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Shaping the '90s.

THE FASHION HISTORIAn Georgina O'Hara states her passionate belief that people should take fashion more seriously than they do. For her, the study of fashion can be at once, "a history lesson, a geography lesson, an economics lesson and mathematics lesson." She also believes that fashion is a window to a culture and a mirror of the movement.

Latin America, a region of snow-capped mountains and lush tropical forests, of painters Fernando Botero and Rufino Tamayo, of writers Isabel Allende and Octavio Paz, and scientists Franklin Chang Diaz and Cesar Milstein, has also contributed first-rate fashion designers to the world. Among the most outstanding are Dominican Oscar de la Renta, Venezuelan Carolina Herrera, Cubans Luis Estevez and Adolfo, and Spanish-born Fernando Pena. Although all of them have reached exalted status in the pantheon of international fashion, they are all the products of a Latin America that has reinforced the fabric of their creative spirit.

In September, 1990, at what has been billed by the local press "the most anticipated fashion show of the season," and "a paean to the richness and cultural diversity that is Latin America," the sixth annual Hispanic Designers Fashion Show presented the newest collections. This year's event was a showcase of contrasts--elegant and fanciful, sober and bubbly, dark and light, a study in chiaroscuro. The audience basked in a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, shapes and sounds that catapulted Latin America to center stage.

"We are blessed with a glamorous, exotic culture," said the show's director, Penny Harrison. "We are not one, but several peoples. We stand for excitement, romance, passion, and pride. These values are never more illustriously reflected than in the field of fashion. Oscar de la Renta, Adolfo, Carolina Herrera and Paloma Picasso, to name a few, bring to fashion not only their personal signatures, but the richness and glory of their heritage."

From the moment a woman is born in Latin America, she is bejeweled and put on display. Whether in Colombia or Costa Rica, Argentina or Panama, a girl's ears are pierced as soon as her umbilical cord is cut. She must, from the moment of birth--and regardless of her social status--look well-groomed, "bien arreglada."

"You just do it," says Carolina Herrera refering to this accepted social code. "It becomes second nature; you're taught that this is a way of showing respect for others and yourself. Being well-groomed is your contribution to society and I think Latin American women are very good at this."

Oscar de la Renta was the only son in a family of seven children whose mother fastidiously groomed all her children. He married the late French socialite Francoise de Langlade who grew up under the same strict aesthetic rules. Until her death in 1983, Francoise de la Renta, reigned as one of New York's premiere hostesses and was admired for her flawless style. In a 1981 interview with the New York Times, Francoise de la Renta explained how her mother had instilled in her a drive for refinement and beauty. "Always be impeccable."

The interest in fashion is not limited to women, however. As noted by Maruja Baldwin, the famous Costa Rican who was the first Latin American woman to model for Coco Chanel in Paris, "Latin men are equally rigorous with their grooming, no question about it. They are just as conscious of their appearance." "Dressing is, for Latin men and women, a very serious business," notes Cubanborn Marilu Menendez, an international public relations consultant for a number of design firms. "Latins dress to be seen. It is an attitude that crosses class lines otherwise rigidly kept; an attitude that has even inspired such classical novels as El Lazarillo de Tormes, by the Spanish writer Diego Hurtado de Mendoza.

New York, the fashion heart of the United States, is where almost all of the new Latin American designers have launched their collections. In this "melting pot," the rhythm and tone of all that is foreign is accepted and assimilated. The same diversity--the colors of an entire continent--is reflected on every street corner.

There is a similarity between the dynamics of the streets of New York and the dynamics of a Latin American plaza. Menendez suggests that they both capture a fascination with fashion, the appreciation for that which is done merely for effect, its unashamed desire to squander it all. They are the perfect setting for flaunting, for strutting, for impressing. What other city could provide a better audience for our panache, our assertion of style and self?

"In New York," remarked the U.S. novelist Louis S. Auchincloss, "the snobbishness of birth is totally out. There is snobbishness about money and power and snobbishness about appearance--how you look and what you wear. It's an immensely visual culture. . . In the old New York, people didn't really care what you looked like. Now we have something you haven't seen since the 18th century--a lacquered picturesque society. It does make rather extraordinary-looking parties and fashions."

It is in this milieu that many Latin American designers have made their mark. Obsessed with the desire to succeed, to do well in what they all love best, these giants of the fashion world were also fueled by a Herculean stamina, an instinct for trends and unerring taste. They all credit their Hispanic heritage as being the propelling force, regardless of where they were born or where they received their professional training.

"Anyone who has lived or visited Latin Americ knows what an incredibly sensual experience that is," says Luis Aguilar, a professor of history and cross-cultural studies at Georgetown University. "Any expression of creativity coming from Latin America has to be a product of what I regard as the nicest form of assault on the senses."

Luis Estevez, who was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Hispanic Designers Gala, agrees. "My heritage is the source of my talent, my success, my energy, my personality--good or bad--my love of life. It is me, I cannot think of me without it." Compatriot Fernando Pena adds, "To me it is very meaningful to be of Spanish ancestry. It has helped me to become who I am and to succeed in this country."

"If you know a little bit about fashion history," says Carolina Herrera, "you can see that fashion is a repetition. It is simply all in making it look different, the way you put things together and the materials you use, because the ideas have been there forever. For me, my heritage, helps me add that extra dimension, it enriches my designs; it gives them their uniqueness, their elegance." Adolfo agrees with Herrera, "Everything in fashion has been done before. I like to make predictable clothes. I want women to feel they are seeing an old friend, both the clothes and me."

The cultural richness of their backgrounds undoubtedly helped de la Renta, Herrera, Adolfo, Estevez and Pena to develop the most crucial ingredient for any couturier: an uncanny familiarity with their clientele; an ability to play to their vanity.

In an issue featuring the Hispanic contribution to the arts, Time magazine noted that "designers of all cultural extractions are working to capture the best elements of Latin American and Spanish design." One such designer is Ofelia Montejano, a Mexican living in Los Angeles whose use of vibrant jewel colors--ruby, emerald, deep purples--reflects her heritage. "When I was a little girl in Michoacan, Mexico, I admired the way even the poorest people made use of color," say Montejano. "They take raw color and use it in a very honest, creative way."

Another talented newcomer is Estevan Ramos, also of Mexico. Winner of the Rising Star Award at this year's Gala, Ramos wowed the crowd with a Spanish tango collection of ruffled tops and sweeping skirts in periwinkle, mint and peach. "That's my theme," he says, "and those are the colors of my background."

Unlike their classically oriented predecessors, young Hispanic designers have been tremendously influenced by the mass media. Their fashions are eclectic and daring. Vivid colors, geometric lines and metallic or glittery fabrics predominate. These creations are either unisex or utterly feminine, reflecting the changing status of women in today's society.

In a world that is growing smaller through advanced technology and communications, the contributions of this younger generation of designers will surely span the continents.

Norma Romano-Benner, a native of Oruro, Bolivia, is currently a writer for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C. She has worked for UPI in the United States and as deputy bureau chief for the Andean region, based in Lima, Peru. She is also a cross-cultural trainer and weaver.
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Title Annotation:Hispanics fashion designers newest collections
Author:Romano-Benner, Norma
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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