Years before Dior’s artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri was collaborating with Mexican artisans on her 2024 cruise collection, Mexico City fashion designer Carla Fernández was highlighting the couture-like techniques of her homeland through her ethical label.
Working with 200 artisans in 16 Mexican states, she designs modern clothing using traditional craft under her stylish brand.
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Gold leather fretwork on the curved sleeves of a cowboy-chic black “Charro” capelet is from Chimalhuacán. Sculpted leather Jaguar mask handbags are made the same way as masks for “the dance of the Tecuanes” in the Nahua culture of Guerrero. And colorful fringed cotton tunic dresses are woven on a backstrap loom in Michoacán like they have been since pre-Hispanic times. All of it would look at home in Contessa, Mexico City’s “It” neighborhood, or in SoHo, New York.
“Everything is made in the communities and shipped to Mexico City, and sometimes it goes from one state to another, with cross pollination; so the fabric can be made in the state of Mexico and painted in Michoacán, or the pompons come from Chiapas, then we finish the product here. Or sometimes the product comes finished already,” she says of her range of sculptural jumpsuits, wrap coats and dresses using Mayan and Aztec symbols, Mexican milagros and other details in contemporary ways.
This fall, the designer will be the subject of an exhibition at la Galerie du 19M, Chanel’s Metiers d’Art center in northeastern Paris titled “Carla Fernández: The Future Is Handmade.” Open from Tuesday to Dec. 17, it will feature her work with Mexican textile, embroidery, wood and leather artisans alongside French specialist suppliers — some dating back to the mid-19th century — of embroidery; feathers; plissé fabrics; pearls; boots, and gloves to couture and ready-to-wear houses.
“Carla Fernández’s approach to contemporary fashion, which echoes the territory from which it comes, has a universal appeal, at the intersection of textiles, craft and the visual arts, and particularly resonates with the core preoccupations of 19M and its gallery,” Camille Hutin, director of la Galerie du 19M, says of organizing the exhibition.
“The house mixes craft with research and activism. It presents a critical and committed perspective on the ethics and aesthetics of the forms that dress us. In fact, [she] wrote a whole manifesto on fashion as an act of resistance against uniformity and mass production,” Hutin says, adding that the manifesto is used as a backdrop in the exhibition.
“For me, fashion and textiles are the first language we communicate with,” says Fernández, whose work has been shown internationally at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the Denver Art Museum, the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and many places in Mexico, including Museo Humex.
Fernández’s collection, which retails for $29 to $1,309, is available in her three Mexico boutiques, and at her web store. Her brand is B Corp-certified, the first fashion business in Latin America to achieve the designation, and mission driven.
“The main purpose of the brand is so that artisans can have more work in their villages. Because a lot of them have to change their cultural and hand skills and go to cities looking for better paying jobs. Then they have to leave the kids, the 14-year-old is taking care of the six- and four-year-old,” she says of the domino effect on society. The goal is to restore dignity to craft. “If you are an artisan, people recognize you in your community, they respect you, because of the money and the skills, and taking care of traditions that started thousands of years ago.”
As part of the exhibition, Fernández has collaborated with some of the resident French artisans of 19M. The first part of the exhibition features five pairs of shoes designed with custom shoemaker Massaro, building on her partnership with the Nájera family who create the Tecuán jaguar mask bags.
Charros hats are reinterpreted by hatmaker Maison Michel, with spectacular oversize proportions, and glasses are designed with goldsmith Goossens.
“These cultural exchanges allow each party to listen to the other, but also to experience another world in order to understand the specificity of one’s own gestures and trades. It is a true dialogue of the hands,” Fernández says.
Over a beer at the stunning Mexico City home she shares with her artist/architect/activist husband Pedro Reyes, the designer reflects on the moment when Mexican craft seems to be getting more attention in fashion circles.
“Mexico has unbelievable crafts so it’s endless and alive. We have 68 living languages, after China and India we are the most Indigenous culturally aware in the world,” she says. “Mexican crafts have always been seen for their beauty. Now I can see a trend, Dior is making it, and it’s a trend that’s growing with collaborations. But 30 years ago there were very few people doing it in Mexico, the mix of new contemporary design and artisan, and doing the designs with the artisans, which is critical because Mexico has so much cultural appropriation.”
Born in Saltillo, Coahuila, Fernández started making dance costumes when she was 18, and from there moved into fashion. She launched her brand in 2002. Performance remains a key part of her work, which is often shown in theatrical happenings and short films.
The pandemic was difficult for the designer, who had to close several stores.
“Our clothing is very playful.…We struggled but it was nice because we didn’t have to cut any employees. We burned all our savings, that’s how we stayed in business those three years and a half,” she says. “But little by little it is starting to come back again.”
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