MILAN (Reuters) - Sixty year old Paola Mazzini is no celebrity designer. But after more than a decade in jail, the drugs convict and a dozen fellow prisoners are looking to break into the world of glamour by launching their own clothing brand.
The inmates at Milan's San Vittore prison have learned tailoring skills from a local cooperative that aims to help women behind bars, and have already made costumes for theatre and television as well as flowing dresses and long-sleeved shirts for small shops.
Having transformed the stereotype of the jailbird sewing sacks, they are now going it alone.
"I didn't know how to do this before," said Mazzini, who is due to leave jail next year. She carefully snipped across a drape of soft white cloth for a shirt. "Now I'm dedicating myself to tailoring."
The rows of clothes and cardboard cut-outs hanging from the walls at San Vittore could be part of any tailor's workshop. Only the occasional entrance of a prison guard sets the workplace apart.
The scheme aims partly to help women acquire skills for life outside prison, but their work has also already been used in costumes for Milan's La Scala opera house and small accessories for soccer team Inter Milan.
One of the prisoners' clients even has a boutique on Milan's exclusive Montenapoleone street, and they have mounted a prison fashion show where guards and an invited audience watched models strutting past in their designs.
"Next time, we will present clothes from our brand," said Alessandro Brevi, head of the Milan-based Cooperativa Alice, which runs the project and has as operated for some 15 years in the city's jails.
So far, the inmates' only independent venture has been a line of T-shirts under the 'Jail Cats' brand with a motif of cats or prison bars, sold in libraries or at the cooperative's headquarters.
The new line has the backing of Italian designer Anna Molinari of Blumarine and will be named later this year.
"First we need to have a name, eventually we will work with Anna Molinari to see what will our collection will be. We hope we will be able to market it by next spring, even before if possible," Brevi said.
"We are thinking of a small collection of clothes. We will work mainly on women's clothes."
With Italy's clothing and textile sector only just rebounding from a beating by global rivals, the launch of a new brand will be a challenge.
"The problem is distribution," Brevi said, adding that he would like the cooperative to have a shop although it is working on a Web site to sell its products.
For the inmates, some of whom also have chores in the prison kitchen, the launch is an exciting prospect.
"It's a joy that we can do it," said 23 year-old Fedua from Morocco. "The launch of the brand is important -- it will show what we are capable of."
Fedua, who names Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana as her favorite designers, has only been working at the workshop for a month.
"Sewing machines used to scare me. I've learned how to make shirts, trousers, dresses. I prefer making shorts, as they're easy," she said. She hopes to make a wedding dress one day.
The San Vittore workshop is open until late every day.
"It makes the time go by, rather than just sit in your cell," inmate Gabriella said as sewing machines hummed and irons steamed around her.
The cooperative, which also has a workshop at Milan's Opera prison, takes former inmates to work at its headquarters -- making it easier for them to find a job once out of jail.
"This project is no doubt valuable," Molinari said by email, adding that it goes beyond the aesthetic side of fashion, to its social potential.
One former worker has opened her own tailoring and alterations shop. And of the dozens who have worked for the cooperative, Brevi said only one had been sent back to jail.
"It is important to work in prison, to learn a skill, but the real problem comes when an inmate finishes her sentence and needs to find a job," he said.
Ecuadorian Mariuxi, who left San Vittore in May after a three-year drugs sentence, is one of about 30 people working now for the cooperative.
"It's difficult to find a job after you come out of prison. People are not confident," she said. "I like that ... Giorgio Armani. I like his dresses. Maybe one day I would like to work for him."