Argentina’s Textile Crusader
Issue: Summer 2019
Author: Alden Wicker
Topics: Traditional Craftsmanship, Climate Change, Ecology, and Sustainability, Design, Fashion, and Lifestyle
Locations: South America, Argentina
Materials: Natural fibers, Textiles, Clothing, Animals, Wool
If you want an unusually cozy scarf or sweater made of natural fiber, merino wool or alpaca is the usual choice. But what about guanaco, the alpaca’s little-known cousin, which grows even finer fleece? For Adriana Marina, the guanaco’s time has come to be South America’s finest source for sustainable textiles.
By ALDEN WICKER
When Adriana Marina was 24 years old, she was walking with her boyfriend one day around her grandfather’s 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) sheep ranch, which lies inside a national reserve filled with sea lions, penguins, and pumas near Puerto Santo Cruz, in Argentina’s Patagonia region.
One reason you’ve never heard of guanacos is that 85 percent of them live in Argentina, whose tangled economic policies seem designed to ensure that you’ll never have an opportunity to buy a guanaco wool sweater in your lifetime.
Her boyfriend was pressuring her to get married, but she wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. So, like any good Patagonian princess, she gave him a challenge. There was a baby guanaco whose mother had died trying to jump a razor wire fence. If he could catch it and bring it to her, she would marry him.
Never heard of a guanaco? You’re not alone. The lama guanicoe is the least famous member of the South American camelid family, which includes the llama, the alpaca, and the vicuña, a wild, woolly creature yielding superfine fiber that is snapped up by the luxury Italian fashion market for between $399 and $600 a kilo.
The fiber that comes from a guanaco is every bit as fine as what a vicuña produces (in fact, it’s marginally finer—about 13 microns in thickness versus 15 microns, a difference so minuscule that textile experts need a microscope to verify it). Yet guanacos get no love from the fashion world. One reason is that they too are wild animals—they’re bigger and more muscular than their fluffy cousins, and they aren’t easy to catch. Babies start running within a matter of days, and leggy adult guanacos can reach speeds of up to 56 miles per hour.
But Marina’s boyfriend, a professional rugby player, managed to scoop up the baby guanaco, throw it over his shoulder, and bring it to her, like a knight with a (very cute) dragon. Marina raised her guanaco until it affectionately licked her face. After six weeks, she released it back to the pampas. “I loved him so much, I was so sad to let him go,” she recalls, some 30 years later.
Marina did marry the rugby player, raising two children with him. And, although their marriage ended in 2005, her love for guanacos remains. Which leads to the other reason you’ve never heard of guanacos: 85 percent of them live in Argentina, whose tangled economic policies almost seem designed to ensure that you’ll never have an opportunity to buy a guanaco wool sweater in your lifetime.
SHIFTING THE FASHION INDUSTRY PARADIGM
When I was on my way to Buenos Aires, and I put out a call on social media for recommendations on sustainable and ethical fashion in the Argentinian capital, an email arrived from a nonprofit called Hecho por Nosotros.
“Many of the students from Bolivia and Peru were the children of artisan and natural fiber producers,” Marina recalls. “I felt angry that all the richness was there in Patagonia, and it could not find a market. That the people lived so, so poorly, with all these treasures.”
A week later, an elegant woman, with silver bobbed hair and wearing a periwinkle blue sweater, khakis, and loafers, greeted me at the door of her apartment, in a classic Buenos Aires building constructed in the old French Haussmann style. This was Adriana Marina, the grown-up version of the girl with the guanaco, and the founder of both Hecho por Nosotros (Spanish for “Made by Us”) and the associated artisan brand animaná (which Marina says means “a place in the sky” in Kakane, an extinct version of the language spoken by the region’s indigenous Quechua).
Marina ushered me inside, through the courtyard, and up a flight of narrow stairs to a vast, sun-drenched home overlooking the park. In a side room, a trio of young employees from Finland, the Netherlands, and Buenos Aires tapped away at laptops in front of a large whiteboard covered in Post-it notes. In the main room, a smorgasbord of Argentinian food awaited us: chorizo, blood sausages, empanadas, and pasta.
