Puerto Rican designers promote homegrown fashion
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Puerto Rican designers promote homegrown fashion

“Latin influence in fashion stormed the runway,” read the sub-headline of a New York Daily News article that ran on September 11, in which the author, Leaura Luciano, summed up New York Fashion Week.

Luciano mentioned a handful of designers who are well-known in their countries of origin, among them Rolando Santana of Mexico, Custo Dalmau of Catalonia and Stella Nolasco and Luis Antonio, both from Puerto Rico. She ended the article by quoting Luis Antonio as saying “We [Latinos] are the new blood in fashion.”

These designers channeled a “fun, flirty and sexy” vibe, and, at least in Nolasco’s case, evoked “the sea and sky of her native Puerto Rico.”

But it’s on the island itself, among a group of designers who don’t necessarily aspire to see their creations on rail-thin models sashaying the runways of New York, where the real new blood in Puerto Rican fashion and design is found.

“Los de akí”

Ride through the streets of the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce on any given night and you might see Arvin Soto, Cheche Figueroa and Jorge Luís Gonzalez Escobar engaged in some guerilla marketing.

It’s not easy being an indie brand anywhere, but it’s even harder in Puerto Rico, where chains and established luxury brands tend to sustain the attention–and the dollars–of the upwardly mobile boricuas who have “disposable” income. Soto, who founded the streetwear fashion brand Sotomayor in 2011, advertises on a budget. He and his partners wheatpaste posters and slap stickers onto light poles, trying to raise brand awareness in neighborhoods where their target audience lives.

A tweet from the Sotomayor account critiquing the local habit of buying products made in China.

A tweet from the Sotomayor account critiquing the local habit of buying products made in China.

The products chain brands sell tend to come from abroad and are often made in China; what Soto and Figueroa are trying to do is to develop a fashion consciousness that supports “los de akí.” Their goal isn’t simply to sell t-shirts and hats with images symbolic of Puerto Rican culture, such as the machete, to young, urban “neo-jíbaros.” Instead, their aspirations are to change the very culture of production in Puerto Rico, and to realize both goals, the partners decided they needed to become part of a movement.

More than moda, it’s a movement

Sotomayor joined a growing number of “Diseñado en Puerto Rico” producers–jewelry makers, web designers and coders, architects and interior designers, artists and others– whose objectives are to “nurture a culture of ambition and innovation on the island” that will create viable careers and decrease or possibly reverse the “flight of talent” from the island to the mainland U.S. To do that, of course, they also have to create clientele, inspiring Puerto Ricans to buy local.

Soto, who studied architectural design before changing career paths, draws inspiration from that course of study, particularly minimalist design. There are other influences, too. Soto grew up watching his mother sew. “We didn’t have the kind of money to buy expensive clothes,” he said, “so she made them for us.” He also incorporates references to skate culture and street art in the t-shirts, hats, and other products Sotomayor makes.

The other big inspiration, of course, is Puerto Rico itself. “Fashion and design tend to exploit,” says Soto. “Our ‘grito de lucha,’ our reason for being, comes from the idea that no one needs to be exploited to do what they love. I aspire to have a fashion house. And if I can help people here and give them work, then this is where I want to be,” he says.