Fashion designer and art historian Carla Fernández on the future of hand-made fashion
Words Fernanda Sela
Photographs Matthew Donaldson
Fashion designer Carla Fernández says her designs are part of an ongoing act of storytelling, uniting the traditions of the past with the contemporary. ‘Textiles in Mexico can be read,’ she insists. ‘They’re an open book…’
For Mexican fashion designer Carla Fernández, the origin of textiles is the earth. In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book narrating the creation, it is written that everything springs from the earth, and, she remarks, this is where the seeds sprout from which fashion is created. ‘We make fashion with people whose roots are in the earth from which they sustain themselves,’ Fernández says.
Fernández is based in Mexico City, where she runs her workshop as well as three shops but notes that half of her clients are foreigners. In 2018, she showed her work at the International Folk Art Market Santa Fe where, for the second time, she will be featured in the Innovation category. Collectors in search of one-of-a-kind pieces will find a selection of her Spring/Summer 2018 collection Máscara de Mediodía (Midday Mask), in which woven fabrics are key. Straight-cut dresses and shirts have eyes and mouths embroidered in vibrant colours, inspired by the practice of face painting as a cultural language among some indigenous people in the Americas.
These shapes are part of the designs created in collaboration with Mexican rotulador (sign painter) Isaías Salgado, whose practice of sign making by hand is in danger of extinction, due to faster printing-based technologies. The pieces are light and delicate; they’re designed in natural textiles, such as cotton or linen, and feature weavings made in backstrap looms. As usual, they each have details that take you on a journey through different Mexican states – including Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. For, long before Carla started her project, she had her sights set on Mexican culture.
Her father was the director of all the museums within Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, so Fernández often travelled around the country with her family. It was during those trips that she discovered the colours, shapes, textiles and materials of the traditional dress that indigenous people wore across different towns. Her logo – a square root – is both a metaphor for where her brand is rooted and a reference to the square as the basis of the Mexican indigenous pattern system; one she has been studying for more than 25 years.
For Fernández, high fashion is made in the mountains and highlands in her native Mexico, where the indigenous communities are found. ‘When you like good fashion, you know where to find it,’ she says. She has been collecting pieces made by artisans with particular attributes since she was young. By mixing references, adding different elements and combining traditional dress with her own contemporary fashion, she created unexpected compositions from which she would later develop an entire brand.
Whenever Fernández talks about her work, she talks in the plural. She recognizes the many hands and generations involved in the making of a dress or a shirt. She launched her brand in 2000, and since then, the collections she’s presented have been made in collaboration with artisans from different regions in Mexico. For her, these women are always the best dressed. ‘You can look at how people dress in the city, and it is basically all the same; even boring. However, if you look at a woman from San Andrés Larráinzar, in Chiapas, you’ll see who’s more elegant.’
She was determined not simply to take indigenous craft as an inspiration, but to collaborate directly with the women who make brocades, who knot, mottle, unravel and embroider – and to do it using the same methodologies that have run through generations for more than 3,000 years. The exchange of creativity between these experts and her design team takes place at Taller Flora, a series of workshops, and the core of her brand, where one important question is posed: who should be learning from whom?
The skill of the artisans, who know their craft intimately, merges with the vision of the contemporary designer – and in this process, Fernández’s project recovers traditional techniques, many in risk of disappearing, and translates them into pieces designed exclusively from a rectangle or a square – a type of Mexican origami. Her light, straight-cut dresses are made slowly and in small quantities, with fabrics that are woven to be collected and treasured, but also to be worn. In fact, wearing one of her dresses – many of them lacking buttons or zippers – can be an experience: they alter the posture and challenge the wearer to be more creative, as they can be worn in several ways. Her colourful designs sometimes recall avant-garde Russian theatre costumes such as those of Kazimir Malevich, as well as Sonia Delaunay’s prints. But this is not rare, as Fernández often borrows from the arts.
Fernández is internationally known as a fashion designer, but before that, she is an art historian. Her interest in art surpasses the many collaborations she’s done with personalities from different disciplines. It is common for her to work with photographers, illustrators, or even dancers (she is married to the artist Pedro Reyes). She is certainly curious. ‘I love writing, doing research and digging deeply into things to trace its origin,’ she says. ‘I studied art history in order to understand fashion as culture. I like to see fashion not only from an aesthetic point of view but also from an anthropological, cultural and political perspective.’
The results of this approach are clothes that become storytellers, tracking the heritage of a community and talking about Mexico in a contemporary language. One garment, for instance, tells the story of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or an artisan in the mountains working with cotton, harvesting the cotton, removing its seeds and eating them, until transforming the material with a malacate stick – one of which is exhibited at the National Museum of Anthropology – into a panel of fabric.
Plenty of things are imbued in a dress, but it all starts with the textile. ‘Textiles in Mexico can be read. They’re an open book,’ Fernández explains. To convey the complexity and beauty of her designs, a large part of her project is making visible the techniques and processes such as weaving, natural dying, or embroidering. And exhibitions aren’t the only way to communicate the meticulous work and hours invested in the pieces (Fernández was the first fashion designer to showcase her work at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City); she also demonstrates the story through films, talks and booklets.
She is understandably enthusiastic about her craft, and the handmade factor is essential. More than being romantic, Fernández also believes the working hands of an artisan will pass on values such as the care and the delicateness needed in a garment. It is very clear for her: ‘the future is handmade’.