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Los Angeles Times

Exploring Latin Fashion In The Real World


March 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.

NEW YORK -- It takes more than a map to understand Latin American fashion. It is about geography, culture and even deeply held religious beliefs. And if it's a commercial success, it's also about capturing the attention of New York, Milan and Paris fashion insiders who are literally a world away from where the design was born.

"There's a myth that everything Latin American is in hot tropical colors, but they don't exist in everyday fashion," says Kimberly Randall, a curator of a new exhibit at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology called "Latin American Fashion: Exploring Identities on the New York Runway."

The clothing of carnaval and celebrations is what is seen most often in the United States, that is not what the woman who is shopping in Mexico City or Sao Paulo, Brazil, is wearing, Randall says.

Looking at the garments for the show, co-curator Cathy Maguire reports seeing "a fair amount of white and black with a smattering of red, turquoise and purple."

The emphasis is on cut, not printed fabrics.

Randall and Maguire, graduate students at FIT, separated 80 pieces of real-life clothing and accessories by more than 24 Latin American designers into categories for the exhibit, which runs through April 13.

They include quinceanera, a girl's 15th birthday celebration; architecture; Catholicism; the mantilla, a lace scarf typically worn as a head covering or cape; surrealism; seduction and dance.

"What we wanted to present is the diversity of such a large region," explains Maguire.

For example, though almost all Belgian designers are influenced by their similar experiences in Antwerp, Latin American designers lead vastly different lives and come from different sets of values and beliefs.

Some designers are heavily influenced by their heritage, others by their travels, and others look to their stylish relatives, says Randall.

But there is at least one consistency, according to Oscar de la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and is now one of New York's most famous names in fashion.

"The Latin American woman is a woman who has always felt strongly about her femininity--and that has influenced my designs," he says.

"Latin American women--they love to be flirtatious in a slinky dress, going dancing," agrees shoe designer Edmundo Castillo, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.

"The first and foremost thing about their shoes is they have to be sexy," says Castillo, who worked for Donna Karan before launching his own line in 1999.

Castillo and De la Renta say their childhoods, when they were surrounded by several sisters, gave them insight into what Latin American--and women all over the world--really want in their wardrobes.

De la Renta says his collections now are mostly seen through his "international eye," which was trained while he worked in both Spain and Paris before coming to New York 35 years ago, but his Latin American heritage is evident in his use of color and light.

"Light is important," he explains. "The tropics are bright, the sunsets are dramatic.... I've never done an all-black collection, and my collections are not murky. I like light and lively clothes."

Elisa Jimenez, a Mexican American, sees Latin American fashion from a different vantage point.

She says the Chicano art movement--which her father was heavily involved with when Jimenez was a child growing up in Texas--is her greatest source of inspiration.

The very spiritual art, society and culture that surrounded her "brought the sacred into everyday life," says Jimenez.

She also says that she considers herself a Latina but she can't quite say where from.

"I definitely represent part of the Latin community, but I'm the part of the community who is still trying to figure out where I fit in."

Jimenez doesn't speak Spanish, but, she adds, her design sensibility comes from her Mexican grandmother who taught her about clothes during "sewing circles" at a local church.

"I always tie in with symbolism and mysticism in my clothes and art," she says.

One of Jimenez's designs featured in the FIT exhibit falls into the surrealism category: a denim shirt covered in gold leaf that leaves a trail of gold flecks.

De la Renta's pieces on display include a long black velvet dress with a full puffed sleeve that the curators see as influenced by Catholicism, and a colorful "dance dress" based on fringed tango shawls.

The dresses for quinceanera (called quince in Cuba and "pinky" in Puerto Rico) are sometimes as elaborate as wedding gowns, says Maguire.

They traditionally have a full skirt, a fitted bodice, puff sleeves and lace embellishment.

Carolina Herrera's version displayed at the museum has an exaggerated puff sleeve, and Mark Montano's was inspired by an Edgar Degas ballerina painting.

Architectural garments by Latin American designers are tailored but have an unusual twist, according to Randall, who cited Narciso Rodriguez's seemingly white, sleeveless, column dress--which has an open back and crisscross straps underneath the bodice. Maguire notes that Venezulan designer Angel Sanchez, whose work is included in the exhibit, is a trained architect.

Catholicism is seen through the restraint in design and the influence of 16th and 17th century paintings, says Randall.

Seduction is best demonstrated by Isabel Toledo's red lace dress with a stole and Rodriguez's "liquid copper" sequin dress, she adds.

These themes are hardly fads of fashion.

They can be seen throughout Latin American fashion of this century, last century and even before, so maybe there is some constancy, after all.

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