Vistete de Suenos empowers women with sewing and business skills

María Alejandra Avariano enjoyed sinking her hands into fine fabrics. Although she was not an expert, she spent many hours working at a sewing machine to help her fashion-obsessed sister, Ana Carolina Averiano. But sewing was also how Avariano escaped her daily routine. She worked as an administrative assistant, locked in an office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a very poor salary.

One day, her mother called her.

“Resign, daughter, resign. I enrolled in a sewing course taught by a foundation called Vístete de sueños. It seems that it is not any course. They also teach how to be entrepreneurs. We could do something together.”

Avariano was tempted, but she had just received a promotion a few hours ago. Quitting would be crazy. She told her mother no.

Bastidas was a housewife looking for a way to generate income, which is why she enrolled in the course. However, she was sure that this experience would be more important for her daughter than for her. She called her again, insisted, gave her details.

Avariano’s mind began to slip through a sea of questions. "Is this what I've been waiting for? What if I dare? What if it does not work?" She was scared.

But after much thought, at the end of that afternoon, she decided she would make the leap. That day, she went to the boss's office and resigned.

“So I dressed in dreams,” Avariano remembers now, laughing.

The Vístete de sueños Foundation was started in 2012 by Eglantina Paredes, a lady from Caracas with refined taste who wanted more Venezuelan women to be in tune with fashion. She wanted to create a foundation but needed an idea. A friend of hers, the designer Alberto de Castro, helped to shape it.

"Why not create a program that teaches women to make clothes, and that is a way to empower them? It is a necessity, because there are many designers, but not so many people who make.”

Together they worked on the project, thinking about the methodology, about the impact it could have on society. They registered a proposal in the Ideas Competition, and won first place. With the prize money, they started a pilot in April 2013.

Vístete de sueños offers practical training in cutting, sewing, tailoring and business entrepreneurship, as well as training in soft skills like communication and interpersonal skills. It is aimed at women between 18 and 60 years old, who have gone through adverse situations and are low income. Participants must pay a small fee, but they can not pay it, the foundation is responsible for locating a sponsor.

"What we are pursuing is the empowerment of those women who have not had opportunities to progress, who because of the surrounding environment could not become independent. Fashion is an excuse to invite them to that and to give them tools for personal and professional improvement. The sewing is wonderful because we have discovered that it is therapeutic," explains foundation president Trina Camero.

The initiative is maintained with the support of allies, organizations and private companies. The training period takes place over nine months: three afternoons a week, women receive classes and soft skills development workshops. At the end of the process, they must present a thesis, which consists of designing and making a garment and explaining how they made it.

From there they go out to do internships in studios and design workshops, to put learning into practice and gain experience. Since 2013, there have been 130 graduates of the five cohorts.

Yosseline Rulfo was in the second cohort. She graduated in 2014. When she arrived at the foundation, she was 23 years old and had just received a graphic design certificate. She was unemployed and lived in Guarenas, a dormitory city suburb located one hour from Caracas.

Little by little she fell in love with fashion.

"I did my internships with an ecological accessory and clothing brand. It was incredible. Then several designers called me to work with them because we came out very well prepared. I worked with Daniela Panaro, from the firm Do Not Step On The Grass. There I dedicated myself to making technical files, which is a tool that specifies the elements that a garment requires so that it can be massively replicated. I'm still linked to that world, now on my own," Rulfo said.

There are many, however, which do not reach the end. During the process, some women need to work right away and quit because the classes take a lot of time. Most have left to migrate to another country looking for a livelihood for their families. The fifth and most recent cohort started with 40 women and graduated 23.

"Desertion is high," admits Camero.

"It has to do with the problems of the country. Now, for example, Venezuela is going through a public transport crisis ... That has affected us because we have our halls in the center of the city and the participants have difficulty getting there. Either they do not find how to get around or they do not have the cash to pay for the ticket. We had to modify the schedules and explore who can do the exercises from their homes."

But Camero said she is certain the project works: she has seen it with her own eyes. She tells stories that are, for her, fuel. A lady from Petare - a huge neighbourhood in eastern Caracas - now supports her family making patterns for designers. Another, from Los Teques, two hours from Caracas, ended up making high fashion outfits in the workshop of the prestigious designer Valentina Cedeño. And another, whose husband did not allow her to work, managed to become independent and bought Christmas gifts for her children with her own money.

And, of course, the Averiano-Bastidas family.

María Alejandra Averiano and María Teresa Bastidas graduated in the fifth cohort.

Now they are preparing the details to launch their women's clothing brand. Averiano’ sister, the fashion designer, has already sketched the first collection, which will be casual and elegant garments. A family friend who is a marketing specialist is adjusting a marketing plan.

In the family house, they have space to work, with a long table to cut fabric and an old sewing machine inherited from Averiano’s grandmother.

"This changed our lives. My mom is no longer a housewife and I am happier. Literally, we dressed in dreams," said Averiano.