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An Aesthetic Challenge Called Perú

In Peru’s most remote communities you can find remnants of an ancient legacy that manifests itself in multiple ways, including a textile tradition, dance, and music.

By Josefina Barrón
Photos: Courtesy of the Designers

If a land is the sum of its separate parts, each one adds a different element: a landscape, a language, an ethnic group, a fruit, a bird, a shade of green, a way of speaking, or a way of dressing. When traveling through Peru’s most remote communities, one finds remnants of an ancient legacy that manifests itself in multiple ways, including a textile tradition, dance, and music. There are distinctive styles of embroidery. and iconography and diverse ways traditional shapes and colors combine in the landscape to make it different from what is to the north or the south in our terraced topography. Just a little over two decades ago we began celebrating this richness. For a long time, we were burdened by an identity that was more colonial than native and, back then, nowhere was further from being Peruvian than Lima. It was difficult to look within. We were also victims of the violence of terrorism, hyperinflation, political instability, and corruption. Where could we find inspiration to create fashion? What joy could motivate us to celebrate the color of the Peruvian Andes in an article of clothing?

But our food rescued us from sadness with its ancient burning, its pounded fish and captivating Andean herbs. Once the internal war was over, once chicken stopped flying from the markets and started to cost the same day after day, we began to recognize that we were a country of thousands of ecological layers. We tried coco leaves in our pisco sour and this in itself seemed daring.

And when we prepared nachos with our purple corn, the Peruvian universe was revealed: there it was waiting for us, along with the flavors of this new old country, the colors, the textures, the combinations, the embroidery and, of course, the raw materials through which Peru expressed itself so long ago. God only knows how many things went through our minds, not just the cooks but the fashion and graphic designers and goldsmiths, photographers and architects, writers and poets, and we opened our eyes to our homeland.

Pioneers have always existed. In Peruvian fashion, Olga Zaferson rescued traditional Peruvian design and did valiant work recovering the traditional techniques of the backstrap loom. Ester Ventura is another one of the first to capture and reinterpret Peru. I will dedicate some lines to Ester and the other three designers, although it is also important to highlight the significance of many others, such as Ani Álvarez Calderón, José Miguel Valdivia, Guiliana Testino, Susan Wagner, and Lucía Cuba, who is known for her rebellious and highly political alternative designs.

Ester Ventura: Peru is a Gem

With Ester Ventura’s designs you can travel not only in Peruvian time and space, but to the very essence of our country. The country’s earth, raw materials, concepts, and pre-Columbian and colonial past are represented in her jewelry. Her designs include macaw feathers, weavings inspired by the iconography and techniques of a thousand-year-old culture, remains of ancient ceramics, seashells, the gourds that are still carved in these lands, the wings of butterflies from our Amazon, stones like Andean opal, seeds like huayruro, bones, and totora or reed. The precious silverwork is an allegory of the cotton threads with which the most exquisite gauze was woven almost a thousand years ago. But her designs also contain a contemporary dialogue between Peru, its ancestral culture, and its geographic richness.

Ester was one of the first who saw and understood that the spirit of Peru could be recovered. She never imitates the past, but instead reinterprets the sea, the mountains, the textile traditions, and the clay that the ancient Peruvians turned into magnificent symbolic ceramics. She came from Argentina at a very young age and it is no exaggeration to say that the moment she touched Peruvian soil she fell deeply in love with its culture. She has never left and continues creating, innovating, and reinventing.

Meche Correa: Color in the Dark Years

Meche was born and grew up in a humble house in the popular La Victoria neighborhood. She remembers herself as a very alert girl with an unprejudiced eye for objects. Meche awakened to life as well as to fantasy; her home was her first laboratory. This creativity, eager to manifest itself, was encouraged and celebrated by her mother. Meche is part of that generation of Peruvians who saw everything with pessimism because they grew up as the country was mired in social and political conflicts, economic crisis, and terrorism.

When she turned twenty she wanted to study interior design so she left Lima for the first time for the interior of the country. Her destination: Huancayo. She compared the experience of going to Huancayo to the experience of a person from Huancayo coming to Lima for the first time. They both find something that they could never have imagined. She stayed there several days; it was the famous Sunday fair and she witnessed the trueque (exchange of products) that is still practiced there. She couldn’t believe the colors and designs that the women wore so naturally in their clothing and headdresses. It was an arrow direct to her heart. She wanted to continue traveling, experiencing and investing in discovery. In those times, few in Lima could identify an apu (spirit of the mountain, in Quechua) or a pompom (poncho) or knew why certain colors are found in skirts and belts or what the flowers in hats signified or what an lliclla was.

But, what is a lliclla? It is an Andean woman’s most symbolic piece of clothing. It is a colorful striped fabric in which a mother wraps her baby and carries it on her back or lap. The lliclla represents survival, tenacity, tenderness, love, and tradition.

The woman who arrives in Lima from the Andes can put on jeans and a pair of sneakers to go make a living, but the last thing she will stop using is her lliclla. Meche designed a handbag, which she considers her greatest achievement. She called it the Love Bag. When she launched this piece in the fashion market, there were no bags made of Andean fabrics. Meche is conscious of having created a trend that has grown to the point of multiplying on a grand scale. Today in any handicraft market in Peru you can find the Love Bag. “Peruvianess” returned profoundly to Peru, on a contemporary note.

Time has passed and Meche has become an icon of Peruvian fashion. Today she shows me silk organza on which she has painted the designs that we see on doors and the sides of Ayacucho altarpieces. It’s a shawl. It’s Meche and her desire to turn reality around, to promote popular art with her very own style.

Mozhdeh Matin: Peruvian Hands

Mozhdeh is a special case: she was born in Cajamarca, the most important city of the northern highlands of Peru, in the bosom of an Iranian family that arrived in the country more than thirty years ago. Through her brand MOZH MOZH, she works with her own fabrics, handmade by Peruvian artisans, conserving the techniques that pass from generation to generation. She works in lambswool and alpaca and in cotton from looms so fine that they seem to have silk threads in their warp; looms that she cuts and with which she designs and creates high fashion apparel.

Mozhdeh represents the vanguard; not only in her clothes but also in her accessories. The image of her brand is manifested in a new visual language that is resounding, relaxed, and unapologetic. Her love for the country where she was born appears in the distinct references that appear in her garments, which bear witness to the communities and ethnic groups of the Peruvian coasts, mountains, and jungles. Her designs are the product of the close ties that this young woman has forged with Peruvian artisans whose children or grandchildren may not necessarily be the ones who will perpetuate their knowledge and legacy.

Sitka Semsch: The Textures of the Land

Sitka and I, both the same age, realized that we didn’t grow up in the Peruvian culinary boom; that happened when we reached adulthood. Her parents had restaurants in Lima, where they served international food. She went to live in Miami and experienced the world of fashion. At sixteen, she returned to Peru, as she says, with the fashion bug. To make her portfolio, she was advised to look to Peru as a source of inspiration; she had to present a collection to apply to university. She was accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was then that she realized that Peru was full of surprises and that there was a new story to tell.

Alot has happened since then. She has searched different lands, but always returns to Peru and her natural fibers to discover what things we can make with our hands, what textures can be achieved in textiles. Lately, she is making fabrics for garments inspired by the straw weavings of the baskets made in different regions of Peru. You can’t always detect Peru in her creations. The country that inspired her is not always evident; the foreign public doesn’t need us to copy ethnic manifestations. You have to turn them around, she says, adding that this is the challenge. How do we deconstruct them, how do we make them ours, new, our own, unique?