Holding court at the head of the large wooden dining table, Marina fixed her intense gaze on me, lifted her chin, and launched into an explanation of her organizations in a lush Argentinian-with-a-tinge-of-French accent, while her employees gently interrupted with clarifications. Marina’s English is not fluent, but it quickly became clear that she is a passionate, big-ideas person, and it’s the job of her employees and her son, Mateo Zambruno, who is now the CEO of animaná, to execute her vision. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., after several glasses of wine and then coffee, Marina announced that she would take me to the animaná store.
Until last fall, animaná’s only boutique was in Paris. (“Gracias a Dios,” Marina says, “they love animaná.”) For a cosmopolitan capital city, with a population of 2.94 million, Buenos Aires has only a minimal shopping culture. Merchants find it frustrating to navigate the byzantine labor and tax code of having a storefront. To find the good stuff, tourists and residents alike have to book a personal shopper, who will take them to private studios hidden inside aging lofts and the residential apartments of designers. Marina sold animaná merchandise this way, out of her apartment, until Zambruno convinced her to open a boutique in Buenos Aires’ upscale, touristed Palermo neighborhood.
This small boutique functions as a full catalogue of natural fibers and crafted wares from the Andes. There are minimalist racks of cashmere-soft sweaters, neat piles of rolled blankets in natural colors ranging from cream to black, silver and wood bowls and statues. The quality and design are clearly out of the ordinary for even an artisan fashion brand, suggesting an unusual collision of influences.
A PATAGONIAN AND HER DREAM
Adriana Marina was born in Patagonia—Argentina’s vast, rugged countryside—in the ranch house that her grandfather built. When she was four, her parents moved to Buenos Aires, but every summer she came back to help on the farm. “My heart was there,” she says. “I am from that natural place, where nature talks to you.” After college in Buenos Aires, Marina moved to northern Argentina to finish her studies at the National University of Salta, where she ran a program that connected 12 different South American and European universities. “Many of the students from Bolivia and Peru were the children of artisan and natural fiber producers,” she recalls. “I felt angry that all the richness was there in Patagonia, and it could not find a market. That the people lived so, so poorly, with all these treasures.”
In 1999, Marina and her family moved to Spain so she could finish a Ph.D. in economics, and they soon started a business on the side selling Argentinian crafts out of mall kiosks. After a divorce, she returned to Argentina, with her children and the ambitious goal of helping artisans across the Andes.
It was 2008, a terrible time to found a nonprofit and a fashion label, but she painstakingly built networks of small and medium-size cooperatives in Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia, working with artisans to design sweaters for European trade shows. “Many of them have never exported to Paris or the United States,” Marina says. “In France, a client would say, ‘You can send me 300?’ And I would say, ‘Yes!’” She laughs. “And I’m thinking, oh my God.”
During one of our interviews, Marina was wearing the first sweater she ever designed—a cream-colored alpaca item with a beautiful drape that she often wears with a guanaco poncho. Although the sweater is eight years old, it still looked perfect. “It’s my good luck charm,” she said with a laugh.
You can now find animaná alpaca products in U.S. online stores like Amour Vert, Jayson Home, and Nuraxi. But no guanaco, yet. Marina says she loves all of South America’s camelids and its artisans in equal measure, but the guanaco seems to have received most of her attention. In a sense, the guanaco is a four-legged emblem of what economists call the Argentine Paradox, a perplexing pattern in which this formerly prosperous country with wealth, an educated populace, and abundant resources throws it all away, again and again.
“Argentina is not a good place to be doing this kind of work,” says Elizabeth Gleeson, an American who founded an Argentinian artisan brand, Ursa Textiles, four years ago.
I’m visiting Gleeson’s combination atelier and apartment, on top of an old garment factory that’s been turned into a metal artist’s workshop in the working-class neighborhood of Barracas. Built on the swampy banks of the Matanza River, this formerly upscale area is now marked by moldering 19th-century townhouses interspersed with mothballed factories. Gleeson’s atelier looks like the set of a shabby-chic Anthropologie catalogue shoot, with peeling paint, yellowed artwork, mismatched antique furniture, and earth-toned woven bags and knitwear hanging on the wall. On her neglected balcony, a lush lawn and small trees have colonized the damp floorboards.
