THE year is 2009 and the Rocio Olbes label is going global. Its signature handcrafted wooden clutch bags are featured by the likes of British Vogue and Elle, and sold in over 30 countries.
The proudly Philippine-made products of acacia wood and shells are recognized in the international fashion scene—and its face, Spanish-Filipina Rocio Olbes, is only 23 years old.
All these read like a success story that will repeat like a mantra in interviews for years to come. But fast-forward to 2015, Olbes is talking about women in prison, bears, and sick children alongside cousin, Natalia Soriano-Cruz, to The Sunday Times Magazine.
“You caught us at a very fun time,” Cruz intriguingly said.
The duo has been going around town promoting their two startup livelihood projects, Henry and Bars to Bears, alongside publicist Lana Johnson of WJG Asia.
Olbes left her post as creative director of Rocio Ltd. in 2013 to work for her grandfather’s foundation and become a humanitarian—a move she does not regret in the slightest.
“I feel that there are specific times and moments in life for specific things. That was a wonderful, amazing, and blessed time. It played out the way that it did. It ended when it should have ended,” Olbes shared. “It gave me so much knowledge and so much gratitude, and more memories than I could process. But it was time to move forward and do good.”
And do good, Olbes did, bringing a close cousin along in her pursuits.
In February this year, California-based wedding photographer Cruz came back to Manila, catching up with Olbes and her latest humanitarian ventures. It was through these conversations in Olbes’ living room that the ideas for Henry and Bars to Bears were born.
Henry is a luxury label of bags made by women who came from abuse and prostitution. These women approached Olbes asking for work. Having already left Rocio, the 28-year-old bag designer simply gave the ladies in need leftover material to work with to see what they can do. The results surprised her.
“We call them artisans because they are artisans. The way they craft it, the way they make it—the pride that they have behind that, it’s really seen in the work,” Olbes enthused.
“Nobody expected them to come back for more work. The way things go over there, once the women get paid, unfortunately, they go back to their other livelihood. But with this they came back for more work,” Cruz added.
Today, Henry employs a handful of skilled, empowered women who receive 25 percent of the profit from the bags whose tag prices range from $450 to $1,800 each. The bags are made with dyed and tanned reptile skin through a traditional weaving technique. The whole process easily takes up to a month to complete a single piece.
“When you think livelihood, you don’t think luxury. You never really put those things together. You will be spending on something kind of out of guilt because you like the cause. A lot of people, when they hear about the project for Henry, they expect one thing and then when you show them the piece, they forget for a second that this is livelihood project,” Cruz shared proudly.
Following this cause a little later the non-profit Bars to Bears program. With it, Olbes and Cruz created jobs for women prisoners in Legaspi, Albay where they make teddy bears from recycled materials to be donated to patients at the National Children’s Hospital in Quezon City.
Olbes was invited to speak to women in Legaspi about livelihood in 2014 when she asked to visit a prison whose inmates she heard had good handicraft skills.
“Normally what they do is they’re given recycled paper and they make crafts out of them.
They told me this before going to the prison and I was blown away,” Olbes recounted. “It was not just regular crafts. I was expecting an origami swan, bit I was met by a chandelier.
I was truly amazed. At no point did I doubt they could make the bears.”
“I was really touched by the Bars to Bears project when she told me that in Legaspi, prisons have about 200 inmates cramped in a cell,” Cruz related.
They also recalled how, when asked about what they wanted if they could have anything. The women answered, “Soap.”
“It just brought another light to the both of us that you really can do a lot for someone with a little,” Cruz furthered.
To begin the project, Olbes sought the help of her friends from the fashion industry to donate scrap fabrics from the floors of the factories also known as retazos. One personality who lent a hand was top designer Rajo Laurel.
The scrap material they gathered was sent to Legaspi with a prototype of a teddy bear, but the two gave the prisoners creative freedom on the final product.
“We gave them full creative outlet. We found that our mission to let them be creative was therapeutic,” Olbes explained.
“We were surprised that a few weeks later, I’m back in the States and she’s texting me pictures of the samples they’ve come up with and they’re really, really cute pieces. We picked a couple and we’re like, ‘Hey, we like where you’re going with these’,” Cruz said.
“And now that’s it. We just have to supply them with thread and buttons. They don’t have sewing machines so they have to hand stitch everything,” she continued.
Bars to Bears runs fully on donations. Each bear costs P500 and from that amount, P200 goes to the prisoners’ savings or commissary fund while the rest cover shipping and other logistics expenses.
“It a complete give on give. Unless you give to donate, and somebody gives material, we can’t give a prisoner livelihood and make a product that will be given to a child,” Olbes said.
However, the inmates are not just in it for the profit. The idea of helping sick and terminally ill children also excites the group of about 12 women working for Bars to Bears.
