Dublin - In a house in a complex about half an hour up the coast from Salvador in northern Brazil, a photo shoot is in full swing.
The all-white house is luxurious in its simplicity. It is open-plan, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and long sheer curtains that billow in the Bahian breeze.
A security guard patrols the shoreline on a scooter, keeping watch for those who don’t belong in this gated community.
Out on the pool deck, 3 metres from the waves of the Atlantic, a DJ is playing Brazilian beats, energising the crew on this two-day shoot for a luxury accessories brand whose fans include Kate Moss and Jessica Alba.
Candice Swanepoel is hard at work, demonstrating just why she is in the Forbes list of the highest-earning models, having made more than $3-million (R29.6m) last year.
“The energy in Bahia is so strong,” she says. “It’s really going to show in the pictures.”
Swanepoel is one of the elite. Along with Gisele Bündchen, Miranda Kerr and Adriana Lima, she hit the modelling jackpot when she was named a Victoria’s Secret Angel in 2010. Thanks to the brand’s now legendary catwalk shows, the models have become household names.
“Victoria’s Secret is like a family,” Swanepoel says. “Travelling as a young model can be tiring and lonely, so thank God they brought me into their family.”
Swanepoel shows off a new Bottletop design, wearing a pair of specially crocheted ring-pull leggings. It is all a long way from her childhood on a dairy and cattle farm in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal.
At 15 she was scouted while shopping with her mother, and after their initial scepticism Swanepoel signed to an agency and was almost immediately sent to Europe.
“I had no fear of anything, I didn’t think twice,” she says. “I felt so natural in front of the camera. As soon as it hits me I become a character.”
And that’s what Swanepoel is doing today as she models in countless set-ups, selling expensive bags for all she’s worth.
So far, so expected on a glamorous shoot. But this is no ordinary campaign.
She’s working for nothing; the location is on loan from a friend of a friend; the caterer is the girlfriend of one of the bag brand’s founders; the stylist, a Brazilian designer called Vitorino Campos, came on board at the last minute for no fee; and the expensive, luxury bags she is modelling are actually made from can ring pulls. The bags are by the company Bottletop, and they were made in a different part of the country. Half an hour down the road from this exclusive setting, up a scruffy street in Itapuã, is the workshop where the unusual bags are made.
Twenty women work here full-time crocheting can ring pulls into the designs modelled by Swanepoel. Two small rooms plus a roof space house the whole production line.
The women did not serve apprenticeships in Paris or Milan; they come instead from the local gang-ruled favelas and are trained by their peers.
“If they want to learn we’ll give them the chance, no matter how long it takes to train them,” says Luciano dos Santos, the company’s director of operations in Brazil. “Women in the community don’t realise how capable they are. Now they are more powerful and independent.”
It was Bottletop’s work with women in Brazil especially that encouraged Swanepoel to be involved. Fluent in Portuguese, she owns a house in the country so the project felt like a good fit.
“Bahia is one of my favourite places in the world, and growing up in South Africa I have seen first-hand the problems caused when women don’t have the opportunity for education,” she says. “The women who work here get to feel a part of something, to learn a new craft and to feel like a professional, which is fantastic.”
Before being taken on by Bottletop, many of the women were unemployed or working in dangerous conditions.
One worker, 48-year-old Josenilde Solares, used to walk the streets selling tickets for a private lottery. The pay was minimal and because the job was casual, she was unprotected. “Here I am a formal employee with all the rights guaranteed by the government,” she says.
“I enjoy the work and we get so excited when a famous model or actress is carrying one of our bags.”
The design process is one of collaboration between the brand’s founders, Oliver Wayman and Cameron Saul, their Parisian-based designer Vincent du Sartel, the ex-creative director of Louis Vuitton, and the Bahian women.
The bags are true designer pieces selling for up to £1 000 (R15 930) a pop. – Irish Independent