CALI, Colombia – At a high-profile fashion event in the coastal town of Buenaventura this year, a pair of towering models strutted down the boardwalk, one in a red minidress with a fluted top inspired by a open shell and the other wearing a blue-and-gold dress fit for a modern queen.
The models were black and the fabrics imported from Africa, which is unusual for a big fashion show in Colombia. But what set them apart the most was the designer himself: Esteban Sinisterra Paz, a A 23-year-old college student with no formal design training who is at the center of an Afro-Colombian fashion explosion.
“The decolonization of the human being” is the goal of his work, he said, while showing the world an expanded vision of “the elegance of identity”.
Mr. Sinisterra is the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Márquez, an environmental activist and lawyer who will become Colombia’s first black vice president on Sunday.
In a country where race and class often define a person’s status, Ms Márquez, 40, has made a remarkable leap from deep poverty to the presidential palace, becoming the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.
Within months, she not only pushed racism and classism to the center of the national conversation, but she also revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, discarding starched shirts and suits in favor of a distinctly Afro-Colombian look. which she calls a form. of rebellion.
Natural hair. Bold prints. Dresses that show off her curves.
But Ms. Márquez and Mr. Sinisterra are just the most visible ambassadors of an Afro-Colombian aesthetic boom that its supporters say is part of a larger movement demanding greater respect for millions of black Colombians.
In a country where 40% of households live on less than $100 a month – a percentage that has increased during the pandemic – Afro-Colombians are among the poorest groups, the regions where they predominate, including the Pacific coast , among the most neglected by generations of politicians.
Officially, black Colombians represent between 6 and 9% of the population. But many say it’s an undercount that perpetuates a lack of recognition.
“Colonization tried to erase black people,” said Lia Samantha Lozano, 41, who started outfitting her hip-hop and reggae band, Voodoo Souljahs, in African fabrics more than a decade ago. , positioning her as a pioneer of the movement.
In 2014, she became the first black woman to walk the runway at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.
Today, politically-oriented Afro-descendant brands have proliferated on the internet and in stores in Cali, a major center of Afro-Colombian culture, with black celebrities, models, politicians and activists increasingly using more clothing as a political tool. And the Petronio Álvarez Festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian culture that draws hundreds of thousands to Cali, has become the movement’s fashion week.
Ms. Lozano now sells a bright line inspired by hip-hop in a large mall in the capital Bogotá.
“A big part of the plan was to shame us for who we are, our colors, our culture, our traits,” she continued. “Wearing this every day, not as a ‘fashion’, not to dress up for a special occasion, but as a way of life, as something you want to communicate every day — yes, it’s political. And, yes, it is a symbol of resistance.
Among the signatures of the movement are shiny patterned fabrics called wax, which are very popular in West, East and Central Africa and famous for telling stories and sending messages through their images and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, with lipstick tubes, the faces of religious figures, or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)
The Afro-Colombian aesthetic often references nature – Mr. Sinisterra has a dress with wing-like sleeves inspired by the famous Colombian butterflies – and may incorporate elaborate beaded jewelry and bags woven by artists from the many indigenous communities. Columbia.
Leaders of the movement include not only Ms. Márquez, but also Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murraín, 62, a mentor of Mr. Sinisterra who in 2004 launched Weaving Hope, a multi-day celebration of black hair in Cali.
Colombia’s sartorial moment is years, many would say centuries, in the making, drawing on activism in Latin America, Africa and the United States; the baggy street style of hip-hop and the twinkling astral vibrations of Afrofuturism; the turbans of Colombian merchants; the mermaid silhouettes of Senegal and Nigeria; and even the influence of Michelle Obama, who used clothes to make political statements.
The aesthetic is also broad and fluid, including everyday wear – like Consuelo Cruz Arboleda’s signature Baobab tunics – and showpieces like Mr. Sinisterra’s regal imperialism, a tight, strapless dress with ruffles whose grandeur, he says, epitomizes the modern cultural empire that the descendants of Africa have built in the Colombian Pacific.
“We are transforming the image we have of power,” said Edna Liliana Valencia, 36, a popular Afro-Colombian journalist, poet and activist.
Mr. Sinisterra is one of the new stars of this movement. Born into a poor family in the small town of Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé, near the Pacific Ocean, his family was forcibly displaced by armed men at the age of 5, among the millions of Colombians victims of the internal conflict that has been going on for decades.
In the nearby town of Guapi, then in the port city of Buenaventura, Mr. Sinisterra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called “the neighborhood designers”.
“Esteban African,” he said of his clothing line, “started with the need to bring some money home.”
Mr. Sinisterra wanted to study fashion, but his father thought it was only for girls, so he entered college as a social work student.
But he began to make a name for himself by designing increasingly elaborate pieces for a growing list of clients, finding inspiration online, and selling his work on Instagram and Facebook. Then, in 2019, Ms Márquez called. She had been referred to him by a mutual friend and needed an outfit.
Mr. Sinisterra is in his seventh of eight semesters at the university. When he’s not in class, he sews the vice president’s outfits in a windowless room in his little one. apartment in Cali. Her boyfriend, Andrés Mena, 27, is a former nurse who changed careers to become managing director of Esteban African.
Among the brand’s best-known pieces are two pairs of earrings. One presents the map of Colombia, engraved with its 32 departments. A second looks like two golden orbs meant to evoke the mining pools Ms Márquez used as a minor child in the Cauca Mountains near the Pacific coast, long before she became a household name.
Ms Márquez once slept on a dirt floor next to her siblings. She then worked as a maid to support her children, went to law school, and eventually won a prize known as the Environmental Nobel.
In an interview, she called Mr. Sinistera’s work an essential part of his political identity. “He shows young people that they can be successful, using their talent they can get ahead,” she said.
Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. A visit is his dream, in addition to studying fashion in Paris and “building a school where children from the Pacific can have alternatives,” he said, “and their parents, unlike mine, won’t think not that sewing, cutting and making clothes is just for girls.”
Today, he says, his father is proud of his work.
Lately he’s been inundated with media and client inquiries, and he manages his newfound fame by working around the clock.
One day in July, barefoot and sweaty, he laid a pair of fabrics on the floor, cut them freehand, then sewed them together using a new Jinthex sewing machine he had bought with his rising salary. He was making another dress for Ms. Márquez.
On election day in June, he dressed her in kente fabric, a Ghanaian print whose interlocking lines evoke basketry, to symbolize the collection of votes.
The dress had a ruffle on the front, representing the rivers of Ms Márquez’s home region, and the jacket over her shoulders, all white, symbolized peace, he said, “in this country so torn by political positions”.
He made three outfits for inauguration day. “Whatever she chooses is fine with me,” he said.
As he ironed the newly sewn patch, he said he was both excited and anxious about Ms Márquez’s rise to power.
Over the past few months, he has felt like part of her political project and she has made huge promises to transform the country after decades of injustice.
“The responsibility will grow,” he said.
“My responsibility, Francia’s responsibility, to support this process so that the people – our people – don’t feel betrayed.”