bag collaboration between designer Zarah Juan and SPARK Philippines, a women’s economic empowerment initiative. Juan knew that this year’s election would cause devastating environmental effects due to the numerous campaign tarpaulins hung around the country. So she sought to address the oncoming waste crisis even before the polls. “As a bag designer, how can I design and address this problem? Of course, I can make a bag. However, I knew I could not do it alone,” she tells us. She even describes how she nearly gave up on the project due to the sheer magnitude of the undertaking—that is until Maica Teves, her long-time friend and executive director of SPARK approached her with an idea.
Juan says, “Maica and I have been working together for a long time, engaging our communities, including them in the process of creating all these different products that talk about being Filipino, about our communities, and [about our] rich cultural heritage.” The two even studied a sustainability course together in Sweden some years ago. The project they came up with was producing four unique upcycled bag designs made from election tarps to be sewn by SPARK’s beneficiaries, “women deprived of liberty.”
Elaborating on what that means, Teves explains, “Our core really in SPARK is to work with marginalized, low-income, underserved communities.” This includes women in jail, with disabilities, and the urban poor. Teves even tells the story of one of the women they work with, Ate Fely. “Fely is 71-years-old, and the highlight of her day is completing one bag. She lost her husband during [the pandemic], and she’s all alone. Because of depression, she now lives in the barangay hall and this bag has given her a purpose,” Teves recounts.
Despite her circumstances, Fely became a beacon of inspiration for everyone else. Juan recounts the day that nearly all of the women gave up and said they wouldn’t be able to make it to their deadline. According to Juan, septuagenarian Fely encouraged her peers to keep going because if she could do it, so could they. And that’s what happened. At first, production was at one bag per day. Juan says, these days, thanks to practice and their willingness to learn, the women can now produce 60 to 100 bags a day.
To launch the bags, the non-profit organization and the shoe designer teamed up with SM Supermalls as the corporation once again kickstarts its 100 Days of Happiness, SM’s ongoing annual project that spearheads a chosen advocacy per SM branch. Last year’s project rounded up 10,000 beneficiaries who received care, work, and play essentials from their various branches and brand partners. During the launch on September 16, 2022, Quezon City councilors and PWDs walked alongside models to showcase the handmade bags in a Walk of Support and Happiness Walk.
These initiatives aligned with SM Supermalls President Steven Tan, who says, “I personally am an advocate for women. I’m a feminist and everybody should be a feminist. But of course, the environment is another one that we give so much importance to. The majority of our malls have solar panels on the roofs. For [North Edsa], the whole parking is covered in solar panels. We [also] work with UN women very closely, because we really wanted to help.”
In terms of tackling the environmental effects of the election. A partnership was set up with the mayor and local government unit of Quezon City. Quezon City is the only C40 city in the Philippines—a global network of cities committed to addressing climate change. At the end of the drive, Mayor Joy Belmonte and the LGU were able to salvage and upcycle 70 tons worth of tarps for the project.
The team hopes that this launch is only the beginning of the project and Juan has her sights set on teaching more communities how to replicate the bags to spread the advocacy further as Teves highlights the importance of giving these women a purpose. SM Supermalls head Steven Tan states, “I believe personally if you help a woman, you help everyone. ”