There’s hope inside the women’s prison in Cusco, Peru. Though the inmates (mostly poor and desperate pawns in the widespread drug trade) are more often than not in their teens or early 20s and locked up for 17-plus years, they’ve found stability in knitting beautiful sweaters for a new brand called Carcel. Louise van Hauen and Veronica D’Souza launched their first fashion collection today in Copenhagen, a project they dreamed up just over one year ago. Today, Carcel employs 15 women in the Cusco prison, who are paid in cash for each item they make. That money is distributed to the women’s families by Carcel’s production team—a husband and wife who work inside the prison and monitor the manufacturing.
Van Hauen and D’Souza met while living and working in Kenya—the former as a creative manager at a leather bag company and the latter heading a social startup that made, and distributed, menstrual cups for women throughout the country. “Because of the nature of the work I was doing, I was spending time in a lot of the slums in Kenya,” D’Souza explains. “I started to become curious about the prison system and the incarcerated women in particular.” She visited and toured the women’s prison in Nairobi, including the prison shop that sold items made by the inmates. “It felt like a waste of resources,” she says. “They don’t have access to the market or to proper wages—there has been production in prisons for a long time, but I think what differentiates us from any good vocational program is good wages.”
After that, D’Souza teamed up with Van Hauen and they began mapping out parts of the world where the best quality of materials intersects with the highest numbers of female incarcerations. Quality, in fact, is a key ingredient to Carcel’s progressive business model. Van Hauen, who also spent time working in production at Louis Vuitton, understood that in order to make the business profitable and therefore successful in aiding the inmates, the clothes had to stand up to fashion’s very high standards (even in the sustainability market). “The women in Peru have a feel for design, and that coupled with the materials makes everything more elevated,” she says. “You need to be able to reach people who care about fashion and won’t disregard you as some kind of a hippie brand.” Carcel’s aesthetic is certainly on point, from the sleek, minimal design details of the knitwear to the sharp, modern marketing campaign.
D’Souza and Van Hauen are also beginning to lay the groundwork for expansion. They’ve recently traveled to Thailand to visit women’s prisons and hope to work with them in a similar capacity, creating ready-to-wear from local silks. Eventually, they’d like to work in women’s prisons in at least five countries around the world. “You can’t come in with a Danish mind-set of what is a just system and what isn’t,” D’Souza notes. “What we can do is get access and change things from the inside without being an NGO or yelling and screaming about the justice system being broken. We can do it through something that makes the prisons shine as well, by showing that the women are happier because they can provide for their families, that they won’t come back into the prisons and will be better assimilated into the economy once they’re out, which is a win for everybody in society.”
“That’s on the really ‘trying to change the world’ side,” D’Souza continues. “But we also can’t forget that we can only do all of this by selling as many beautiful things as we can in this part of the world and making our customers feel happy and positive about what they’re wearing and what we’re trying to do.”