BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – When pop star Jessica Simpson (search) snapped up a striking hand-knit shawl while shopping in Manhattan, she didn't realize she was playing a bit part in Argentina's fashion boom.
Draped over the shoulders of Simpson — who stars with her husband, Nick Lachey, on the MTV reality show "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" — the rainbow-colored shawl has become a fashion statement — good news for the unemployment-stricken Argentine economy and the 28 knitters at a factory outside Buenos Aires (search).
"I never would have thought that my love for shopping could have such a meaningful impact on someone's life," the 24-year-old singer said in a statement e-mailed by her publicist.
The shawl — with its unique spider-weblike design — is the brainchild of Argentine model-turned-designer Cecilia de Bucourt (search), just one idea of many in a fashion revolution as Argentina (search) struggles out of economic meltdown.
"Since Jessica started wearing my shawls I got more and more demands from her fans who love her style and what she wears," de Bucourt said. "I'd say it tripled my production in just four months."
Joblessness remains in double digits but lower labor costs are boosting the fashion industry and its ambitious designers.
Whether at weekend street fairs in Buenos Aires' swanky Palermo district or in boutiques on New York's Upper East Side where Simpson picked up her de Bucourt shawl for $200, Argentine style is wowing South and North Americans alike.
"Fashion grew faster than any other economic sector in Buenos Aires last year," said Vicky Salias, a city official with the task of promoting the fashion industry. "We want to start exporting more design, making Argentina known for its fashion as much as for its meat."
Authorities estimate there are now some 3,000 fashion studios in greater Buenos Aires, many working out of garages and spare bedrooms.
Much of their handiwork can be seen at the fashion fairs that sprang up after the crisis.
Jasmine incense and tango-laced electronic music hangs in the air on bustling Plaza Serrano as young city dwellers and tourists crowd tables laden with new designs.
Costume designer Aleka Zavalia, who creates bright fleece vests, tube tops and plastic wallets, said she hopes she'll be the next big hit. She adds: "These fairs show how funky Argentine design can be."
Vero Ivaldi, 33, has gone from outfitting a punk rock band to making pricey swirling dresses in pastel colors. "I learned fast how to make durable clothes," she said.
Citing trade secrecy, de Bucourt and her business partner, Maria Luqui, wouldn't allow The Associated Press to visit their factory in the tough working class community of Florencia Varela. Instead, they arranged a phone interview with Beatriz Gonzalez, who knits the shawls that Simpson has made famous.
Gonzalez, 44, interviewed in the presence of Luqui, wouldn't reveal what she is paid, but said it's more than she was making during the crisis. "I can count on my work more. It's much more stable now," she said.
She doesn't have cable television and hasn't seen Simpson's "Newlyweds" show. But when asked what she thought of a U.S. celebrity wearing the shawls that take her at least six hours to make, she exclaimed "barbaro!" — Argentine slang for "awesome!"
Simpson said she's happy to play a walk-on part in the Argentine fashion revolution.
"Nick and I have gotten a lot of attention from reality television," she said, "but this is the kind of reality that really matters."