- Carmen Hijosa, 69, owns textiles brand Piñatex — but the company is no ordinary textiles company.
- The brand makes clothes from pineapple leaves, an alternative to leather in the fashion industry.
- Piñatex is raising awareness of sustainability in the fashion industry and creating jobs for women.
While the fact that Carmen Hijosa has managed to make a leather-like fabric from pineapple leaf fibers in itself is impressive enough, she managed to do so at a time in life when most are making the most of their retirement.
At 69 years old, Hijosa isn’t afraid of anything.
Though Hijosa has been working on this for over 12 years, she’s spent her whole life in the world of fashion.
Her company, Piñatex, has worked with over 3,000 brands worldwide, including Hugo Boss, Chanel, Mango, and Ecoalf.
In 2016, when Piñatex launched its first prototype, it made a profit of $363,000.
Since then, the company has doubled its profits year after year.
Even in 2020, despite a very difficult year due to the pandemic, Piñatex grew by 40% from 2019.
While it’s currently in a transitional phase, the company is taking steps to expand from the medium-sized company it currently is.
1993: A trip that changed everything
Hijosa was only 19 years old when she moved to Ireland to study and work at the same time.
At that time, Carmen was already working for a small company that had no more than 30 employees but she had great potential.
Ironically, she was working on luxury leather products for companies like Harrods, Liberty, and Takashimaya.
Though it wasn’t her ultimate calling, it started her on the path to taking the next professional step, working as a consultant for the European Union and the World Bank. Her next role allowed her to travel and learn about the products she was really passionate about.
In 1993 she traveled to the Philippines and went to one of the country’s tanneries. She was so shocked by the working conditions that she quit her job immediately.
“I didn’t have a plan B or anything but I promised myself I wasn’t going to work with leather anymore,” says Hijosa. “And that was when my life changed.”
The solution was lying right beside the problem
The inspiration for the solution Hijosa would eventually think of didn’t come as quickly as people might think; it was a very slow process, analyzing what could be done with the local products in the Philippines.
She started working with the country’s Design Center, got in touch with farmers, spoke with weavers who worked by hand, and got involved first-hand.
For Carmen it was the only way to really connect with what she wanted to create.
“It was by working intimately with the product that I began to realize that what I was looking for was possible,” she says. “I kept trying over and over again and felt that the fiber began to speak to me directly.”
She was fascinated by pineapple leaves.
“Their fibers are very fine,” she says, “but they’re also strong and flexible. And so I thought that I could make mesh with them.”
From the Philippines to Spain
Hijosa says with a smile that, although she can tell us about all the success stories of investors who wanted to help her with her project, it wasn’t plain sailing and she hit many stumbling blocks along the way.
“It’s not easy to find people who have a vision of the future and are able to picture what you’re working on further down the line,” she says.
After creating the fiber mesh in the Philippines she needed to design the top layer — the one that would be treated and become “faux leather.”
She says she’s infinitely grateful to the University of Barcelona, the University of Design and Engineering, and various companies that all helped her along the way.
For Hijosa, one of the highlights of the production process was getting the patent in 2011.
“Being able to work confidently on a product that people believe in allows you to continue growing,” she says.
In 2016, she came up with the final product: a vegan leather that advocates ethical responsibility and that thousands of brands from around the world are now working with.
Merely through its own success story, Piñatex is helping to raise awareness about the approach the fashion world could take towards sustainability.
For Hijosa, it’s a privilege to be able to respects the environment and to fight “greenwashing” by offering a truly clean product made from waste, without any polluting byproducts — but for her, the greatest achievement is that she’s able to help thousands of families in the Philippines by giving women the jobs they need to school their children.