If Marina’s European-style apartment represents the idealized life of a porteña (a Buenos Aires resident), this damp but charming abode represents the reality for most of them. It’s no accident that Marina often name-drops Paris and its fashion elite. More than their counterparts in any other Latin American country, Argentina’s upper- and middle-class consumers have always shown a slavish devotion to Europe. “Especially in Buenos Aires,” Gleeson says, “people are constantly looking to Europe and the U.S., wanting to replicate the city and the style.”
That’s not easy to do. Imports are so severely restricted in Argentina that new consumer products are highly prized. A local recommended I visit what she said was a great secondhand store, where I found used Forever 21 tops selling for the equivalent of $17. (In the U.S., where thrift stores don’t even bother trying to sell fast fashion, the same top would sell for $13 brand new.)
So an industry of illegal sweatshops, called talleres clandestinos, provides counterfeits of the latest Western styles, made using forced labor provided by migrants trafficked from Bolivia. An estimated 80 percent of domestic fashion here is manufactured this way. Even after six Bolivian boys and a pregnant woman died in a fire in 2006, followed by two more boys in 2015, nothing was done. That’s unlikely to change—perhaps because President Mauricio Macri’s wife and brother-in-law own a fashion manufacturing company.
Still, it’s better than it used to be. Néstor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who were successive presidents from 2003 to 2017, imposed hard-line protectionist trade policies and high export tariffs. “In 2015 it was forbidden to import textile products and almost impossible to export local production,” Matias Figliozzi, an Argentinian economist who worked with Hecho por Nosotros for many years, told me via email. Only after President Macri lifted those restrictions, was animaná able to open a store stocked with crafted wares from Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.
Gleeson produces knitwear and accessories made by artisan cooperatives in the interior of Argentina and Bolivia, and by impoverished migrant artisans in Buenos Aires. Some of the knitwear is handmade; others are produced on antique manual machines from the 1970s. At one point, she pulls a poncho off her bed—a large, creamy, striped item with a nubby weave, which an artisan had been crafting for the Pope before he canceled his visit. (That he has never visited his native country since his papacy is a sore point for Argentinians.) The poncho is one of the most beautiful hand-crafted garments I’ve ever seen.
“In Peru and Bolivia, the government is so supportive of artisan communities,” Gleeson says. The government of Peru has thrown its weight behind promoting alpaca, flying in international buyers, paying designers to incorporate the material into their collections, and setting up an office in New York City to connect herders and designers. “Here it’s…” She laughs. “It’s the opposite, the complete opposite.”
Nicolas Maffey, an economist who works with Hecho por Nosotros and Adriana Marina, has come to a similar conclusion.“We don’t have incentives that other countries like Peru and Bolivia have to develop [artisan] skills, or to support small companies and entrepreneurship,” he says. Gleeson has two children with an Argentinian man, and she cares about the country’s artisans. Otherwise, she tells me, she would have given up and left long ago.
Even if Eurocentric porteños were interested in locally made clothes, Gleeson would have to reckon with Argentina’s volatile currency. Just during my two weeks in Argentina, the value of the peso dropped by 15 percent.
“Sometimes I’m like, ugh, I’m running in a hamster wheel,” she says. “I’m having a hard time [trying] to get things out of the country, but also having a hard time selling them here. I can’t guarantee to anyone that I can get a shipment of handmade knitwear to wherever they are. Registering as an exporter is almost impossible. You have to jump through hoops and spend a ton of money. I’ve had stuff get stuck in customs in Argentina before and I can’t get it out.”
Marina insists she has no problems with customs. She says that animaná works with 5,000 artisans across Bolivia and Peru in addition to Argentina because she thinks borders are arbitrary, and she wants to “unite the culture of the Andes” under one label. But one of her employees later admits to me that Marina’s son Zambruno will sometimes make a run by car to Bolivia or Peru, a 24-hour drive, to pick up a shipment, rather than attempt to get it sent across the border.
Later, when I again ask Adriana Marina about a government policy via Whatsapp, she responds with, “We do not connect at all our work with political issues.”
“Why?” I text back. “It seems to affect your work.”
She sends me a voice message in rapid-fire Spanish that ends with mierda (shit) and a frustrated laugh. It sounds like she’s telling me to stop asking so many annoying questions. But she deletes the message before I can translate it, then sends a more measured message in English. “I rather prefer not to talk about the government. It’s a very difficult thing and very complex. It is better to make bridges, because this is what the world is today.”
She says that Argentina has two big things going for it. Because of its wool exports, it has South America’s best labs and technicians for analyzing and sorting fibers. Because of its free education, it has the highest educational levels in the Andes.
And it has guanacos.
EUROPEANS AND SHEEP
In 1616, when European explorers rounded the southern point of South America, millions of guanacos roamed the entirety of Patagonia as far north as the Pacific coast of Peru. The guanacos’ oxygen-rich blood allows them to live in unusually dry and hot climates, giving them an incredible range of habitats, from roasting deserts to snowy mountains at 12,000 feet. These hardy survivalists will eat almost any plant, including grass, fungi, and even cactus. They were the main protein source for the indigenous natives for at least 10,000 years, while also providing a high-performance fiber—lightweight, warm, water-repellent—for traditional clothing.
Alas, like Argentina’s indigenous people, the guanaco had competition from invaders.
During the 19th century, the Argentinian government launched its “Desert Campaign” and systematically evicted and exterminated the country’s indigenous people. Europeans, including Marina’s grandfather, flocked to Patagonia’s newly emptied frontier, bringing with them imported merino sheep to start lucrative ranches. By the time global wool prices spiked to a record high in the early 1950s, the region was home to some 21 million sheep.
“My kids’ dad,” Gleeson says, “his grandfather moved here from Poland and brought huge textile machines over on a ship and installed a textile factory in San Martin, an industrial suburb northwest of Buenos Aires. Making natural wool textiles—it was everything here.”
Meanwhile, in Peru, two families—the Michells from England in 1931 and the Pattheys from Switzerland in 1957—took an interest in South American camelids. They set up integrated alpaca and vicuña supply chains, from live shearing on the farm to the mills; to garment manufacturing centers in Arequipa; and, ultimately, to the store franchises Sol Alpaca and Kuna.
The Europeans of Argentina took an opposite approach. They carved the guanaco habitat into private sheep ranches barricaded by razor wire and hunted guanacos to reduce the domestic animals’ competition for grazing lands. They exported more than 440,000 guanaco pelts to Europe between 1972 and 1979 alone and fed the animal’s meat to their herding dogs. Even after guanacos were covered, in 1978, under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), hunting continued almost unabated.
Just setting up a camp to shear guanaco costs 800,000 Argentine pesos, or almost $19,000.
Now an estimated two million guanacos inhabit a quarter of their former range, less than seven percent of their number when European settlers landed on the continent. As millions of indigenous guanacos, with their soft padded feet, were replaced with sharp-hooved European sheep, goats, and cattle, massive overgrazing of the delicate ecosystem ensued. The result was a process of widespread soil erosion that still threatens to turn all of Patagonia into a desert.
Textiles made from synthetics and other industrially processed fiber arrived mid-century, and foreign chemical firms soon set up rayon manufacturing plants in Buenos Aires. This sent wool prices across the globe on a long, slow, downward slide. Today, only a few small domestic mills spin Patagonian wool, creating a product line of comparatively rough yarns. The best raw Patagonian wool is loaded into foreign-owned processing warehouses at Argentian ports, bound for China, the U.S., and Europe.
“It’s completely defunct now,” Gleeson says of the formerly vibrant yarn-spinning hub outside of Buenos Aires. “It’s just abandoned warehouses and factories. It’s a rough area.”
DEAD OR ALIVE?
