Designer/Owner Zaira Lombardo at Papiro Y Yo store in Panama.

Designer/Owner Zaira Lombardo at Papiro Y Yo store in Panama.

In a corner of Panama City’s beautiful Colonial Historic District, there is a shop whose colourful products instantly attract the attention of passers-by. Zaira Lombardo, designer and owner of the shop, is always there, ready to greet everyone with a smile and friendly words. After a long time living in the United States, Lombardo is now back in Panama, working towards one particular goal: to boost traditional Panamanian craft techniques, and incorporate a brand that is socially and environmentally responsible.

Lombardo is a young entrepreneur with a revolutionary vision. Her approach to the production of handcrafted jewellery and decorative objects is ecologically sustainable, as she uses only recycled paper and natural fibres to create fine products.

In present-day Panama, environmental laws are still not fully enforced, and the politics of development and economic growth prevail over the conservation of the small nation's wonderful flora and fauna. In this context, the project started in 2009 by Lombardo proposes an alternative practice, which aims to prove that conservation and fashion are not incompatible.

Papiro Y Yo's hand-weaved baskets

Papiro Y Yo's hand-weaved baskets

Papiro Y Yo's necklace made out of recycled paper

Papiro Y Yo's necklace made out of recycled paper

Panama's economy has historically been linked to trade, natural resource extraction, and economic exchange. During the colonisation, the isthmus of Panama became a route for the transportation of gold from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. This role evolved, as the Panama Canal was built, and the Central American nation became an important regional centre for banking. However, in the 20th century, national protected areas were created, raising awareness of environmental issues, which endanger natural habitats.

The Panama Canal, 1879

The Panama Canal, 1879

This is where Lombardo's project shines a light, as she underlines the importance of fair trade and sustainable development. Lombardo is in charge of designing the products, but employs women from the central provinces of the country for the production of every piece. She travels deep in the countryside, and trains women to make the beautiful pieces that are part of her line of products. Using mostly fibre of the Bellota plant and recycled magazine paper, Lombardo and her team of Panamanian women create unique pieces, such as necklaces, earrings, rings, purses, clutches, home décor, and much more. A truly fair trade initiative, her products are proof that crafting traditions and caring for the environment can find common ground, leading to beautiful and meaningful products.

Zaira Lombardo with Papiro Y Yo's weavers

Zaira Lombardo with Papiro Y Yo's weavers

Her initiative has become popular among locals, and especially among tourists, who find her products to be perfect souvenirs to take home after a visit to the country. Understanding the importance of the environment and supporting women in the country's least accessible areas create a legacy that Lombardo's project will surely leave to the ever-growing fashion market of Panama. Currently in the process of rebranding her products, Lombardo continues to work on her project, which will surely have a long lasting impact on the country's way of producing, consuming, and thinking about fashion.

Words: Astrid Scheuermann

Photography: Tarina Rodriguez

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu