Charlotte Bingham-Wallis and Maria Costa have been friends since school, where they bonded around a common love for fashion.
Now, their sustainable and ethical handbags, made from landfill waste, are helping support members of a poor community in Brazil by providing jobs and donating meals.
As Charlotte explains, she and Maria met at Sudbury Upper School in 2006, when Maria came from Brazil to study English as part of the Erasmus program.
About 10 years later, Charlotte, then a physiotherapist, traveled to South America and Brazil. It was an eye-opening journey – and one that changed my life.
“I was really shocked,” she recalls. “I worked for a charity that worked with children with neurological conditions in the slums, and I had never really experienced such extreme poverty. ”
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She met Maria, who had been volunteering in her community in Belo Horizonte since the age of 13. After school, she pursued studies in economics and started a business which, as part of her job, donated clothes to women’s charities.
“We were catching up and trying to put the world back in order,” says Charlotte. “And I wondered if we could help give meals to people in these poor communities. ”
Upon examining it, it became evident that there were a lot of highly skilled people working in the manufacturing sector.
“A lot of their work had been taken away from them because they weren’t competing on price with China or Paraguay, so a lot of people with these amazing skills were pushed into poverty,” says Charlotte.
“We wanted to help break the cycle of poverty and not only help people by providing meals, but also providing them with decent paying jobs. ”
The From Belo bag brand was born.
“Our whole business is about fashion and cuteness – we really believe that fashion can be kind and that fashion is a great way to communicate who you are as a person and what your beliefs are,” says Charlotte.
“And we thought that a bag is something that really represents the kindness to wear.”
Charlotte ended up going to London College of Fashion and taking a short course in bag design.
Then they started researching materials which was a huge reality check.
“We started to learn things where things were actually coming from and there was a documentary called The True Cost, which was one of the first documentaries that really highlighted the challenges of the fashion industry in terms of production, ”explains Charlotte. “It was horrible.”
This determined them to find a way to make bags with the least possible impact on people and the environment. And the way to do it was to use salvaged materials – including car seat belts.
“There is a huge need to work with what is already there rather than adding to the materials we throw away and that also helps communities,” she says.
“Our first bags were made from dead (surplus) leather, recycled plastic bottles and old fabrics,” explains Charlotte.
“And then we asked how we could go further. We were inspired by a law in Brazil where every 10 years you must change your seat belts. We wondered what happened to the material and because you are not allowed to resell it.
“It ends up in landfill and can take up to 400 years to decompose. And when it breaks down, it ends up becoming microplastics, and we’re just finding out what they do to the environment and to us as humans. So we asked ourselves if we could use the waste.
“Since then, we’ve also started working with industrial waste, tires, inner tubes and lumber to create our products – anything we can get our hands on. This is something that in the future we see ourselves investing more to develop it further. ”
They launched the brand in 2018 and the following year one of their very first models, the Leka tote, was named Best Green Bag at the 2019 Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York City. Their bags and accessories, which also include bucket bags and pouches, are named after the people they work with.
“I think the sad thing about the fashion industry is that you sometimes forget that someone did it,” says Charlotte.
“I think sometimes we think with all the technology that we have now that everything is computerized and we want to bring the human side back to who made the clothes because it’s such an amazing skill.
“So it’s a way to celebrate our artisans or the members of our Casa De Maria charity, because of all the work they do.
“Without this amazing team, Maria and I wouldn’t be doing what we do, so we have to honor them in this way, and talking about them, showing their faces, showing who made the products, is really part of building this. awareness.
A lot of thought and planning goes into products and they go through rigorous testing to make sure they’re made to last.
“With the sustainability factor in mind, we invest in creating versatile products. Our Ju bucket bag can be worn as a backpack, it can also be worn as a shoulder bag and also as a handbag, so you can wear it in different ways to suit your needs, ”explains Charlotte.
“Also, with the payment of a living wage, we are creating a product that is not a quick fad, and I think it’s something that will last as a legacy that you can pass on from generation to generation.
“Our intention is to create a product that has that great feeling and that is an investment, not just in the community, but an investment in the person who buys it to wear something that is really, really special.”
As Charlotte explains, their work has become even more important over the past 18 months, as Brazil is one of the countries that has been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we started working with Casa De Maria, they were barely supporting 300 people a day.
“With the pandemic, they are supporting up to 750 people a day. And with the support of our community, we were able to help these people when they had not had a leave plan or government support. something that I think we’re both very proud of.
Next month, From Belo will get a makeover and unveil a new way of working with seat belts. Follow them on Instagram @frombelo_ for their latest news.