Candice Swanepoel Pulling Power

In a house in a private residential compound about half an hour up the coast from Salvador in northern Brazil , there is a photo shoot in full swing. The house, an all-white minimalist construction, is luxurious in its simplicity. It is open plan, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in an abundance of light, and long sheer curtains that billow in the Bahian breeze. A security guard patrols the shoreline on a scooter, keeping watch for those who don’t belong in this gated community – perhaps making a few more trips than usual today.

Out on the pool deck, 20ft from the crashing waves of the Atlantic, a DJ is playing Brazilian beats, energising the crew on this two-day shoot for a luxury accessories brand whose fans include Kate Moss and Jessica Alba. Candice Swanepoel is hard at work, demonstrating just why she is in the Forbes list of the highest-earning models, having made more than $3 million last year. ‘The energy in Bahia is so strong,’ she says. ‘It’s really going to show in the pictures.’

Swanepoel is one of the elite. Along with Gisele Bündchen, Miranda Kerr and Adriana Lima, she hit the modelling jackpot when she was named a Victoria’s Secret Angel in 2010. This group of women epitomise the ultimate in beauty, and thanks to the brand’s now legendary catwalk shows, the models have become household names. ‘Victoria’s Secret is like a family,’ Swanepoel says. ‘Travelling as a young model can be tiring and lonely, so thank God they brought me into their family.’

It is all a long way from her childhood on a dairy and beef farm in Mooi River, a small town two hours from Durban in South Africa . At 15 she was scouted while shopping at a flea market with her mother, and after their initial scepticism Swanepoel signed to an agency and was almost immediately sent to Europe. ‘I had no fear of anything, I didn’t think twice,’ she says. ‘I felt so natural in front of the camera. As soon as it hits me I become a character.’ And that’s what Swanepoel is doing today as she models in countless set-ups, selling expensive bags for all she’s worth.

So far, so expected on a glamorous shoot. But while Swanepoel may be doing her job as on any other day, this is no ordinary campaign. She’s working for nothing; the location is on loan from a friend of a friend; the caterer is the girlfriend of one of the bag brand’s founders; the stylist, a Brazilian designer called Vitorino Campos, came on board at the last minute for no fee; and the expensive, luxury bags she is modelling are actually made from can ring pulls. The bags are by the company Bottletop, and they were made in a very different part of the country.

Half an hour down the road from this exclusive setting, up a scruffy side street in the suburb of Itapuã, is the workshop where these unusual bags are made. The Bottletop atelier is on the top floor of a three-storey building with a dental surgery as its neighbour. Twenty local women work here full-time crocheting ring pulls into the beautiful designs modelled by Swanepoel. Two small rooms plus a roof space house the whole production line. The women did not serve apprenticeships in Paris or Milan; they come instead from the local gang-ruled favelas and are trained here by their peers.

‘If they want to learn we’ll give them the chance, no matter how long it takes to train them,’ Luciano Dos Santos, the company’s director of operations in Brazil says. ‘ Women in the community don’t realise how capable they are. Now they are more powerful and independent.’

It was Bottletop’s work with women in Brazil especially that encouraged Swanepoel to be involved. Fluent in Portuguese, she owns a house in the country so the project immediately felt like a good fit. ‘Bahia is one of my favourite places in the world, and growing up in South Africa I have seen at first hand the problems caused when women don’t have the opportunity for education,’ she says. ‘The women who work here get to feel a part of something, to learn a new craft and to feel like a professional, which is fantastic.’

Before being taken on by Bottletop many of the women were unemployed or working in dangerous conditions. One worker, 48-year-old Josenilde Solares, used to walk the streets selling tickets for a private lottery. The pay was minimal, and because the job was casual, she was unprotected. ‘Here I am a formal employee with all the rights guaranteed by the government,’ she says. ‘I enjoy the work and we get so excited when a famous model or actress is carrying one of our bags.’ Through Bottletop the workers have private health insurance, which is almost unheard of in poor areas such as this.

The method of production is meticulous. First the ring pulls – which are bought by the kilo from locals who collect them from the streets and beaches – are washed and sorted. Those selected are stuck to boards and spray-painted on both sides in one of the new season’s colours before being left to dry on the roof. Only then are they crocheted into the various Bottletop styles using a technique that began in Bahia about 30 years ago, but which has been refined by the Bottletop team. Some bags take two or three days to make, but the largest, the Claudio, uses 2,794 ring pulls and takes a week from start to finish.

