Making a difference in the world is not something that is largely synonymous with fashion. The darker side of fashion – including reports about sweatshop conditions, child labour and the environmental impact of dyeing processes – has often overshadowed its ability to be seen as laudable. That’s where luxury accessories brand, Bottletop, are changing that perception altogether and spearheading something that sits just as comfortably among fashionistas as it does campaigners.
At the centre of Bottletop’s creative concept is the rather humble ring pull. Ring pulls from cans, salvaged from waste, are woven together to create beautiful, high fashion bags handmade in Brazil.
Ring pulls, which are collected from across Bahia state’s beaches and streets, are brought by the kilo to the company’s Salvador-based atelier. These are then selected, cleaned and left to dry in the sun. The bags are crocheted by a team of local women, who are trained and employed by Bottletop.
The company creates livelihoods for these local women living in a challenging environment, and so enabling them to support themselves and their families. It is this team of highly skilled artisans that are responsible for producing the Bottletop collection which, to date, includes clutch, hobo, shopper, weekend and cross body bags.
“What has been important for Bottletop is building a brand that is both exciting and directional as well as standing for sublime quality when it comes to products and the craftsmanship of the designs,” explains Bottletop founder and director, Cameron Saul. “The wider mission is about empowering people and doing it in a way that is as supportive as possible for the environment.”
The boundless creative energy of fashion is clearly evident in the Bottletop approach to philanthropy, owing in part to Cameron Saul’s background in fashion. But it does not stop there. Alongside his business partner and co-director, Oliver Wayman, the pair have created a winning formula of blending fashion, music and contemporary art to support education projects, through The Bottletop Foundation, which empowers young people to protect themselves, their families, their communities and the environment.
Empowering young people
The Bottletop Foundation, which supports projects in Brazil, Africa and the UK, has been responsible for empowering around 35,000 young people each year with life skills and education to help protect them from contracting HIV/AIDS or falling victim to unplanned teenage pregnancy or drug and substance abuse.
In the last few years, Cameron Saul and Oliver Wayman have developed inspirational ways to fundraise, which has included hosting contemporary art events and releasing albums. The money generated funds the education projects that the Bottetop Foundation supports. “It’s a logical progression really,” Cameron Saul adds. “Fashion, music and contemporary art – they’ve all ended up sitting well together and have been interesting industries and environments in which to work, and in terms of creating products and ways of fundraising for our education programs or creating livelihoods through the designs.”
Under the Bottletop banner, the pair have released three albums. Two of the albums were compilations of African and Brazilian tracks released under the Mr Bongo imprint.
The last album was a project by The Bottletop Band – a collective of leading artists from both Brazil and the UK fusing the sound-scape of Brazil with British rock, indie and soul.
Among the artists involved in The Bottletop Band were Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), VV Brown, Eliza Doolittle, Tim Burgess (The Charlatans), Kassin, Domenico, Orquestra Imperial and Yungun. Brazilian-born producer Mario C – known for his work with the Beastie Boys, Tone Loc and Beck – was the main producer behind it.
“It was a fascinating process,” says Cameron Saul. “It was all about one of our core values which is very much about cross-cultural engage and using the best of what’s coming from these places and doing our best to blend them.”
The Bottletop directors are undeniably well-connected. But it is their visionary spirit and the love and passion for what they do that commands attention and attracts to them those that are similarly aligned. For the fashion brand, the label has collaborated with Bono’s Red Project and British label, Fenchurch.
When it comes to the design of the bags, Cameron Saul insists that it is a collaborative process – one that takes in references from around the globe – with Cameron Saul and Oliver Wayman in London; their designer in Paris; and their production team in Brazil, headed up by the company’s production manager, Luciano Dos Santos.
“It’s an ongoing conversation that ranges from colours that we think are going to be important for the season and shapes that we feel are going to be interesting. That combined with feedback and ideas from the atelier in Brazil,” Cameron Saul says. “It is a melting pot of a process which takes into account where we want to take the look and feel of the brand and what’s possible technically and looking at how far we can push the envelope without going in the wrong direction.”
The production team in Brazil plays a crucial role in providing that balance between aesthetics and practicality. Cameron Saul explains: “They are the most skilled members of the team when it comes to actually creating the bags. We’ll often come up with a design and they will come back and say there’s a more functional way of doing it.”
Bottletop’s bags have earned themselves a cult following amongst celebrities including Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, and Rita Ora.
As edgy and appealing as the bags are, they are “not for the faint hearted”, Saul explains. “The bags appeal to those who are confident in their look – you’ve got to be someone who enjoys wearing interesting textures and colours,” he says. “Someone who’s really interested in their look and also has an interest in what’s the story around what they wear, how they are made and what their impact is. But not necessarily – it could be someone that simply loves the look and feel of the bag.”
Story behind the bags
It is the story behind the bags that appears to be the driving force for both Cameron Saul and Oliver Wayman. “Bottletop’s been about empowerment and that’s what motivates us,” Cameron Saul says. “You can’t not be inspired when you visit the atelier in Brazil and see the team and the people there just shining through doing what they do, and similarly when we visit the educational projects that we support through The Bottletop Foundation – just seeing the empowering effect that it has on the people that we work with and what it means to them. It’s about giving people control in their lives to do what they want to do – giving them the self-confidence and self-belief to be able to do that, and that’s certainly what keeps us inspired and engaged.”
