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The Philadelphia Daily News

Latin's In Fashion -- Hottest Trend In Clothing Has A Saucy Salsa Flavor


July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Daily News. All rights reserved.

WHEN SHE HEARD the Avon executive's pitch - on the cosmetics company's plan to reach out to Latinas - Cathy Areu forgot Bart Simpson's advice. She just about had a cow.

The exec said Avon was going to " 'expand the leopard skin clothing in our catalog because we know that's what Hispanic women like,' " said Areu, publisher and co-founder of the Latina lifestyle magazine Catalina.

"I don't know where that came from," Areu, a Cuban-American, recalled. She was still chuckling about the meeting six months later. "I'm offended when a non-Hispanic woman tells me what I wear. It happens to be completely wrong."

If only the Avon suits had opened their eyes and reveled in the fashion right in front of them: bright tropical colors, soft-to-the-touch fabrics, rrrruffles and asymetric hemlines. These details, borrowed from various Latin American countries, are currently tickling the fancies of designers and the stylish public.

"Oh my god, everything now in fashion is Latin," said designer Edwing D'Angelo, a Colombian native who has a boutique in Manhattan. "That's all we see in Paris now: Jean Paul Gautier, Karl Lagerfeld, Versace...[They're] reinterpreting the Latin expression."

Jamila Payne, an Internet retailer based in University City, also sees the Latin interpretation in the clothes she sells. Colorful A-line skirts. Spaghetti-strap dresses with asymmetrical hems. Skirts embroidered with big orange flowers.

"There is an expansion of Latino culture into other cultures. Everybody wants to experience it," said Payne, owner of Milla by Mail.

Big pop in population That expansion is a reflection of the Latino population explosion underway nationwide - and in Philadelphia.

Latinos became the nation's largest minority group early last year and now number 39.9 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released last month. That's a 13 percent jump from April 2000 to July 2003, compared to a 3 percent increase in the general United States population.

Not only are there more Latinos in the U.S., but the population skews younger than other groups. The median age of whites is nearly 40. It's 34 for Asians, 31 for blacks and 27 for Latinos.

Philadelphia's Latino population grew 45 percent from 1990 to 2000 and now numbers 128,928, according to census figures. About 250,000 Latinos live in the nine-county metropolitan area.

"The sheer numbers in the population that the Latino culture encompasses [are] going to have some kind of influence on the way people dress," said Clara Henry, director of the Fashion Design Program at Philadelphia University.

The Latino touch, if you will, is not only influencing the clothes we wear, but the cocktails we drink (Cuban mojitos and Brazilian caipirinhas) and the restaurants we patronize (witness the recent explosion of Mexican, Cuban and Colombian restaurants in and around Center City).

But it's the duds that get one noticed.

Take publicist Kelly Boyd, proud owner of a dress from Venezuela-born designer Carolina Herrera's 2004 spring collection that's been a "must have" among those with fashion sense - and (plenty of) cents for fashion.

When Boyd, 37, wore the strapless, daffodil-yellow dress with ruffled hemline to the Art Alliance Wetherill Ball in April, the compliments were endless. "Everyone really thought it was beautiful," she said. "I felt like it was summer. [And] confident and happy. The dress makes me happy."

Tom Moratto, vice president of couture at Saks Fifth Avenue, called Herrera's design "a great tango dress. It's a winner."

The Latino influence "lends itself to that whole feeling - pretty and feminine," said Moratto.

Shakin' that bon-bon Most fashionistas credit Ricky Martin with triggering the Latino style explosion back in 1999, when the singer's "Livin' La Vida Loca" was on heavy rotation on MTV and the radio. But a subsequent bombshell known as Jennifer Lopez has had a more lasting effect.

"J.Lo influenced the designers because when she first started, she looked very Latin," said D'Angelo. And it wasn't just the clothes she was wearing, either.

"Before J.Lo, big [bottoms] weren't known in Hollywood. Once J.Lo showed up on the scene, [that] became the 'IT' thing," D'Angelo said. Now women show off their buttocks, even working them out to make them more prominent. "We need to thank J.Lo for that."

But J.Lo was merely reflecting another aspect of Latino style - women are comfortable in their bodies, even if they don't conform to some idealized (read: skinny) shape.

"Women are really women in that culture," explained Marilyn Hefferen, assistant professor in fashion design at Drexel University. "They aren't afraid to express their bodies."

Women aren't the only ones letting loose with Latino detailing, though the stylin' is less evident in men's fashions. Younger guys have taken a cue from Martin's tight shirts and bon-bon-hugging pants. And the guayabera shirt - a wardrobe basic in Puerto Rico, Cuba and other warm-weather Latino locales - seems to be showing up more on non-Latino men.

A regional breakdown The influences are many within Latin America, so the style also draws from many sources.

"I don't think you can just define it and say it's from one place in the world...You just can't sum it up to spicy flamenco dancers," Areu said.

Ruffles hail from Spain's flamenco dance, she said. The peasant look comes from Central America. Bright colors - heavy on canary yellow - are an expression of the tropical climate in most of Latin America.

The Latino influence "manifests itself in different ways and one of them is color," said Henry, with Philadelphia University. "Color is really important in tropical climates - persimmons and corals and yellows and oranges."

In the end, the Latino influence is varied enough to offer plenty of room for personal interpretation, fashionistas say.

"Latino styling to me is bright colorations with fluidity that express sensuality and feminity in women's wear," Hefferen said. "It's a laid-back, let's have fun, let's have some mojitos near water attitude."

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