Inmates find hope in a fashion label

French designer Thomas Jacob (above wearing cap, with prisoners modelling T-shirts made under the Pieta label)
French designer Thomas Jacob (above wearing cap, with prisoners modelling T-shirts made under the Pieta label) PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LIMA • Santos Arce Ramos is doing 18 years for aggravated robbery, but today, he is carefully cutting organic cotton cloth in a workshop at San Pedro, a notorious prison in Peru's capital Lima.

With the help of a French designer who cut his teeth at Chanel, inmates at two Peruvian prisons have launched their own clothing label, seeking to bring their urban style to the world - and find redemption in fashion.

"It's like putting together a puzzle," said Arce, 46, as he manoeuvred pieces of cloth into place on a beat-up work bench.

He is one of 30 inmates at San Pedro and a women's prison across town, Santa Monica, who make the clothes sold by Pieta, a label that describes itself as socially conscious and was set up by French fashionista Thomas Jacob, 29.

The label specialises in a gritty urban look: T-shirts, hoodies and jackets in black, white and army green, stamped with stark black designs.

Working helps redeem us, provides money for our families and makes us feel productive. We're not useless.

CARLOS URIBE, an inmate in San Pedro prison, on the Pieta clothing line project led by French designer Thomas Jacob

Jacob, a graduate of French business school Inseec, got the idea for Pieta in 2012, when a friend who taught French lessons to inmates at San Pedro invited him to tag along with her.

Galvanised by the visit, he plunged head first into an ambitious new project. He asked prison officials for permission to set up a tailoring workshop for inmates and then quit his job at revered fashion house Chanel to dedicate himself to his new label.

"Prison inspires me - the dark side of humankind," he said.

It was slow-going at first, but within a year the inmates were making "high-quality, competitive" products, he said.

Pieta takes its name from a sculpture by Renaissance master Michelangelo in which the Virgin Mary cradles the lifeless body of Jesus. The name "represents the final step before resurrection, the rebirth of a man who never gives up. That's the hope of these inmates", Jacob said.

He designs the clothes and the inmates make them. "The idea is to do everything within the prison walls," he said as a group of inmates modelled the 2016 collection, which will be sold online.

His designs recall the work of Alexander Rodchenko, the Russian artist whose angular lines and stark colours epitomised the 20th-century movement known as constructivism.

In one T-shirt, the outline of a black padlock is barely perceptible against a black background. In another, the jagged shape of an industrial building bears the inscription "Factory of Tears".

The brand's logo is four bars with a diagonal slash through them, evoking hash marks carved into a prison wall to tally the days of lost freedom.

Jacob said: "It's an authentic concept, with different designs. There's nothing false. We use organic cotton and natural materials."

Pieta produces about 100 T-shirts a week and has sold more than 12,000 items in just over three years. The T-shirts go for US$35 (S$47) online.

At San Pedro, the inmates' small workshop sits in a recreation area that was the scene of one of the worst prison massacres in history 30 years ago, when inmates from the Shining Path, a leftist guerrilla group, staged a mutiny that left more than 100 people dead.

The space is packed with sewing machines the inmates use to turn the materials Jacob brings twice a week into clothes. The prisoners receive a percentage on every sale.

Carlos Uribe, 67, who is serving 15 years for drug dealing, said the cash helps them care for their families on the outside.

"We need people like Thomas, people who believe in us," he said.

"We're a potential labour force. Working helps redeem us, provides money for our families and makes us feel productive. We're not useless."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Inmates find hope in a fashion label'. Subscribe