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How Much Has Changed for Latinx Fashion Designers? – WWD

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Latinx designers have had manifold influences on fashion over the years, with some of the most renowned designersOscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Narciso Rodriguez and Maria Cornejo — helping to pave the way for up-and-coming designers looking to showcase their own creativity on the runway.

In some ways, the industry’s long-standing emphasis on European designers has kept Latinx creators out of the spotlight, but there’s a shift underway, according to Maria Cornejo.

“Before there was just the usuals, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina and of course Narciso [Rodriguez] who I love, but now there seems to be a whole new wave of designers coming out of Latin America,” she told WWD. “When I was a child, everything was looking to Europe and looking to the States. I feel like as Latin countries take more pride in their own designers, then they would get noticed everywhere else.”

Latinx designers work across a wide range of boundaries — cultural differences, language barriers and geographical constraints. These challenging juxtapositions and complexities often result in new perspectives to solving design problems. And despite the sluggishness to adapt Latinx designers into the current fashion industry in the U.S., the community is expected to wield increased influence in the coming years.

In looking at what has changed for Latinx designers over the years, WWD spoke to Cornejo, an established and sustainable fashion trailblazer and designer of Zero + Maria Cornejo, and emerging designer Barbara Sánchez-Kane of the binary defying brand Sánchez-Kane. Each offered unique views on the industry through a Latinx lens, as they tackled issues spanning the current racial climate, discrimination based on their ethnicities, and the opportunities for Latinx designers in the future of fashion.

Maria Cornejo

Brand: Zero + Maria Cornejo

How Much Has Changed for Latinx Fashion Designers? – WWD

Designer Maria Cornejo 

Maria Cornejo was born in Chile and went to England as a political refugee in 1975. She studied fashion there before moving to Paris in 1988. Over the years, she worked in Japan, China and Italy, and ultimately moved to New York City in 1996 at age 35. Two years later, Cornejo started Zero + Maria Cornejo on Mott Street.

WWD: What made you choose a career in fashion design and how did the journey begin for you?

Maria Cornejo: I chose to do fashion, when I first arrived in England I was 12 years old, I couldn’t speak English, I felt like I was drowning. You know you can’t speak the language, but visually I felt much more confident in doing things in art. My art teacher kept encouraging me to go into the arts, whereas my chemistry teacher kept encouraging me to go to chemistry. So I have a very mathematical mind, which I didn’t realize at the time. I wasn’t confident enough because my English wasn’t good enough. But as I got older I realized that I ended up using math every day, calculation and the way I cut things is in the way of geometry. It’s interesting how I ended up in fashion because when I was a child my grandmother and mother, they all made their clothes and I was taught to knit by my grandmother when I was seven on giant construction nails because, in those days there were no children’s knitting needles. I knitted my dolls, made them outfits like a typical kid who loves fashion. I didn’t realize it could be a career, I just thought it was something that I always just did, and then as I got older I realized that’s what I wanted to do.

WWD: Was there a key person who helped get you your first opportunity/took a chance on you in the industry?

M.C.: For me, I worked from the age of 15 in fashion stores in Manchester, and there was this amazing lady called Maureen Doherty, who used to run the stores called: Elle, Issey Miyake and Fiorucci. And so I was like a Saturday girl, she always encouraged me, with my mad outfits and she used to say to me, “I don’t care, go for a walk if you’re bored, but you know just be interested in things,” and she was really amazing and she’s still going, she’s got her own collection called “Egg” in London. She does really well and she was one of the first people to introduce Margiela into England and things like that, she’s just really an interesting person because she’s very creative and at the same time she had the eye, she had a great eye, and I think she saw that in me.

Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Spring 2021

Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Spring 2021 
Matthew Kristall/Courtesy of Zero Maria Cornejo

WWD: Not all designers are afforded the same opportunities. What have been some milestone moments for your brand and for you as a designer?

M.C.: I think for me a milestone was when I graduated from college. Joseph Ettedgui, who owns all the Joseph stores and this other store “Whistles,” bought my college collection, which was incredible, when I was 21. When I was 23, with my boyfriend at the time, John Richmond, we launched 20 of our stores in Japan, Richmond Cornejo, which is pretty amazing for a 23-year-old to have 20 own stores. We designed them, did everything in them, and I was shuffling between Tokyo and Milan all the time, and London. Winning the Cooper Hewitt design awards in 2006, in 2019 winning the Fashion Group International’s sustainability award, and the CFDA Lexus Award years ago — all these things have been big milestones. Amazing things happening, like Michelle Obama wearing the clothes, and all these incredible women who support the brand.

