NASTY WOMAN: Violeta Villacorta (Founder, ORG BY VIO)
Updated: Mar 12
I initially struggled with under what "heading" to include this interview, since I love ORG BY VIO as a company, but admire Violeta ("Vio") Villacorta as a strong & resilient women equally so.
Ultimately, I decided to feature Vio amongst the “Nasty Women” collective, but I encourage you to visit her websites and explore more of her beautiful line of accessories.
NAME: Violeta Villacorta
LOCATION: Idyllwild, California
WHERE YOU KNOW HER FROM: ORG BY VIO
Describe yourself in three words.
Explorer. Artist. Gypsy.
Tell us about ORG BY VIO.
I started ORG BY VIO (“Organic Rainforest Goods by Visionaries and Indigenous Organizations” – “Vio” is also my nickname) in 2010, with the intention to do something with Indigenous communities affected by extractive industries (i.e. oil, gas, wood), and create a brand that would incorporate local artisanship.
I wanted to do something that was creative and non-political, and that addressed areas that were fragile.
In June 2009, there was an awful massacre that started from a peaceful protest in the Bagua Region of Peru. There were Indigenous communities and other locals that were trying to stop an extractive gas mega-project. Upon seeing this, I called my friends at Amazon Watch, and said, “I can’t travel to the region right now, but how can I help in the interim?”
I ended up transcribing about eight hours of very graphic video footage, because Amazon Watch staff was on the ground filming the whole event. This changed everything for me. I had left Patagonia in late 2008, where I had worked for six years, to pursue my newfound mission of working with Indigenous communities.
ORG BY VIO was then established to promote the protection of the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous rights, through the sale of jewellery and fashion designed by talented Indigenous women.
As a supplement, I also wanted to connect these communities with other ventures so that they could sell additional products that they produce, outside the scope of ORG BY VIO. Last year, for instance, I helped connect and place the first order of Charem Yanesha 100% organic cacao bars, handcrafted by Yanesha women chocolate growers and makers in the central Peruvian Amazon region, for El Buen Cacao.
You started the line in 2010. How long did it take you to get up and running?
In 2010, I made several trips to the Amazon, and met with many Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs, especially in Peru, that were doing sustainable development projects. It was mostly men involved, and they were mainly doing projects with communications, Internet and carbon credit. That’s when I began to connect with other groups and, then, around December 2011, I launched the ORG BY VIO website. The focus was primarily on the online component, and then I started securing accounts that were buying some of the collections. By this time, I had returned to the Amazon region to develop these collections with the communities of artisans, all of who were women. Once in a blue moon, there would be a male artisan, but it is mostly women-run collectives.
How did the communities respond to these women-run collectives?
There were two positive things that came from this, the first being that men, seeing women in their communities taking care of their families and generating an income, had more respect for them and valued their contribution to the family. The other thing I observed was that the youth, who initially had no interest in their ancestral artistry, seeing interest from other people, myself included, who wanted to help promote their crafts, wanted to learn from the elders. To me, that was really amazing because they now want to preserve their culture, tradition and history.
Why work with women in the Amazon, specifically, and why accessories?
This is mainly because it’s already what they do. Since they’ve always made jewellery, I focused on that. I’m a fashion designer by trade, with experience designing apparel and accessories.
In these communities, it was mostly women making the jewellery. I didn’t go in thinking I would specifically be working with women artisans, but it became a natural occurrence. Now, I generally prefer to work with women because they have been marginalized by the male-driven cultures, not just in our society, but also in their societies, especially after they were evangelized.
These communities, of course, are contacted communities, not uncontacted communities, so a lot of them have already been Christianized, and old traditions have shifted. For many of these communities, where men and women were once equal, when they became Christianized, things changed and there was a division.
This is why I like to focus on women, because it brings back their power and unity.
What did you aspire to be & do when you were younger?
When I was younger, before my father passed away, I wanted to be an architect. That was my thing. I love architecture because it’s artful and it’s actually something that you live within. Dad was a civil engineer and had many architects working at his firm. But, when he died, I really felt kind of lost. I always drew dresses and made my own little paper dolls, made clothes for my dolls, you know, I sewed them up. When I was in Wisconsin for a short stint, while my mom was working at the university, I said, “You know what? I’m going to be a clothing designer!” Shortly after that, my mom got a job at the UN, and we moved to New York. It was the perfect place to pursue that dream. So, by the age of 13, I knew I wanted to be a designer.
What’s the greatest business challenge you’ve faced?
As a small business, it’s when I try to get stores to re-order my collections. Many stores are driven by trend, and the designs I have are very specific. If they’re not into the “trend” – call it boho-style or ethnic or tribal – if they’re not interested in it, they won’t order again. Getting a consistent following by retailers is hard. If you don’t have any orders, you have to move inventory on your own, which is why I decided to open my own shop and sell mostly direct, with the occasional sell to other stores. With that, though, funds are usually tight and limited. Budgeting and getting the funds necessary to grow the business can be tough.
What’s the greatest personal challenge you’ve faced?
I have so many different interests, and sometimes I feel torn. I want to do one thing, I want to do the other thing, and then I just kind of end up not doing a thing. I love to create, to paint and also to support these artisans. I feel pulled by my desire to be of service and work with my business, and, then, the other side of me wants to be a free artist, just making art.
