After Making A Name For Herself In New York’s Fashion Scene, Salvadoran Designer Ariela Suster Is Giving Back To Her Own Country
Growing up in El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Ariela Suster witnessed gang rivalry-driven violence firsthand. It’s partly why she decided to move to the US to study and build a career for herself in New York’s fashion industry. But as she climbed the ladder in women’s magazines, she still couldn’t shake the grisly memories and current conditions back home. Suster felt compelled to do something about it, so she founded Sequence, a handcrafted accessories company that employs young Salvadorans who are vulnerable to gang recruitment.
The brand, which Suster created in 2011 with the help of local artisans Oscar Bautista and Natali Orellana, aims to disrupt the cycle that breeds violence in her native land by providing young men with design training, tools and paid working opportunities.
“I didn’t want to just be in New York living my life and not making a difference in my own country. Even if it’s a small difference, I wanted to create something,” Suster told FIERCE.
Currently, Sequence employs 40 men between the ages of 18 and early-20s. After engaging in lengthy handcrafting, screen printing and sewing training, the men produce knotted and beaded bracelets, necklaces and tote bags for worldwide consumers. Each bracelet is made-to-order, and customers can customize their jewelry, choosing which colors they want their threads and tie to be, or they can purchase items from collaborative collections with high-end designers like Diane Von Frustenberg and Jonathan Simkhai. Last year, their handcrafted earrings, necklaces, belts, handbag straps and handbag charms were on the catwalk of the Furstenberg’s spring 2018 runway show during New York Fashion Week.
Sequence also frequently teams up with big brands like Universal Pictures and Microsoft to create corporate products for events and conferences. In 2015, for instance, during a partnership with Microsoft, the men added NFC chips to their creations that when tapped against the back of smartphones played a short video that shows how the bracelet was made.
For Suster, who continues to work and live in New York while running her business in El Salvador, these opportunities don’t just help sustain her company but also allows the young men to witness their own potential.
“It’s been amazing watching people not know their own talent until someone shows it to them. One of the things that is unreal was to see the level of the product design and everything,” she said.
According to the Sequence website, every purchase made has a social impact. For instance, for every 1,000 additional products sold, the company is able to employ, train and empower another at-risk youth. With paid work, employees have been able to build homes for their families, attend or finish school, or create small businesses of their own.
For Suster, though, Sequence’s mission goes beyond employment. She wants to instill bigger visions in the minds of marginalized young people. Through the Sequence Academy, a project for children and adolescents in Tepecoyo, El Salvador, the company offers free workshops in the arts and technology, hoping that the skills these young people gain will allow them to become agents of change in their own communities and country in the future.
“We don’t just want to affect the lives of the men that work with us but the communities overall,” Suster said. “To do that, we need to provide young people with role models, with workshops, with programs.”
Being a female entrepreneur comes with challenges, especially for women of color, but the work is uniquely difficult in violent environments. While Suster brainstorms ways her business can thrive, she also has to consider the ever-changing conditions in El Salvador and the welfare of her employees.
“One of the most challenging things I continue to battle with is pace of growth, which is different when you’re in an environment that doesn’t foster growth, when the ecosystem doesn’t support you, especially as a woman entrepreneur inside a community tackling the issue of violence,” she said.
But she remains determined, seeing changes, even small ones with vast possibilities, as potential to disrupt the cycle of violence in El Salvador and create a new reality for her country and its people for tomorrow. Suster’s confronting it through fashion design and technology, but she wants others, both in the Central American country and beyond, to know that progress and transformation can be made through almost any means.
“You can create change with any skillset you have. For me, it’s fashion, making bracelets and necklaces, but this can be applied to any industry and can be tailored to make a difference in your own communities,” she said.