In search for local, sustainable brands, I’ve come across Olivia and Diego’s colourful fashion accessories which are all handmade from discarded t-shirts. More than just an upcycled jewelry brand, Olivia and Diego is a social enterprise that works with women in rural communities in Davao – stay-at-home mothers and human trafficking survivors, providing empowerment and a steady source of income. Since the brand officially launched in 2013, it has become a very successful sustainable business – with stockists not only within the Philippines, but even in other countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, and the United States.
Curious to know more about this local, upcycled jewelry label? Then, please read on my interview with none other than Olivia & Diego’s founder, designer and CEO Yana Santiago.
What’s the story behind Olivia and Diego?
After graduating in Manila, Philippines I decided to go back to my hometown, Davao City. I found an NGO, Taikala, Inc. who supports women who were trafficked (and also former prostitutes). They were looking for ways where these women can be more involved. I realized that I have a degree in fashion and I’m passionate about social entrepreneurship, so I proposed a social business that would give these women jobs. This is not only a job for them but also an avenue for an empowered mindset.
Apart from Talikala, I was tapping several NGOs and communities to introduce the concept of social entrepreneurship and Olivia & Diego. I was constantly visiting their communities to conduct upcycling workshops. Our goal in O&D is to transform these women to artisans and entrepreneurs. We were able to work with three communities during the first few months, constantly improving the quality of our jewelry, developing different techniques and getting more mothers involved.
Who are Olivia & Diego?
On a week-long surfing trip at Mati City in Mindanao island, my teammate and I met a married Moroccan couple, Olivia and Diego, who were backpacking their way across the Philippines.
We were so inspired with Olivia and Diego’s passion for life and their commitment to giving back to nature, making wonderful memories along the way. These values were what helped shape the brand’s culture.
Can you share with us the process involved in creating your products?
From the design to the production, the community artisan is involved. Even if I’m the designer, sometimes, the artisans end up being the designers. They know what will look good and what won’t because they are the hands (and heart) of each of the jewelry. Once we get the supplies, they are then braided by the artisan.
Love the fact that your pieces are made from upcycled fabric, can you tell us a bit more about it?
The t-shirts that are used are usually discarded, sourced from donations or damaged “ukay-ukay,” a Filipino term that means secondhand clothing that are on sale — which if not upcycled will be used into rags and eventually thrown away. So we just thought of the possibilities these could be recycled and ended up making these into fabric ropes.
Apart from upcycling, are there other ways that you support sustainability in other areas of the business? (for example: with regards to packaging, etc.)
We also use kraft papers that are recycled for the packaging and tags. We seldom use plastics when packing and moving the items from our workshops to retailers/partners – we prefer using fabric bags because it would last us a really long time. When we have bazaars, we pack the items with used papers or old magazines.
What has been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and overcome in running the business?
I have encountered a lot of challenges as an entrepreneur. Often, things do not go as planned and it’s quite difficult to take a career path that is ‘less traveled.’ I’m still learning and like everyone, I’m still a work in progress. As a woman, there will always be people who would try to bring me down and doubt the advocacy. However, I try to remember that to promote a good cause, I must also embody my principles. I will always be ethical and fair to the artisans, no matter how hard it will be for me.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for your customers so that these pieces last for a long time? By any chance, is there a provision for old Olivia & Diego pieces so that they do not end up in the landfill?
I suggest they wash the ropes with liquid soap. Just like clothing, they can also be washed and air-dried (but should be handled with care). What we usually do, if the ropes are really worn out is we reuse them – so we clean, remove the yarns, and attach it again, maybe with different yarn colors. Sometimes, the used rope bracelets are turned into earrings. We always learn ways to experiment and have fun along the way!
Your message to customers and friends:
Thank you for being part of our story! It always warms my heart to be able to see women strongly advocate for Olivia & Diego. As I have said, we are still learning, but we’re happy that we’re able to inspire and empower other people to live the values that O&D has been embodying. We’re grateful for this journey.