WWD: Do you find your Latinx heritage influences your thought process when creating a collection?

M.C.: Yes, I definitely think it informs certain collections. Like one collection could be more colorful, and I think my Latin roots and my sense of joy and color come from South America. And fun, Latins are quite fun, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Even though people think I’m very serious, I’m not. I grew up all over the place and to me what I take away from being Latin is the heart, the color, the soul, things that are really important right now.

WWD: What are your thoughts on the current climate regarding race in the U.S. and how it impacts the Hispanic/Latinx community?

M.C.: That’s a big question, my gosh! For me, I’ve always been a foreigner, one of the reasons I love New York…it’s such a mixed-race city, and it’s so diverse and dynamic because of that. You hear Spanish, you hear the bodegas, you hear the people, the music and everything. Whereas, when I lived in Europe, I was very exotic, I was the only Latin in art school in London, so coming here I felt like home, but yeah there’s a lot of inequalities with women, people [of color]. I was saying to someone the other day, I am not only [a person of color], I am Hispanic, and I’m a woman and I’m also older, so there’s so many disparities — financial and socio-economical. As immigrants we work harder than anybody else to make things work. Nothing was given to us.

WWD: Have you ever faced discrimination in your career because of your ethnicity? 

M.C.: I’ve had more discrimination because of being a girl. Some of the powers that be are not very girl-friendly, they would rather have a gay guy talking to them. And I’m also very straight-forward, maybe that’s just me, if anything it’d be more about that. A lot of the people that have really supported me in this business, apart from a few female friends, and of course my business partner, have been male and they have been gay. I can’t honestly say that I’ve had real discrimination.

I never thought about it, i just thought maybe my limitations, I didn’t arrive with a trust fund to start a business, I started it from scratch so it could only be what it could be, and it grew organically. Other people that came into this business have had financial backing, I decided not to have financial backing, I decided I wanted to keep control of what I was doing, so it’s hard for me to say that it was racial. I think it’s also having to do with my own path that I just took. But I think Latins, we definitely have been very quiet about our talents, and I think, more than ever now, it’s a good time to sort of speak up and be counted. We’ve always apologized for walking through the room more or less.

Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Fall 2020

Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Fall 2020 
Courtesy Photo

WWD: How do you think things have or haven’t changed for Hispanic/Latinx designers in the last 10 or 20 years?

M.C.: Because of Karla Martinez going to Vogue Mexico, I think she did an amazing job and really spotlighted everything that’s amazing about Latin culture in fashion, I think that’s a big shift. Before there was just the usuals, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina and of course Narciso [Rodriguez] who I love, but now there seems to be a whole new wave of designers coming out of Latin America. When I was a child, everything was looking to Europe and looking to the States. I feel like as Latin countries take more pride in their own designers then they would get noticed everywhere else. The problem is a lot of Latin countries, the only people that would get a look in would be like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera because they were based in New York, but [Latin countries] weren’t looking after their local talent, and with many local talents there wasn’t enough of a business there to carry it. Of course they want fashion from everywhere but they’re also very aware of what they’ll try and have back home.

To be honest, it’s so much about exposure, Instagram and the Internet have sort of evened out the playing field that everybody can have a voice somehow, it doesn’t guarantee sales, but at least you can put your image out there and I think that’s sort of given a lot of people and other designers more opportunity.

WWD: What do you see for the future of your brand?

M.C.: It’s not an easy time right now, so we are trying to edit things down. We have our loyal clients that we are listening to and that’s how we keep going, and being more and more sustainable every day. That’s all we can do for now. With me, I’m a bit of  a dreamer, I dream big but then expect the worst, so somewhere in the middle it will fold. We’re really loving right now all the things that, originally, the brand started with, which is the denim, T-shirts, it’s going back to its roots, which i’m really excited about because that feels much more natural to me, to my way of lifestyle and of the women that I know, making interesting clothing that is for every day and it’s not just going to sit in their wardrobe two more months.

WWD: Do you have any words of wisdom that you can share for the next generation of Hispanic/Latinx designers who are trying to break into the industry?

