Harnessing Indigenous Talents in Colombia to Create Modern Fashion

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On the world stage, Colombian fashion has become well known for its sophisticated use of ancestral hand-crafted techniques, from weaving and embroidery to beadwork. It is not uncommon to see a brightly colored Mochila bag – a staple accessory for most Colombians – or a typical palm straw hat on international catwalks or worn by prominent celebrities.

With its Spanish colonial mansions draped in bougainvillea and centuries-old cobbled streets, the walled city of Cartagena on the country’s Caribbean coast is an enchanting place to shop for a range of high-quality handmade accessories made by the many communities. of craftsmen from Colombia.

“While we still have a great tradition of artisans carrying on heritage craftsmanship, we also have a new school of incredible designers integrating these techniques into more modern designs,” said Cristina Consuegra, co-founder of Galavanta, a local travel agency that organizes personalized trips. shopping experiences, from high-end boutiques to family-friendly stores.

The trend for fashion designers to collaborate with talented artisans has flourished in part thanks to Artesanías de Colombia, a government organization that launched a program in 2015 to foster lasting relationships between the fashion industry and more than 2,000 artisans. Across the country.

It also offers entrepreneurial training and innovation and design laboratories, and supports artisan communities by purchasing handicrafts that are sold in a global market through its various urban stores and online store.

An introduction to Colombian craftsmanship can be found at his new boutique in La Serrezuela, an upscale shopping mall, cultural center, and food court that recently opened in a former arena and theater in the San Diego neighborhood. .

The store offers hundreds of handmade accessories including bags, hats, jewelry and household items made by more than 100 indigenous communities, including the Wayuu in La Guajira, the Arhuacos in Magdalena and the Kamëntsá in Putumayo (prices range from 12,000 to 12 million Colombian pesos; approximately $ 3 to $ 3,060).

“Our products come with official seals so you know you are getting the highest quality craftsmanship and that the craftsman has been paid fairly for their work,” said Laura Samper Blanco, communications director for Artesanías de Colombia .

In a spacious colonial mansion in the old town you will find St. Dom – a concept store owned by a Colombian, Alex Srour, and his wife of Croatian origin, Maya Memovic, specializing in local designers, many of whom co-create contemporary pieces with indigenous master craftsmen (150,000 to 2.5 million pesos) .

“When we opened 10 years ago, there were no other stores like this one,” Ms. Memovic said. “The locals went to the United States or Europe to do their shopping. Now they proudly wear Colombian fashion.

Customers can purchase understated Verdi-branded Mochila bags and pouches (1.1 million to 2.7 million pesos), woven from natural materials like plantain fibers and alpaca from different communities of artisans and shaped by the hands of 45 in-house artisans in its Bogota workshop.

“We reinterpret ethnic designs with new materials and techniques, only the form and the name remain,” said Tomás Vera, co-owner and designer of Verdi.

Also on offer: handbags with vibrant appliques by Mola Sasa (from 890,000 pesos); Michu Bags colorful pouches made of fique, a fiber similar to hemp (from 750,000 pesos); and stylish Woma hats (starting at 400,000 pesos). The store also offers two brands known for their long-standing collaborations with various groups of indigenous artisans: Johanna Ortiz (600,000 to 2.2 million pesos) and Mercedes Salazar, including the store is down the street.

“As a designer, I think it’s my responsibility to keep these ancient techniques alive,” Ms. Salazar said. Some of his latest collections feature jewelry and home accessories in palma de iraca made with 200 artisans from Usiacurí and brightly colored chaquira bead jewelry made with the Emberá people in Chocó (150,000-799,000 pesos ).

“Working with these communities has helped me discover who I am as a designer through my roots,” she said. “The exchange is a constant source of creative inspiration.

One of Colombia’s most recognized fashion designers, Silvia Tcherassi, has worked with indigenous communities for over a decade.

“Their techniques, their use of materials and their rich symbolism make their work completely transcendent,” she said. “There is so much magic, meaning and pride behind every weave, every stitch.”

In her shop near the Plaza de Santa Teresa, visitors will find handmade designer bags created with the Wayuu, Usiacurí and Malambo communities (from 600,000 pesos) as well as half-couture evening dresses made with luxurious European fabrics (from 6 million pesos). “I find this juxtaposition unique and fascinating,” she said.

Other Old Town shops with a similar merger include Sancte, which offers hand-woven hats and bags alongside minimalist linen clothes (from 75,200 pesos) and Casa Chiqui, whose owner, Chiqui de Echavarría, designs a line of jewelry and artisan accessories (215,000 to 1.2 million pesos).

Just a few blocks from Plaza Santo Domingo, El Centro Artesano is a treasure trove of handmade items, from Wayuu tote bags to Werregue home decor and pet collars soon to debut that its director, María Elena Rangel, gets its supplies from the indigenous communities of the country (20,000 to 6 million pesos).

Through the Guazuma Foundation, it also offers professional workshops to indigenous weavers and organizes in-store demonstrations where artisans present the making of their crafts.

Each piece is a work of art with its own pattern, color scheme and shape, Ms. Rangel explained: Creating a single Mochila bag can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

“These ancestral traditions are part of our cultural identity, we must support and protect them,” she said.

Nilma Hoyos Racero recently opened the latest iteration of Nilma Hoyos Artesanal in Getsemani, a neighborhood southeast of the old town. His pocket shop is full of iconic bags of all shapes and sizes (30,000 to 650,000 pesos). For the past 15 years, Ms. Hoyos Racero has worked closely with the Wayuu people.

“Wayuu women weave their lives into every design: family badges, beliefs, dreams and the natural landscapes that surround them,” she said. Weaving has been compared to meditation, where the energy of the creator is incorporated into the composition and transmitted to whoever uses it.

“These women are not machines, they are the keepers of ancestral knowledge and they deserve a good price for their work,” she said.

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