Determination and trust in the positive impact of your business are key to found a contemporary ethical fashion brand. In designer Elizabeth Gleeson’s case, this led to URSA, the company that not only aided its expat founder to establish herself as a creative entrepreneur in Buenos Aires, but offers a perspective on a dozen marginalized immigrants.
“I strive to have my life filled with art, and constantly think of better solutions for the way that I live,” Elizabeth Gleeson says about turning her back on New York’s artist bubble at the age of 22. With a degree in ceramic tile and printmaking under her belt, she chose Argentina’s bustling capital to turn over a new leaf. Elizabeth is candid and driven as a person. She lives with the intention to constantly create—something she calls a never-ending personal mission—and was soon met with a vibrant cultural scene. “There’s so much energy; Argentines are a unique group of people who seem to be making things all the time: music, theatre, art,” Elizabeth says.
Her face lights up as she enthuses over the city she has called home for 11 years. “There are a lot of possibilities to incorporate art into your life here. I’m sure it’s the same in other places, too, but I just find it to be very prevalent here,” she continues. It’s the creative scene’s close-knit character and ubiquitous willingness to participate that fill her with pride for Buenos Aires. With most of her immediate surroundings involved in the arts, it’s unsurprising that she felt inspired to be a creator herself. “I was never planning on staying here,” she says, “I was planning on checking it out and absorbing Argentine culture, but I just kept finding reasons to stay.”
Elizabeth founded URSA from the comfort of her home in 2013, returning to her artistic inclination after the birth of her first daughter. “Back then, I was making all of my own products—mainly block printed and screen-printed textiles with my own surface designs.”
Today, URSA produce hand-knitted shirts, jackets, and sweaters that the founder describes as urban, natural, high quality, and unique; inside her workspace that she shares with sculptors, Elizabeth creates sketches and color palettes for the line. Everything is made from regionally sourced materials, such as Bolivian alpaca, Peruvian pima cotton, and Patagonian merino and mohair. Additionally, URSA utilize sheep’s wool and llama from the Andean provinces of Catamarca and Jujuy, as well as the so-called plant fiber “chaguar” that is spun into a fine thread and knotted and woven by a cooperative in an indigenous community in Formosa, North Argentina.
“I thought of Argentina’s long tradition of arts and crafts. I wanted to involve talented craftspeople and combine my aesthetic with their techniques. That was falling by the wayside for a long time, because there was no strong market for that type of product.”
Argentina is one of the world’s biggest wool exporters. The paradoxical fact, however, is that the country’s limited access to the homegrown material often prolongs URSA’s local production stages before the meaningful staples cross international borders. “I’ve always been interested in social issues,” Elizabeth begins. “As I started selling some of the clothes I was making, I thought of Argentina’s long tradition of arts and crafts. I wanted to involve talented craftspeople and combine my aesthetic with their techniques. That was falling by the wayside for a long time, because there was no strong market for that type of product.”
Elizabeth’s first foray into collaborating with artisans stemmed from a visit to Mujeres Artesanas, a women’s cooperative at Villa 31, or “Villa Miseria”, a sprawling and densely populated local slum. Of almost three million citizens, around 700,000 inhabit the teeming shanty towns in the capital. “The slum is a constant topic politically—what to do with this area and about the open immigration policies here,” Elizabeth says. “As we started designing and sourcing materials together, I learned everything about handmade knitwear and wool on the fly—they’re absolute experts, and basically taught me everything I do now.”
Most of the skilled knitters are women immigrants from Bolivia who arrived in Buenos Aires hoping for a fresh start—not unlike Elizabeth herself. Removed from their home country and families, they instead experience the city marginalized, relegated to the outskirts with limited access to basic services.
URSA currently employ 12 women, many of whom have worked for URSA since the beginning. The women work in groups at Elizabeth’s studio, at a church inside Villa 31, at the train station, or remotely; many regularly knit through the night in order to make ends meet. “They’re so diligent and hardworking. It must be hard to continue fighting and keep doing what you’re good at when you’re faced with so many challenges,” Elizabeth says. While some knitters reproduce from drawings independently, others receive helping hands from visiting teachers. Elizabeth calls it a constant process of trial and error to ensure consistency: “Some knit really tight, others knit really loose—there’s a lot of adjustments to ensure the pieces look similar even though they’ll never be identical.”
Elizabeth describes the diverse input as incredibly rewarding, and is currently looking to connect with Paraguayan minorities inhabiting a slum near her home. “I’m always looking for new things to include, and Paraguay has their own artisan history with beautiful delicate lacework, which we could incorporate into the bright colors.” Outside of Buenos Aires URSA are in touch with other women’s groups in Northern Argentina that employ between 15 and 80 knitters at any given time. Elizabeth is currently tossing around the idea of spending a few months in Bolivia, hoping to expand her business and meet more knitters on the ground: “This type of business has so much humanity behind it and, luckily, the consumer market is ready for it.”
“Collaborating with artisans and working with traditional textiles and crafts everywhere in the world is completely boundless.”
Ultimately, there are multiple things that Elizabeth strives to achieve, although she understands the parameters in which she operates: “I want to continue providing income for people who need it and who are experts at what they do, while incorporating more individuals into that network of workers,” she says. “However, collaborating with artisans and working with traditional textiles and crafts everywhere in the world is completely boundless.” Much of this ties in with Elizabeth’s personal journey from changing her context to adapting to an unfamiliar environment, or in her own words: “Now I’m one of those people who is more prepared to roll with the punches. It was all very new to me, and I always wanted to be in control of what I’m doing. And if that means moving to a different country or city, it was my decision to do that.”
URSA produce ethical apparel for an international custom. To learn more about the products and individual workers, check out their website and Instagram where Gleeson regularly shares creative processes and stories of people involved.
Gleeson is an active member of Buenos Aires’ creative community, thanks to which she counts numerous local talents to her inner circle—including videographer Jhiliem Miller who kindly offered his work for this portrait of the designer and entrepreneur.