M.C.: Keep it small, keep it real and keep it original. In order for anybody to survive you have to be an original right now because there are a lot of copies, they can make things cheaper, all the high street brands copy everything. So, in order to survive you need to have your own point of view and be creative with less, and be sustainable. Have passion for it, you have to be in it for the long haul and that’s, I think, that’s the thing. Everybody expects instant success, and there’s no such thing. When you realize you spend most of your life, your awake life, whether it’s doing accounting, or a doctor, you have to be passionate about what you do, otherwise what’s the point?

The older I get, the more Latin I feel, and I think one of the things I am is, I’m very New York, I’m very much a mutt after living everywhere and New York is the best place to be right now.

 

Barbara Sánchez-Kane

Brand: Sánchez-Kane

How Much Has Changed for Latinx Fashion Designers? – WWD

Designer Barbara Sánchez-Kane 

Barbara Sánchez-Kane was born in the south of Mexico, in Merida (Yucatan). The fashion designer and visual artist spent her whole life there before moving to Mexico City two years ago. In 2016, Sánchez-Kane started the namesake brand, which has now evolved beyond fashion to art installations, performances, painting, sculpting and poetry. 

WWD: What made you choose a career in fashion design and how did the journey begin for you?

Barbara Sánchez-Kane: First of all, I studied industrial engineering in Mexico. You graduate when you are around 22 or 23 years old in Mexico, so six months after graduation I was feeling bad health wise, I was checked out by my doctor and they found out I had ovarian cancer when I was 22. That literally was the best thing that could happen to me — I know it sounds very strange saying it — but it was detected in time and just hearing that word for me was literally a slap in the face, like what am I doing with my life? In Mexico, artistic careers are not that well supported because [your parents] feel, “well how are you going to make money?” Nor fashion or art, they don’t encourage that much those types of careers, so that’s why I studied engineering. But that changed my life, it’s also when I told my parents that I was gay, I want to study fashion, let’s change everything. With fashion, it made me feel more comfortable showing creativity at that point, and with fashion it led to discovering new mediums and that’s how I keep doing it. I want to do or start things like welding, or painting, now I want to take ceramics. Prueba y error [trial and error], when you find a new medium it gives you different answers, maybe the same questions but different answers at a certain point in time. I think it’s very important to find what makes you tick.

WWD: Was there a key person who helped get you your first opportunity/took a chance on you in the industry?

B.S.K.: For me, the support of my parents has been the pivot point, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here talking to you about this. A very important person in my life that helped me develop the brand and the shows [which give you the DNA of Sánchez-Kane] is Monse Castera, a very good friend. She’s in Mexico, and is the producer of almost all my shows, she has trusted me since the start. When I moved to Mexico City, for me it was kind of backwards. A lot of people either think I’m American or I’m Mexican and they ask “well do you live in New York or Mexico?” Sometimes even the Mexicans think I’m American, so you are sometimes floating in between, having to clarify that I grew up in Mexico and I’ve lived in Merida. For me at the beginning in Mexico I remember I used to send mails when I graduated and nobody answered, but then I presented my collection in the States with V-Files, it was the first show I did in New York in September, and then after I have this Mexican star writing me back saying “oh, you’re Mexican, blah blah blah,” but Monse Castera has trusted me since the start, and keeps pushing me. Every time I have an idea, even the craziest idea, she gets it. Sometimes creative people have ideas and she makes me create them and put them out into the world, she’s very important.

A look from Sánchez-Kane’s Fall 2018 collection.

A look from Sánchez-Kane’s Fall 2018 collection. 
Courtesy of Sánchez-Kane

WWD: Not all designers are afforded the same opportunities. What have been some milestone moments for your brand and for you as a designer?

B.S.K.: Presenting in New York with V-Files opened my eyes, in a good and bad way. The fashion industry is not the warmest place of all. I remember I was very anxious, I had just started the brand, sometimes you don’t trust what you want to say because there’s a lot of voices, and I remember when I was in New York it was very overwhelming. There was production and it was the first time I saw models, makeup themes, and here you are the designer and you have all these ideas, but people are going to try to change it. It was the first time I understood that I needed to put my feet on the ground and say, I’m here because they saw something in me, so I’m going to give you just that, don’t try to change me.

WWD: Do you find your Latinx heritage influences your thought process when creating a collection?

