By Marcella Echavarria.
Photos courtesy of Edgar Avila.
Fashion designer Carla Fernandez looks with the eyes of a researcher, an anthropologist, a historian in awe of the immense treasures found in Mexico. Her signature design is geometric, distinctive, and respectful of the past. Her commitment is to share Mexican traditions with the world through a fashion brand with character, quality, and content.
The secret to Carla Fernández can be found in the depths of Mexico’s cultural roots, the geometry of Pre-columbian design, the texture of natural fibers and indigenous colors. Her magic recipe: how to mix past and present in a way that makes sense for the future. Her tool is Taller Flora, a mobile laboratory of sorts that travels with her team.
Carla has built her career around traditions. We are talking here about the garments that most Mexican women have worn for untold generations: rebozos, enredos, quechquemitl, fajas, etc. But that’s just her starting place. Carla not only innovates out of this tradition, but also has her own approach to working with artisans all over Mexico—an approach that focuses on both product and process. Ideas, tradition, and handwork are all respected and paid for, giving artisans access to the higher margins of the business, something unthinkable in the mainstream fashion industry.
Through her travels and research, and from her personal passion for everything Mexican, Carla has grown to understand the traditional, pre-Columbian way of constructing clothes in Mexico. These old methods use origami-like principles, with squares and rectangles taken directly off the loom and sewn together. There’s no cutting in pre-Columbian couture, a simplicity still preserved today in traditional clothing, in spite of the influence of European fashions. In addition to respecting and learning from the old methods of construction, Taller Flora also uses ancient, local materials like cotton and vegetable dyes, including indigo from Oaxaca and Coyuche cotton from the Mixteca. The line even uses wool yarns dyed with mud in San Juan Chamula.
“We are a mobile workshop going to where training is needed all over Mexico, from the highlands to the coasts, always in close collaboration with the communities,” says Carla about Taller Flora. In fact, her greatest innovation is that Taller Flora actually pays the artisans for their ideas, involving them in the higher echelons of the business: design.
This is virtually unheard of in an industry where the propensity to “borrow” cultural assets and the creative efforts of indigenous craftspeople is only just beginning to be properly examined. “Every time I go to a village, I find something new, a new way of doing things, a surprise,” says Carla. “But I can’t just return home and make money with the ideas I find. The artisans deserve the right to stay involved.” Co-creating with artisans and treating them as designers, making them part of this collective intellectual property, is at the very core of Taller Flora. This concept goes beyond usual definitions of fair trade. It acknowledges the artisan fully as artist and innovator.
Taller Flora has two collections, both created through this collaborative, innovative process. Demi-couture is the handmade line. It’s all about tradition, limited editions, very fine materials, and higher price points. Artisan compensation varies according to the type of piece, as some command higher margins than others: an elaborate gown would have a lower margin than, say, a stamped t-shirt. Thus, the Pret a Porter line, conceived in collaboration with the artisans but manufactured in a more industrial context, pays the artisans for access to their intellectual property and contribution to the design process.
Carla’s way of working may be revolutionary, but it isn’t easy: “The main challenge is the customers who are not aware of the process involved in making traditional garments and their reluctance to pay fair prices. For example, the rebozo, one of the most amazing pieces of traditional Mexican apparel, is not well understood. A rebozo takes thirty days to make. Thirteen pairs of hands are involved in the various processes that go into it.”
This kind of time, skill, and cultural capital deserve higher price points. The artisan’s contribution must be valued as equal to that of a designer. But aside from the necessary consumer education that Carla speaks of, other obstacles remain. Though Mexico is neighbor to the US, the focus in the States on buying American-made goods makes Taller Flora tough to market. Even more problematic (and, again, relating to consumer education), is the tendency in the US to buy disposable fashions as opposed to well-made designs with cultural import. But, still, Carla is making waves—reimagining the way the fashion world interacts with artisans and showing others how important it is through her work.
So often, the artisan is seen as a manufacturer—the sum of the tangible work of their hands. And while this work is important and valuable, Taller Flora goes beyond this, giving weight to the ideas and creativity of these makers, preserving tradition and changing the future of craftsmanship in the process.