What’s been your most memorable experience with the business?
Being in the jungle, and seeing how others live in beautiful ways that are natural, without all this “stuff” we accumulate. How they lead fulfilling lives without all the things that we consider to be our security. It has shown me that a simple life can be a rich life.
Without thinking too hard, what's your favourite piece in the collection?
The Awajun Enkepa breastplate, a big ‘heart protection’ piece that goes from the neck all the way down to the stomach.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear has nothing to do with business – it’s losing loved ones. I’ve experienced it many times, and it’s always hard. Whether it’s family, friends, dogs... I attach my heart to them so deeply. Knowing you will never see each other again in this lifetime, it doesn’t matter how long you live or how recent it was, just knowing that person, that being, will never be there again in the flesh, makes me sad and fearful of that loss. I think I’ve worked through it, and processed it, and come out strong, but I always feel that, as much as I enjoy life, the thought of death is always in the background. I think it has to do with the fact that I lost a parent at such a young age, and it was prevalent while growing up to have that longing and pain.
Looking back, what’s one thing you would have done differently?
If you want to go way back, I’ve had some really amazing opportunities that I didn’t take. Back in ‘94/’95, when I was in my early 20s and doing my first fashion show in New York, I had already set up a location at Parsons. Then I got a phone call from Naomi Campbell, who had invested in the collection, and she said, “Why don’t we do it at the Fashion Café (it was just about to open) and I’ll get all my girlfriends to model?” It was going to be Cindy Turlington, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer… and I said “no” because I had already reserved that space. To this day, I wonder what could have been had I said “yes”? Now I’m like, “What the hell did I do?” Even if they didn’t refund me, I should have just said, “YES!”
It’s interesting because it could have been a whole different story, but I love my story now. I love what I’m doing.
What’s the best piece of advice you can offer someone just beginning her entrepreneurial journey?
To really follow her heart, her gut, and, whenever there’s a doubt, try to decipher what that doubt is and where it’s stemming from. Trying to figure out that precise answer is never easy, so it often comes down to trusting your instincts.
What is something you would tell your younger self?
I think about this sometimes, and I always go back to that fashion show. It’s about making the right decisions, but sometimes you don’t know what that “right decision” is, so you have to follow your gut feeling. I’ve always done this though, so it’s somewhat hard for me to answer. What would be so grand that I would tell myself that it might actually shift things or guide me as a young person? Mostly, I feel that I live a rich life, and I don’t know if I would do anything differently, except for that one story I told you.
What do you do to unwind & decompress?
I love to skate when I can; I grew up in the 70s watching that movie, “Roller Boogie”. Getting in the water is also essential for me. If I’m stressed, I like to go to the ocean and swim or surf, and, whatever was on my mind, it just did not matter at all. Water, skating, dancing, yoga, breathing and meditation – those things keep me sane. When I’m not doing them, it makes me feel unbalanced, both physically and emotionally.
What’s the #1 item on your bucket list?
I haven’t been to Africa, though I’ve always loved the culture. Since I was a little girl, the Afro-Peruvian culture was very prominent in my life. I’m not sure exactly where I would go, but I have friends who live in different countries, and it just seems like such a beautiful continent.
Visiting India is also on my list. I’ve been inspired by India creatively, but I’ve yet to travel there.
What do you think is next for the sustainable fashion industry?
The industry, as a whole, needs to embrace sustainable fashion as a mainstream practice, rather than a niche, and it’s happening more and more. There’s a natural transition, and we’re not going to be able to negate that anymore as an industry.
I started doing eco-friendly clothing in the early 90s, and it was so hard to find materials back then. Now you go to school, and they actually offer sustainable design as an option.
What is the biggest challenge(s) for the industry?
The fact that most of the industry is still producing in places where there are inhumane practices, like using China as the main producer of almost all goods, is the biggest challenge. I think we need to become more domestic, more localized. It would make things more expensive initially, but there are many long-term advantages to creating more local industries. Production abroad, where circumstances are not always the best for workers, is a huge challenge, and a lot of people are becoming more conscious and aware of what that entails and the subsequent consequences.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
My mother, Violeta Gonzales, is a woman I admire greatly. She is my biggest inspiration and strength. As a single mother of three, she decided to leave her country and go to a new place where she knew no one. She took up an amazing position at the UN, and did really well by herself and by her family. She has always been that strength for me, and my number one inspiration.
Then, maybe two or three years ago, whenever the documentary “Advanced Style” came out, I met one of the women featured, Valerie Von Sobel. She’s a 70+ year-young spunky, passionate, powerful woman, who runs an organization to support families that have lost a loved one to illness, and who I want to emulate, as I grow wiser. Valerie is beautiful, inside and out, and I am so inspired by her as a creator, as an artist, as a style icon, and as a caring, conscious woman.
What is your professional mantra?
Low overhead, high value and high impact.
Having a business that has a positive impact on the ecosystem (producing with sustainably-harvested rainforest materials), communities and women (providing a sustainable income), and that does not require too many resources to start and operate.
My goals are to keep operational costs in check, so that revenue can be mostly used to grow our reach in the market and bring other communities on board, as well as to have low (or no) negative impact on the environment.
Where can we find your products?
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