Tapping Indigenous Talent in Colombia to Create Modern Fashion

Mark A. Carlson

On the world stage, Colombian fashion has become well known for its sophisticated use of hand-wrought ancestral techniques, from weaving and embroidery to beading. It is not uncommon to see a brightly colored Mochila bag — a staple accessory for most Colombians — or a typical palm straw hat on international catwalks or being worn by A-list celebrities.

With its Spanish Colonial mansions draped in bougainvillea and its centuries-old cobblestone streets, the walled city of Cartagena, on the country’s Caribbean coast, is an enchanting place to shop for a range of high-quality handmade accessories crafted by Colombia’s many artisan communities.

“While we still have a great tradition of artisans carrying on heritage handicrafts, we also have an amazing new school of designers incorporating these techniques into more modern designs,” said Cristina Consuegra, co-founder of Galavanta, a local travel company that curates personalized shopping experiences from high-end boutiques to family-owned shops.

The trend of fashion designers collaborating with artisan talent has flourished in part thanks to Artesanías de Colombia, a government-run organization that started a program in 2015 to foster sustainable relationships between the fashion industry and more than 2,000 artisans across the country.

It also provides entrepreneurial training and innovation and design labs, and it supports artisan communities by purchasing handicrafts that are sold to a global market through its various city stores and its online shop.

An introduction to Colombian handicraft can be found at its new boutique at La Serrezuela, an upscale mall, cultural center and food hall that recently opened in a former bullring and theater in the San Diego neighborhood.

The store is stocked with hundreds of handmade accessories including bags, hats, jewelry and home goods made by more than 100 Indigenous communities, including the Wayuu in La Guajira, the Arhuacos in Magdalena and the Kamëntsá in Putumayo (prices range from 12,000 to 12 million Colombian pesos; about $3 to $3,060).

“Our products come with official seals so you know you’re getting the highest quality craft and that the artisan has been paid fairly for their work,” said Laura Samper Blanco, communications director for Artesanías de Colombia.

In an airy colonial mansion in the Old City, you’ll find St. Dom — a concept store owned by a Colombian, Alex Srour, and his Croatian-born wife, Maya Memovic, that specializes in homegrown designers, many of whom cocreate contemporary pieces with Indigenous craft masters (150,000 to 2.5 million pesos).

“When we opened 10 years ago there were no other stores like this,” Ms. Memovic said. “Locals went to the U.S. or Europe to shop. Now they proudly wear Colombian fashion.”

Patrons can shop understated Mochila bags and clutches from the brand Verdi (1.1 million to 2.7 million pesos), woven from natural materials like plantain fibers and alpaca sourced from different artisan communities and shaped by the hands of 45 in-house artisans at its atelier in Bogotá.

“We reinterpret ethnic designs with new materials and technique, only the shape and name remain,” said Tomás Vera, Verdi’s co-owner and designer.

Also on offer: vibrant appliqué handbags from Mola Sasa (from 890,000 pesos); Michu Bags’ colorful clutches made from fique, a hemp-like fiber (from 750,000 pesos); and stylish Woma Hats (from 400,000 pesos). The shop also carries two brands that are known for their long-term collaborations with various groups of Indigenous artisans: Johanna Ortiz (600,000 to 2.2 million pesos) and Mercedes Salazar, whose store is down the street.

“As a designer, I feel it’s my responsibility to keep these ancestral techniques alive,” Ms. Salazar said. Some of her latest collections feature palma de iraca jewelry and home accessories made with 200 Usiacurí artisans and brightly hued chaquira-beaded jewelry, made with the Emberá people in Chocó (150,000 to 799,000 pesos).

“Working with these communities has helped me discover who I am as a designer through my roots,” she said. “The exchange is a constant source of creative inspiration.”

One of Colombia’s most recognized fashion designers, Silvia Tcherassi, has been working with Indigenous communities for more than a decade.

“Their techniques, material usage and rich symbolism make their work completely transcendental,” she said. “There is just so much magic, meaning and pride behind every weave, every stitch.”

In her boutique near Plaza de Santa Teresa, visitors will find handmade designer bags created with Wayuu, Usiacurí and Malambo communities (from 600,000 pesos) alongside demi-couture evening gowns crafted with luxurious European fabrics (from 6 million pesos). “I find that juxtaposition unique and fascinating,” she said.

Other boutiques in the Old City with a similar fusion include Sancte, featuring handwoven hats and bags alongside minimalist linen apparel (from 75,200 pesos), and Casa Chiqui, whose owner, Chiqui de Echavarría, designs an artisan-made line of jewelry and accessories (215,000 to 1.2 million pesos).

A few blocks from Plaza Santo Domingo, El Centro Artesano is a treasure trove of handmade items from Wayuu tote bags to Werregue home décor and soon-to-debut pet collars that its director, María Elena Rangel, sources from Indigenous communities around the country (20,000 to 6 million pesos).

Through the Guazuma Foundation, she also provides professional workshops to Indigenous weavers and hosts in-store demonstrations where artisans showcase the making of their craft.

Each piece is a work of art with its own unique pattern, color scheme and form, Ms. Rangel explained: Just one Mochila bag can take anywhere from days to weeks to create.

“These ancestral traditions are part of our cultural identity, we need to support and protect them,” she said.

Nilma Hoyos Racero recently opened the latest iteration of Nilma Hoyos Artesanal in Getsemani, a neighborhood southeast of the Old City. Her pocket-size shop is brimming with emblematic bags in all shapes and sizes (30,000 to 650,000 pesos). For the past 15 years, Ms. Hoyos Racero has been working closely with the Wayuu people.

“Wayuu women weave their life into each design: family insignias, beliefs, dreams, and the natural landscapes that surround them,” she said. Weaving has been likened to meditation, where the energy of the maker is embedded into the composition and transmitted to the one who uses it.

“These women are not machines, they’re the guardians of ancestral knowledge and they deserve a good price for their work,” she said.

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