You may have heard of Peru’s Lurigancho prison before – it has often been described as one of the world’s most dangerous and overcrowded, and has been a frequent subject of lurid fascination in the media. With over 7,000 inmates and only about 100 guards (the average in the United States is six inmates per guard), it is less a prison than a nominally-guarded walled city, where violent criminals and petty thieves alike coexist in unsanitary conditions, amidst rampant drug and sexual trafficking and brazenly corrupt authorities.
Yet, for all its bleakness, stories of incredible resilience and creativity have also emerged from Lurigancho. Last year, for example, a short documentary captured the story of more than 1,000 Lurigancho inmates who came together to break a world record for practicing a type of aerobics autóctonos called “Full Body.” The dance-inspired moves, initially derided by many prisoners who felt they were too effeminate, became a life-affirming activity that helped several men out of depression and motivated them to improve their lives (if you haven’t seen the short doc, you should most definitely check out here).
The latest project to make its way out of Lurigancho lockdown and into the world is equally unexpected: a menswear clothing project that wouldn’t look out of place on a Hood by Air runway. The label, called Project Pietà, is the brainchild of designer Thomas Jacob, who decided to leave his luxury French fashion career behind after visiting Lurigancho several years ago (the circumstances of this visit are unclear — but unfortunately, “prison tourism” is a thing in parts of Latin America).
Jail tourism aside, Jacob’s experience at Lurigancho resulted in something seemingly positive. It inspired him to collaborate with many of the inmates he met on a menswear line that could give prisoners a marketable skill, a source of independent income, and a means to reduce their sentences — not entirely unlike the work of ethical fashion non-profit Mercado Global, which we featured recently. The resulting line is entirely hand-made and modeled by inmates, featuring all-natural, organic materials like pima cotton, baby alpaca and wool. Also, it’s pretty fly.
In an interview with Oyster Magazine, Jacob had this to say about his project:
“When you are in a Peruvian jail you need money: to pay your pavilion (the activities and the restoration), to pay for your basic hygiene needs or to eat better for example. Moreover, the majority has to pay a civil reparation. When you are alone what can you do except die slowly? Working permits you to earn a regular income and you don’t depend from the others to live. For the inmates, it also allows for hope and confidence. And each day of work means another day towards getting out of jail.”
Jacob now works with three prisons, including the women’s prison Santa-Monica in Lima’s Chorrillos district. Learn more about Jacob’s story and the line at Oyster.
Project Pietà is currently distributed via their online store, and can also be found at Base, in Miami and Please Do Not Enter, in LA.
Update: We have reached out to designer Thomas Jacob to better understand the profit-sharing model of his project. T Magazine has reported that a third of Pieta’s projects go to the prisoners.