“People in prison need some sort of redemption in their lives—something to live for. The morale of that place has gone up. They formed their own assembly line, and they’re setting aside fabric for a fall fashion line for the bears. I mean, they are feeling a sense of accomplishment,” Cruz elaborated.
“And they constantly request photos of children when they receive the bears,” Olbes added.
“When they see pictures of these kids that are receiving their bears, they’re in tears. They also feel fulfilled,” Cruz continued. “What’s so beautiful about it is that a helpless person is given the chance to help a helpless child. The whole thing is just so beautiful.”
Currently, materials are running low to create enough bears, and production is put on hold because the prisoners refused to make any more bears that have to be smaller than the ones they want the children to receive.
“Would you believe this; the inmates said they didn’t want to go any further with the production because they didn’t want to lessen the size of the teddy bear. They want them big for the children. We were laughing because they called the shots. And they’re right,” Olbes related.
In a bogged down facility such as the National Children’s Hospital, where equipment and services are spread so thin, donating teddy bears may not seem like much. But Olbes and Cruz believe they mean a lot to the children.
“For children who have lost absolutely everything, and they’re parents are poor, the last thing you’re going to give them when you do have money is a luxury item, right? If you have money, it’s going to be spent on food and essentials, but children don’t care about that stuff,” Cruz said. “When you’re young, you don’t care that there are new lighting fixtures that are put up in the hospital. You don’t care that there’s a new machine for chemotherapy when you’re four. What did you care about when you were four?”
“And we remembered, when we had troubled times at home, we would have something to run back to in our rooms and cling to or hold on to and give us comfort. For the kids, the bear is like a luxury item as well. It’s last thing they’re thinking anybody is coming to bring them,” she beamed.
Cruz is a 30-year-old mother to two children. As a mother, she understands the special value of Bars to Bears products for children, especially with the different kinds of fabrics each of the bears have.
“Talia is a young mother. She has much knowledge that she shares with me about children as well. She was explaining to me what textures and colors meant,” Olbes said.
“It’s all good for sensory, for learning. So if one bear has 10 different textures, it’s very therapeutic. What it does for the child is that it’s almost an educational toy as well,” Cruz continued.
For those who do not have money to donate or materials to spare, Olbes and Cruz could use some help in distribution, and they believe children would appreciate the time that volunteers would spend.
“We had friends out of college who wanted to help with the last distribution and they couldn’t donate money but they donated their time. We all have something we can give. If you can’t donate a single peso, you can donate your time and sit and talk to these children,” Cruz said.
Bars to Bears conducted their second distribution in August, with volunteers including Cruz’s cousins from different sides of the family—director Paul Soriano and Bianca Araneta-Elizalde. The partners aim to hold missions “as often as possible,” hoping to take it to other areas with children in need such as orphanages.
Though they have high hopes for their humanitarian ventures, Olbes and Cruz feel no
pressure and no need to set a timeline. For them, the way Henry and Bars to Bears are now already qualifies as success.
“You really caught us in a fun, interesting time, because both are just startups right now,” Cruz reiterated.
“They’re just babies,” Olbes affirmed.
“We are on no real timelines. When a bag sells, we virtually high-five each other,” Cruz went on. “For us it just means, we can keep sustaining them. The women can keep working for Henry and they don’t have to go back to where they used to before.”
Cruz further explained that they want to preserve an artisan image for Henry, and the well-being of their artists, the women, is top priority.
“We don’t want Henry to be a sweatshop. We don’t want it to be a hundred of the same bags to be produced by the same hundred people, no. The women are not rushed to complete any bag. They can take as much time as they need,” she elaborated.
“It would be amazing—don’t get us wrong—if Henry was all over the place. For now, we feel like our mission is to continue being fulfilled. If people come at us with worries like, what if you get an order for a thousand pieces? Honestly, we will cross that bridge when we get to it. That’s how it works,” Cruz furthered.
It also helps for the two that while they give women livelihood, Henry and Bars to Bears are not their main source of living. Olbes helps in the family foundation while Cruz has her life back in California.
Working on the projects are an unlikely vacation for Cruz, however, who spent her three-week summer break in Manila to help Olbes grow their “babies.”
Asked if they plan to expand to more causes, Cruz said she hopes other people would take on the job.
“You just look around and there’s something you can do. I keep telling Rocio not take me to another province or area because I might go home with five more causes,” the young mother smiled.
“There are so many things going on right in front of us, really. We’ve almost become desensitized to this. It’s a blessing for me to have Talia come back and see her reactions, sometimes because I’ve almost become desensitized with what’s going on around us,” Olbes offered.
“We need to stop saying ‘this happens here’ and we have to start asking, ‘why does this happen here’?” Cruz added.
“Be aware, just be aware. Make a conscious decision to be aware,” Olbes ended.
Henry bags are available via www.henry-wear.com, while Bars to Bears accepts donations via barstobears.com