Seventeen years ago, Patricia Queirolo was driving through the Andes with her family on their way to the Colca Canyon. A college student at the time, she was trying to come up with a business idea for her thesis project. Peering through her window at the beautiful Peruvian landscapes and the various animals grazing, including alpacas and llamas, it hit her: A dog apparel brand.
At the time, Patricia had two Westies and was struggling to find good-quality dog sweaters for them. She eventually turned her class project into a reality and opened up Alqo Wasi, or “dog home,” in Quechua, in 2005. Her small business's purpose would be so much more than just creating chic dog wear, it was also a way for the entrepreneur to spotlight both the Peruvian culture and its people.
Sweaters made with the Peruvian culture in mind
When it came down to actually creating their products, Patricia knew that she wanted to use quality materials that represented Peruvian culture. The Alqo Wasi team ran through a ton of fabric options until they finally reached a consensus to use alpaca fibers for their dog sweaters and organic Pima cotton for their tees.
For Patricia, the alpaca fiber fulfilled two main purposes. For one, it's comfortable for dogs to wear, but can also be easily laundered. But, more importantly, the alpaca is emblematic of Peru’s history, culture, and traditions, something that was important to the entrepreneur.
“My first initiative was to find a connection between my Peruvian culture with a good product that could be offered at a wholesale available price … with the best blend of materials,” she said.
Alpacas have been very useful to the Peruvian people throughout generations as they’ve relied on them as both transportation and food historically. The animal’s fur, however, has always been regarded for its high quality.
“[Alpaca] fiber has been used since the Incas, our ancient culture and our ancestors,” Patricia said. “The highest nobility would use clothes knitted from alpaca.”
Initially, all of the designs and styles of the dog sweaters were very much Peruvian, as Patricia wanted her products to represent her heritage. But as the business expanded, they realized that they needed to also expand their style range to cater to a more global audience. Even then, Patricia made sure to instill the Peruvian culture in every product they made.
“So we decided to change the designs and try to have a more global taste, but at the same time, accent some of the things that we have here [in Peru]: the manufacturer, the people here that do different roles like dying [the fabric], or knitting the looms,” she said.
That’s why Alqo Wasi labels their designs as “glocal” – as their dog sweaters are characterized by both local and global qualities, something that makes their signature product so special.
Creating close ties with local artisans
Each and every sweater produced by the small business is handmade by Peruvian artisans who dye and knit the fabric themselves. Patricia quickly realized that a major priority of hers was creating new job opportunities for her community.
“The purpose [of the business] kind of changed from just making a good product to committing to working with [Peruvian] people and trying to make their future better,” she said.
By employing artisans in nearby regions, including Lima, Ayacucho, Puno, and Huancavelica, Patricia can give them stable employment while also ensuring every sweater is made authentically. Over the years, Patricia has become closely involved with these individuals. She’s even been able to support multiple generations of families.
“Right now, I'm working with one family,” Patricia said. “And we work with the grandmother, father, mother, their two sons, their cousin, and mother-in-law.”
While the artisans' main job is to weave, knit, and dye the fabrics, Patricia makes sure to bring them in on all design decisions as she’s cultivated a very collaborative environment at Alqo Wasi. While Patricia usually comes up with the initial styles, everyone – including team members in marketing and accounting – has a say as the group works through swatches.
Patricia greatly values the artisans' input here, especially since they’re the ones who ultimately create the sweaters. She sees their relationship as more than just transactional, but like each artisan is a part of her family.
“As the owner of the company, I have a lot of pressure — but good pressure. The sense that [my employees] are relying on the sales that our company gives them or the work that we give them. So I think there's a lot of respect between us, and friendship, and a lot of responsibility that comes with time.”
Keeping Alqo Wasi small, ethical, and local
While becoming certified as a fair trade apparel company is difficult in Peru, Patricia operates Alqo Wasi as such and considers her business, “slow fashion.” Which is why she’s deliberate behind every decision she makes for the brand.
For example, not only is their sweater blend representative of Peru, but it’s good for the planet, too. Organic Pima cotton is made without any GMOs in Peru and is harvested on land free of chemical fertilizers. Similarly, the alpacas in the Andes are typically never raised or harmed for their fur. The animals get sheared once a year for health reasons, where the fiber is collected. Their fur causes less pollution to the environment compared to other materials, and Alpacas themselves have a light carbon footprint.
“The alpaca is a very kind animal for the planet,” Patricia said. “They say [their fiber] is more sustainable than cashmere.”
Patricia is also not interested in expanding the business if it means harming the quality of the product, or her employees. While Alqo Wasi has been offered to create white-label clothing for other brands, they’ve ultimately realized that kind of work doesn’t connect back to their mission.
“I think we always consider [white label work] and think, ‘oh, maybe we need this.’ You know, to sell more [products]. But in the end, I came to the conclusion that I prefer to grow slowly… I just don't want to put more pressure on me and my employees and I don't want to give them more work than what they can do.”
Rather than growing the business exponentially, Patricia is happy with where Alqo Wasi is now and believes there is immeasurable value to keeping things as they are. It’s not that she doesn’t want her business to grow, but that she prefers a slower, more steady growth. She sees that each year the brand is gaining more and more recognition, while still maintaining the quality of the product and the happiness of their employees.
“We're a small business, and we've been a small business from the day we started,” Patricia said. “We want to keep it small.”
By limiting the size of the business, Patricia can ensure that she's never compromising Alqo Wasi’s core goal – to uplift the Peruvian people, while also creating products that illustrate the country’s culture and traditions. In this way, Patricia ensures that she has the best interest of her employees and hometown at heart.
Interested in how other entrepreneurs run their businesses on their own terms? Check out our podcast Small Business, Big Lessons where we highlight successful small businesses that carved their unique path.