The journey started for Bottletop back in 2002 when Cameron Saul returned from a gap year teaching hygiene and sexual health to young people in Uganda. While there, he discovered a quirky wire frame handbag made from recycled bottle tops in Uganda. With his background in fashion, Cameron Saul recognised the potential in what he saw and quickly got to work on refining and developing the bag with his father Roger Saul, founder of Mulberry.
Launched through a design collaboration with Mulberry, The Mulberry Bottletop bag were sold as a one-off collection and became the best selling bag of the season for the British fashion house. The funds raised were donated to the Ugandan charities with which Cameron Saul had worked, and their production had created livelihoods for the craftsmen in Nairobi and Cape Town where they were made.
But it seems that the Bottletop directors were always destined for Brazil and Bahia, in particular. The state of Bahia, in the north east, is known as the spiritual centre of Brazil. Capital city Salvador is famed for its music, specialty handcraft, home to capoeira, and the traditional Candomblé ceremonies that pays homage to the Orxias (African Gods). With the dynamism that Bahia invokes it is fitting that the Bottetop directors would set up business and channel their unique blend of creative energies there.
The guys had already been working in Brazil on Bottetop’s second fundraising album in 2007. Back in Salvador, home to their partnering Brazilian record label, Oliver Wayman made a chance discovery – a technique of crocheting upcycled ring pulls from cans which were being made by local co-operatives.
“Making bags out of recycled bottletops is how Bottletop began life through Mulberry, so when we spotted this technique in Bahia, it was too coincidental for us to ignore,” adds Cameron Saul.
The pair were immediately impressed by the material and its properties – being aluminium, it is super light. The technique of producing a ring pull bag uses a simple figure of 8 metal loop which can be turned into a mesh material when it is crocheted together. Bottletop have refined this technique by applying it in a multitude of different ways. With their Paris-based design team, they have also developed a leather braiding technique.
What is certainly apparent with Bottetop bags is the durability of the material. Traditionally chain mail bags are heavy, but applying this technique to aluminium makes it the opposite. “It is amazing, it can be very sexy – we’ve tried to keep it punchy,” says Cameron Saul. “The materials are really strong and really light and that’s why it is such a great material to work with.”
All the women that are employed by Bottletop, which has 13 full-time workers, receive training for the fundamental crocheting process which takes up to four months to master. Another seven employees are responsible for the enamel painting and stitching. The time it takes to make the products varies from a day for the smaller accessories and clutches, to a week for the larger bags. Ring pull only bags such as the classic Bellani tote typically takes a day-and-a-half to produce, whereas the Claudio weekend bag can take up to a week to make.
In the area where the atelier is based, there are very few employment opportunities for local women. Many work as housemaids, in prostitution or travel far to sell snacks on beaches to tourists. The impact that Bottletop has had on its employees has been transformational.
Cameron Saul explains: “Many of the women have been with us several years now – since we first started when really it was just a side project for us. And it has really just gone from strength to strength.
“There’s almost always a waiting list of people wanting to work for us – that’s because it takes someone with a certain aptitude, patience and dexterity which is not for everyone. But for those that shine, there has been lovely stories of those women that have gone from being extremely timid and almost not getting involved in the process to flying.”
It is the unsung heroes that personally inspire Cameron Saul. He cites the company’s production manager in Brazil, Luciano Dos Santos as an “incredible inspiration”. Bottletop were introduced to Luciano Dos Santos by a friend. Luciano Dos Santos, who grew up in a local favela, was a trustee of a local charity prior to working at Bottletop.
Cameron Saul says: “Luciano has this temperament and ability and working with the team, he manages to blend this incredible fatherly support for the whole group whilst being unbelievably dynamic and effective in a very challenging environment.”
And it is the unsung heroes that Bottletop will continue to champion in their endeavours. As the company grows, they plan to expand the team in Brazil.
“We’re really looking forward to producing designs there again,” Cameron Saul adds. “The vision for Bottletop is about using really beautiful design and working with some of the world’s most talented artisans. It is about enabling them to work with us and our design team in Europe to be able to further enhance what they’re already doing, to really respect what they’re already doing, while looking at ways that we can refine or adapt, if that is even necessary, so that it can sit not only in the Bottletop direction but sit alongside the world’s leading brands.”
With its focus on producing quality, high fashion accessories, Bottletop is an exemplary brand which has the capacity to inspire and revolutionise the way the fashion industry operates. The market for sustainable luxury fashion accessories was virtually non-existent when Bottletop started up more than 10 years ago. Now it’s emerging thanks to the likes of the independent, visionary brands such as Bottletop.
Cameron Saul is excited by the development and believes it could lead to the luxury fashion houses making more informed choices when it comes to sustainability. He says: “Customers are getting more and more clued up about how things are made, where they are made and why they are made and that can then put pressure on brands to deliver products that satisfy and excite in those ways. Hopefully it will lead to more technological breakthroughs in terms of materials and use of material that are more and more supportive of the planet and the environment and the people that make them into products.
“Hopefully it’s going to be an exciting step change where we also see a lot more of the established luxury houses talking about what steps they are taking to really enhance their own supply chains in positive ways. And hopefully it’s the start of a new era on that front.”
Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a journalist who writes about sustainable life & style, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives: www.rosalindmedea.com