The design process is one of collaboration between the brand’s founders, Oliver Wayman and Cameron Saul, their Parisian-based designer Vincent du Sartel, the ex-creative director of Louis Vuitton, and the Bahian women who make the bags. Wayman and Saul travel to the atelier twice a year from their base in east London, communicating with Dos Santos on Skype regularly to discuss day-to-day business. They both insist that without such technology – and indeed without Dos Santos – Bottletop wouldn’t be the small but powerful force it has become. ‘It’s incredible to think when you pull out the finished product that it was made here,’ Wayman says. ‘No one would ever guess the material or the environment in which it’s created.’

In fact until two years ago the Bottletop studio was in even less likely surroundings, slap bang in the middle of the nearby favela of Doña Aurora. It eventually became too dangerous for the company to be based there – there was always a chance that someone could get caught in the crossfire between the ruling gang and the police – and suppliers refused to deliver, so the whole shebang decamped to these safer premises.

But how did a luxury bag brand end up in a back street in Salvador in the first place? The story starts in 2002, when Cameron Saul, the son of the Mulberry founder, Roger Saul, returned from a gap year teaching hygiene and sexual health to young people in Uganda. With him he brought a bag made from bottle tops, which a friend had found at a craft market in Kampala. ‘It was amazing,’ he says. ‘It was almost like a piece of pop art. I remember every­one at the Mulberry office freaking out, saying, “Oh, it’s incredible.”‘ So after some refinement from the Mulberry team the company’s Bottletop Campaign was developed, and the bags were sold as a one-off collection that quickly became the brand’s biggest-selling bag of the season. The funds raised were donated to the Ugandan charities with which Saul, now 32, had worked, and their production had created livelihoods for the craftsmen in Africa. ‘We thought what an exciting and fresh template for an organisation,’ he says, ‘one that uses beautifully executed fashion as a vehicle for creating jobs and empowering young people through education. So that was the recipe and we went from there.’

While the Mulberry campaign was a one-off, Saul continued to raise funds under the Bottletop banner through music events and auctions of modern art in Britain, even releasing an album of traditional African tracks remixed by big-name DJs such as Paul Oakenfold. So it was that Saul’s business partner, Oliver Wayman, came in, in 2005. Wayman, 29, who was at the time an A&R man for Island Records and had also done a stint on educational projects in Ghana, worked on the record before taking over the production of Bottletop’s second album, a collection of music from Brazilian artists. In a twist of fate, while he was researching the tracks, his mother showed him a bag made from ring pulls that hailed from Brazil. Immediately intrigued, he went on a mission to find out where it had originated and had samples sent over. First, the bags were sold as merchandise at fundraising nights, but soon the idea formed that the pair could start their own studio and, as with the original Bottletop bags, create jobs for local Bahian people while helping to fund grass-roots education projects around the world.

Fast-forward to 2013, and those slightly rustic bags are now true designer pieces selling for up to £1,000 a pop, enabling all the funds raised at big events to be invested in the educational organisations that are their whole purpose. One such project is the E Squared theatre group in Salvador, which Elizete Cardoso runs from an old garage space in her community. She empowers her students by creating a safe place to discuss issues such as under-age sex, HIV/Aids and drug abuse before using drama, music and dance to explore them further. As 16-year-old Wellington puts it, ‘The things I learn here affect me a lot and I can take them away and use them in the other areas of my life. I learn more here than I do at school.’

With no other charities organised in quite the same way as Bottletop, there has been no template to follow. Wayman and Saul have seen their core idea develop and evolve organically with a few well-timed strokes of luck along the way. When it is suggested that they are pioneers, Saul laughs and exclaims, ‘Bonkers is probably a better term.’ But it is the enthusiasm and dedication of Saul and Wayman that pushes the endeavour forward. ‘I was inspired by them and how passionate they were,’ Candice Swanepoel says. ‘It’s a small organisation, but I think that what they are doing is amazing.’

This month Bottletop has taken over a concession in London’s Fenwick department store, and will launch in Brazil and America next spring. With a hunt for bigger premises for the atelier, top-secret design collaborations in the pipeline and a presence at London and Paris Fashion Weeks, it is a creative whirlwind. Yet their values permeate everything they do. ‘It feeds my soul to work with Bottletop,’ Swanepoel says. ‘It’s important for me to see real life, because our fashion world is not reality.’