By 1999, when wool prices reached their nadir, only 8.5 million sheep remained in Patagonia. (Marina’s family’s ranch, for which she is fighting for control, now has only 2,000 sheep from a high point of 6,000.) Some ranchers started abandoning their historical ranches and homes or renting out rooms to tourists traveling through. Some tried guanaco ranching. At the peak of that effort, 16 producers in the Rio Negro province sheared some 12,000 guanacos in 2003, selling the fiber for $150 a kilo to two middlemen exporters, who sent it on to Italy. (It’s an open secret that Italian mills misclassify guanaco and mix it into more marketable vicuña products.) But when the middlemen capriciously halved the prices they were willing to pay, ranchers turned back to merino, whose prices had started to rise again.
Call it the Allbirds and Icebreaker effect: shoe and athletic apparel companies now market merino wool as the natural and sustainable alternative to technical fibers. Argentina exported $213 million of wool in 2017, almost twice as much as in 1999.
Last year, Craftsmanship Quarterly dove into how regenerative sheep farming in California can protect an ecosystem, and Patagonia the apparel brand is encouraging its suppliers in Argentina to follow that route. But unless most sheep ranches in Patagonia (the place) commit to regenerative farming, the land—and the guanacos—could be threatened yet again by this latest wool bonanza.
There is now a group of ranches in the Chabut province that have been certified as Wildlife Friendly, where guanacos can peacefully coexist with sheep. But in 2017 the government of the Santa Cruz province, where Marina’s family’s ranch is located, changed its policies to allow the sale of products made from up to 6,000 guanacos that have been culled (slaughtered), or hunted to reduce their population. Meanwhile, the Argentinian government started to loosen its rules on the sale and export of guanaco meat, to the horror of researchers who have been trying to develop a live-shearing guanaco conservation plan.
Already, many potential American and European customers mistakenly believe alpaca fiber comes from dead alpacas. “On animaná’s Facebook page, they say, ‘why are you doing this to the poor animal?’ Or, ‘This is so nice, if it were synthetic, I would buy it,’” Marina says. She laughs, shaking her head.
Gabriela Lichtenstein, a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and a guanaco expert, estimates that, at present, there are fewer than 10 producers of guanaco fiber in all of Argentina. There’s Guenguel, a small estancia (ranch) in the Chubut province. Guenguel provides free-range guanaco fiber to a France-based luxury label named Pülü, which was launched by a French couple in 2016 who discovered guanaco during their Patagonia vacation. Pülü pays about $400 per kilo for guanaco fiber, then ships it to Italian mills to be made into luxury scarves, hats, and sweaters. (Top price for a Pülü men’s sweater: €410.)
“The regulations are quite a nightmare,” says Pülü cofounder Arnaud Rébuffat. Two years ago its shipment got caught in customs purgatory for two months. “As the guanaco is protected, we have to deal with that. It’s the same for vicuña. But a lot of large brands with more resources deal with the vicuña fiber.” He’s speaking of Loro Piana, which has almost cornered the vicuña fiber market and retails a men’s vicuña sweater for $4,795.
The other notable Argentine guanaco producer is the Payún Matrú Cooperative, in the Mendoza province. (While animaná occasionally buys from the cooperative, Marina says finds its yarns too rustic to use in animaná sweaters.) Located in the Reserva la Payunia, which is a four-hour drive over a bumpy dirt road via 4×4 from Malargüe, the nearest town, the cooperative includes about 15 low-income families of mixed indigenous and European heritage. It hopes to switch from goat herding to the more (in theory) lucrative live-shearing of wild guanacos that roam the reserve.
In October, during the spring thaw, the cooperative’s workers haul water, food, and supplies 100 kilometers into the harsh, windswept landscape of the reserve to set up camp for production. Gauchos, the famous cowboys of Argentina, herd the wild guanacos by horseback down a kilometers-long chute into a wooden shelter, hog-tie them, and carefully shear them under the supervision of researchers to ensure they undergo as little stress as possible. Once untied, the naked guanacos defiantly spring to their feet and gallop off gazelle-like into the spring pampas to live another year in complete freedom.
According to the cooperative’s secretary, Patricia Peres, just setting up the camp costs 800,000 Argentine pesos, or almost $19,000 USD. The environmental evaluation and permitting process for heading into the reserve is another costly tangle of red tape. All this is way more work and cost than rounding up guanacos on a private estancia and using already-built sheep-shearing infrastructure.
The cooperative came close to selling guanaco fiber to an Italian firm for $280 a kilogram, but negotiations fell through because of the difficulty of export. “It’s not as easy as you put it in DHL and send it to the U.S.,” Lichtenstein says.
Some years back Payùn Matrù did manage to get its fiber and hand-spun yarn into two online yarn stores in the U.S., but only because each time a researcher or NGO worker helped by going through the CITES permitting process in Buenos Aires, more than 1,000 kilometers away. Sometimes the cooperative’s workers personally carried the guanaco fiber on a flight, a common tactic for small exporters of fashion. Payùn Matrù also tried selling some rustic woven accessories to tourists traveling through the province, but because of Argentina’s inflation rate, visitors no longer spend the way they did before. “I wish I could get a guanaco sweater,” Lichtenstein says. “They are really warm and light.”
Formerly without any electricity, the Payún Matrú cooperative did win a grant from the Argentinean Ministry of Science and Technology to build and power a small electric spinning mill, launched to much fanfare in 2015. While the local Malargüe municipality has helped bring potable water to the shearing camp, it stopped supplying gas to the coop’s generator last August. The beleaguered Argentinian government has provided no further help.
“There are many, many small business ventures, and medium-sized businesses, that have failed,” Peres says. “And the government has turned its back on them.”
An obvious remedy would be for Argentina to follow the example of Peru, where in 1980 indigenous communities were given the right to capture and shear wild vicuñas, a decision credited with bringing the over-hunted animal back from extinction. Bolivia also has an exemplary program for encouraging the wild management of vicuña.
PRESSURE, MARINA STYLE
If Adriana Marina is good at anything, it’s pulling enthusiastic people into her orbit. And what she lacks in support from the government of her own country, she’s extracted in spades from the international development community. Hecho por Nosotros has received help from hundreds of Ivy League graduate and undergraduate students, designers, and sociologists; has partnered with UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) and the International Trade Center for various natural fiber projects, congresses and events; and received grants from the World Bank and CYETD Spain. Her company just won a fellowship with the Cordes Foundation, which helps finance the expansion of artisan brands. If there is grant money or support out there, Marina is getting it. “Hecho por Nosotros is doing the work that the government should do,” she says.
Whether the artisans can thrive despite Argentina’s economy, which is projected to slide into another recession soon, is another question. “If you cannot give them really stable work and commit to buy every month…the mining companies can tempt the artisans away,” Marina says. She has already watched two cooperatives she was working with disappear—one when the organizer was offered a government job, another when its disabled female weavers were told their government benefits would be taken away. President Macri has turned the country decidedly away from left-wing populist policies toward austerity, and the populace is growing frustrated that the promised economic expansion has not yet arrived—only inflation and high fuel prices. Unable to increase its prices enough to cover rising costs, Argentina’s textile industry is on the verge of collapse.
But this is the environment in which Marina has always operated. Like the guanaco, she travels through the harshest conditions and sets her sights on the summit of the farthest mountains. “My commitment was so, so strong, is so strong,” she says, “it was not possible that I would fail.”
Alden Wicker is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of EcoCult, a sustainable lifestyle blog that covers fashion, beauty, and travel. She is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has written for a range of publications, including Fast Company, Quartz, and Newsweek. Her previous article for Craftsmanship Quarterly is “Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion,” which remains one of our most widely read stories. (It can also be heard as a podcast here.)
Marina Zambrano is a photographer and copywriter based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Topics: Traditional Craftsmanship, Climate Change, Ecology, and Sustainability, Design, Fashion, and Lifestyle
Locations: South America, Argentina
Materials: Natural fibers, Textiles, Clothing, Animals, Wool