Sure, we love the style of the French and Italians, given that these destinations have received a lot of play time over the years when it comes to fashion. But what about South America? Sao Paulo Fashion Week is the 5th largest fashion week after Paris, Milan and New York and more luxury brands such as Prada and Versace are already establishing themselves broad in the region. From big names such as Pablo Ramírez, Alexandre Herchcovitch to fresh talents such as Jorge Duque and Juan Hernandez Daels, there is a lot to discover here and many South American brands today are making a mark in the local and international fashion industry, with their unique products and creative digital storytelling.
Style and Stories
Elizabeth Kooij Martinez is founder and curator of Style and Stories, an online style destination bringing South American fashion designers to the European market. We met during House of Fashion’s Iris Apfel Week, an event marked by a special exhibition of Colombian designer Alfonso Mendoça’s extravagant jewellery and more inspired by the style and fashion’s of Iris. Half Colombian, half Dutch, Elizabeth grew up exploring the arts and sartorial heritage of South America, a fascination that would come to shape the rest of her life. “I was 15 and fell in love with the art, design and South American elegance I was exposed to and I knew then: I want to bring this to Europe someday.”
While most adolescent dreams are fleeting images of time, for Elizabeth it meant a destination. “Every decision I’d come to make in my life, was going to be based on this dream.” After her studies International Business Administration and Entrepreneurship, she landed a job at Jaeger-leCoultre, a luxury watch brand part of the Swiss mogul Richemont. “The Luxury industry is a very special world to be part of, because it’s all about dreaming and story telling.” Four years in the role, she gained the know-how and first-hand experience of what it means to work in this industry. “I loved it there and learned a lot, but when I turned 30, I knew it was now or never. If I wouldn’t do it now, when was I ever going to? So I quit my job and threw myself in the dream.”
Now fresh in its first year, Style and Stories begins in Colombia, South America’s third biggest economy. Fashion has become one of the most important industries here and it is home to the region’s most important industry event, ColombiaModa, where bloggers like Fashiontaster do special streaming and appearances similar to those at New York or Paris Fashion Week. “Right now I am only working with Colombian designers, but next year I will expand to other designers, from different countries in the region.” Current featured designers are Alfonso Mendoça, Flor Amazona and Adriana Santacruz- focusing on craftsmanship and sustainable high-end fashion, two binding elements in most of the fashion in this region. Beyond fashion and accessories, Style and Stories offers personal style services for its customers, with advice on how to wear the pieces and blend the South American style in to your wardrobe.
Discovering the Region
There are a lot of myths around the South American style. One of them is that everything is in hot tropical colours, built around the clothing of carnaval and celebrations, but this is not what the woman who shops in Mexico, Sao Paolo or Buenos Aires would wear. Instead you’ll find an array of styles with colour symbiosis, a smattering of red, turquoise and purple and monochromatic pallets with black & whites. “Typical to South American fashion is colour-play, and I would say, emotion. People, especially women love to look good and take good care of themselves. This is not to make a statement, but joie de vivre!”
Built on diversity and contrast, South America is bound by a rich cultural heritage, the result of centuries of migration from Europe and Africa- with immigrants bringing a broad spectrum of skills with them to the new land. According to the World Bank it is estimated that the region’s middle classes will rise from 30% of the population today to nearly 50% in just 15 years. Good examples are Chile, Peru and Argentina, where social inclusion has already lead to a rising number of the population leaving the poverty line and entering the middle class segment.
As a result, the region’s fashion & textiles industry is establishing itself in a rapid speed and its digital landscape is expanding, with Brazil and Mexico expected to reach $30.1 billion and $13.3 billion in e-commerce sales by 2019. “There are lots of business opportunities but doing business here is really about building relationships and earning stakeholder trust, only then people are willing to work with you. This takes time and is important to keep in the back of your head if you want to succeed in this region.”
Cultural heritage and giving back
While artisanal expertise and textile know-how are facing the threat of disappearance among European fashion academies, a lot of South American designers are keen on reviving and preserving these. Whether you’re in Argentina, Colombia or Mexico, a lot of designers are known to communicate their heritage through fashion, may it be through cultural symbols or traditional craftsmanship. In doing so, they are providing employment to the few artisans that master them and learn the crafts from them, while giving back to their community and preserving cultural heritage for the next generation.
“A lot has improved over the decades, but there are still huge social gaps and social injustices in major parts of the region and designers are really in it with their hearts-especially here in Colombia- and they are doing their part in the dialogue of social change. “Take Alfonso Mendoça, he’s not just an amazing high-end jewellery designer, but he’s also an artist who teaches the less privileged children to paint and draw- engaging them in his art and giving them an opportunity for the future.” Mendoça’s colourful organic pieces have appeared in numerous editorials from Vogue to Bazaar.
Social entrepreneur at heart, Ana Maria Sarmiento is the creative brain behind Flor Amazona. Her contemporary jewellery label is inspired by the Amazon rainforest that connects Colombia to Brazil and Peru, famed for its immense biodiversity. Sarmiento’s breathtaking Amazonian and pre-Colombian jewellery is the result of a union with the Wayuu and Embera tribes, whose heritage are deeply embedded in all the handmade items. Standout favourites are the 24kt gold plated Cacique rings and earrings, attributed to the most powerful spiritual leader of the indigenous group during the Tairona period; the Shaman, who is portrayed in a state of transformation between bat and man.
Sea of opportunities
Craving for fresh ideas in an industry that too often runs on a cycle of aesthetic repetition, South America provides a window opportunity to discover new concepts, colours and shapes, giving imagination life anew. Its fashion industry, driven by a strong emphasis on sustainability and craftsmanship, combined with a business climate built on trust and teamwork, it is a great place for fashion professionals to exchange knowledge and to discover.
Elizabeth’s journey of entrepreneurship is impressive, one that strongly resonates with me, and perhaps with many. It is the tale of drive, passion and perseverance, reminiscent to the temperament of the South American region itself. Growing steadily, already with major selling points throughout Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands, Elizabeth is determined. “I want to be the next net-a-porter, but then with South American fashion designers.”