Based in Mexico City, fashion designer Carla Fernández travels through Mexico seeking the most talented regional artisans; she creates new designs that honor traditional fabrications in each region. This has given Fernández a reputation as a champion of the decorative arts of her beloved country. Last year her multimedia show at Boston’s Gardner Museum entitled “The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community” helped her form ideas of new ways to share fashion in the context of museums and galleries. Now Fernández’s upcoming exhibition “Design Culture Mexico” will open 18 April 2015 in the Boiler Room at San Francisco’s Heath Ceramics, drawing on elements of the Gardner show with what the artist calls a “new twist.”
At Heath each region of Mexico is accompanied by a rack of garments that can be touched, tried on and purchased. The show features work by skilled artisans from Chiapas, Mexico City, the State of Mexico, Yucatan, Campeche and new designs from Guerrero.
For the Heath show, Fernandez created a fashion exhibit that shares her design process and engages the senses. For the centerpiece of the exhibition, she set up a large worktable in the middle of the gallery. Visitors can interact with the materials and visuals by sitting down to see, touch and read about the production process. In addition to the clothing displays, images by several photographers including Graciela Iturbide, Ramiro Chaves and Pedro Reyes are on view throughout the exhibition.
Curator Renee Zellweger of gallery and workshop space Summer School met Fernández through artist friends in Mexico and proposed having a version of the Gardner Museum show at Heath’s Boiler Room. “Renee is the dreamcatcher of all of these happenings,” says Fernández. Now the vibrant creative community in San Francisco is able to see the tangible results of Fernández’s work throughout Mexico. “Everything we do is designed together with the groups we collaborate with,” Fernández says. “A lot of communities around Mexico have their own trends. They are changing all of the time—they love to innovate. They love to change the colors, the prints and the flowers of their own garments. We always have that in mind. We take the most beautiful and masterful handwork and we translate into something new.”
Inspired especially by squares, Fernández loves the geometry of many traditional garments that are formed from simple shapes. She believes the true haute couture of Mexico is made in the highlands. “For me it is very evident that the some the most well-dressed men and women in Mexico are in the indigenous community. They dress so beautifully and daring with colors, shapes and the silhouettes. It comes very natural to me as a fashion designer to mix these worlds together.” For Fernández, tradition does not have to be static. A surprising example of traditional craftsmanship being transformed into fashion, her stackable wooden bracelets are shaped with the same techniques used to carve molinillos, the wooden whisks used to make hot chocolate.
For the last eight years she has worked with Don Fermin Escobar in the State of Mexico to weave traditional Mexican shawls, called rebozos. Fermin’s workshop and staff has grown from the work he does with Fernández. Using a labor-intensive knotting technique, the handpainted materials are so perfect they appear printed. Thirteen people work together to finish each rebozo. Escobar’s father was a weaver and now Escobar is teaching his own kids the craft. Fernández believes there may be only 20 workshops like Escobar’s left in the State of Mexico—a number that will only continue to decrease as people are drawn to other types of employment. “That is what we want to do,” Fernández explains. “Instead of the young generation thinking that by being an artisan in Mexico, it is not possible to sustain their families. We want them to see that it can become a good business. Their kids can go to school. They can have a quality of life.”
Fernández has made it her mission to save traditional textile arts throughout Mexico. “Some people are aware that the polar bears are disappearing and I am aware that traditional crafts are disappearing. That is my aim for them to not disappear. We are making fashion. We are making new products. We have to pay what is deserved so they can continue to do what they know how to do. It has to be sustainable. It has to be fair. It has to be well made. It has to be beautiful.” Recently Fernández returned to work with artisans in Guerrero. “It is a state that has always been very fragile and it is where the 43 students disappeared. It’s a dramatic story.” For the new collection, Fernández employs a complicated quilting technique where the fabric is cut and folded by hand, then stitched on top.
Her company sells two lines. One features the traditional handmade fabrications; many of these designs can take a month or two months to make. The other line takes inspiration from the prints and patterns of these labor-intensive arts, but is manufactured in larger numbers to be able to make some items more accessible than her most intricate and collectible pieces.
When asked what she would like the world to know about Mexico, Fernandez has the clear vision of a leader. “I want the world to know we have amazing weavers and craftspeople. And we are losing them. We have to spread the word about how these things are made: the complexity and beauty. My fear is we are competing with super-fast fashion.” The materials her favorite artisans create are complex. “You have to feed the sheep. You have to take out the wool. You dye it with mud, then brush it by hand, and weave it with eight sticks. We are talking about alchemy. Something made with eight sticks. Can you imagine I ask you to get eight sticks from the woods and in a month I will come and I will have a beautiful fabric? It is amazing.”
“Carla Fernandez: Design Culture Mexico” opens 18 April 2015 in the Boiler Room at Heath Ceramics and will be on view until 17 May 2015. Keep an eye out for workshops and panel discussions with Fernandez during the exhibition.
Exhibition images courtesy of Renee Zellweger, all others courtesy of Carla Fernández