B.S.K.: Completely. It’s what I know, it’s not like I need to study it, it’s what I surround myself in, what I eat, what I smell. It’s just a whole world and it keeps going. We have a lot of culture and heritage, for me it’s what I know, what I live, and for me it’s very important to be organic in the process. I’ve never been interested to investigate another culture when my culture has so much to offer and beyond. I didn’t even think it — it’s organic, that’s the word…I remember in Los Angeles I went to the piñata district, and it looked more Mexican because they wanted to showcase it more, so this combination in Mexico it’s probably a bit more toned down, but in L.A. it’s known as the piñata district. I think Latino designers and the community — I was talking to Willy Chavarria last year in Las Vegas, and we talked about the Latino models in New York, it’s amazing, it gives you more power and more courage to show the colors of your skin, speak your voice, how not to hide your identity, that, too, is super important.

WWD: What are your thoughts on the current climate regarding race in the U.S. and how it impacts the Hispanic/Latinx community?

B.S.K.: Because there are a lot of hate crimes, the El Paso shooting, so many bad things that have happened in the past year, that the Latino community have been targeted, literally, for their heritage, there is a climate of fear. Imagine not wanting to speak Spanish in public because you are afraid someone will say, “This is America, you speak English in this country.” It’s scary. I don’t live in the U.S. but seeing the news, hearing stories from friends, I’m not there and I can’t say 100 percent, but hiding your identity and suppressing it, the ICE detention centers, the cages, it looks like a f–king mad world. This has always happened, and with social media it’s good that it’s there to some degree, everyone can see what’s happening in real time in the U.S. or in Mexico, Europe. It’s not just a problem in the U.S., it’s a worldwide problem, hatred, a global f–king pandemic.

WWD: Have you ever faced discrimination in your career because of your ethnicity? 

B.S.K.: Not necessarily, maybe more because of my sexual orientation. Mexico is a very macho-dominated mentality, so having a woman designing men’s clothes, it comes charged with a lot of rule breaking. We are a very religious country and here you are trying to break what I like to call The Macho Sentimental, a new human that is not afraid of speaking, being queer, feminine, or being more masculine above all. For this I have been criticized a little bit — more in Mexico because it’s a very conservative country.

A look from Sánchez-Kane’s Fall 2020 collection.

A look from Sánchez-Kane’s Fall 2020 collection. 
Courtesy of Sánchez-Kane

WWD: How do you think things have or haven’t changed for Hispanic/Latinx designers in the last 10 or 20 years?

B.S.K.: Speaking with Willy Chavarria, we have a camaraderie, we support each other, since there are not millions of Latino designers, and again the visualization of the Latinx community in fashion shows, campaigns, has gone up in the past years. Body positiveness, it’s good that you can see a model and then a kid might go “the color of my skin, my ethnicity, my background, is fucking amazing,” instead of being ashamed of where you come from. Even if you are a third-generation Mexican in the U.S., you show it, you’re proud of it. It’s amazing, when a young kid came up to me in New York, he was about 17 or 18, he came to model, he didn’t end up being in my show, but I remember him telling me “It feels amazing that I can go and be casted for Sánchez-Kane,” to feel identified. And, for me, that was amazing. When I do casting everyone sort of becomes like family, friends, and you see how it evolves. I like to keep it warm and familiar when it comes to my shows and the backstage.

WWD: What do you see for the future of your brand?

B.S.K.: Keep growing in different mediums, keep discovering myself, keep failing, too, to discover what I’m going to like and what makes me succeed, and not in a monetary form, but just in different mediums overall. During COVID-19 I started painting, I went back to Merida for about five months and I spent a whole month not working. I was getting depressed and a friend recommended I do something creative. I started painting and literally it has been the best therapy at reach. Not being afraid, you don’t need to be the perfect painter, as I told you before we put so much on our shoulders. Even when you see the new generation on Instagram, and they are like “I’m a photographer.” Fuck yeah, you are a photographer. My generation, you need a degree, approval, and then you see all these kids at 17 already as photographers, artists in their bio. Yes, believe it. You are — who is going to say no?

WWD: Do you have any words of wisdom that you can share for the next generation of Hispanic/Latinx designers who are trying to break into the industry?

B.S.K.: Be true to yourself, and trust the process. You have to find yourself, too, your identity. And trial and error, that’s the best medicine and best medium to discover. I remember when COVID-19 started, I put out on Instagram that if anyone wanted to send me their thesis, I would review them, because I can imagine that being in this environment of a pandemic and being a graduate, you must think about what is going to happen to the world. 



How Much Has Changed for Latinx Fashion Designers? – WWD

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