Colombia’s first black vice president shines a spotlight on Afro-Caribbean fashion

Colombia’s first black vice president shines a spotlight on Afro-Caribbean fashion

CALI, Colombia — At a high-end fashion event in the coastal city of Buenaventura this year, a pair of tall models strutted down the boardwalk in a red mini dress with a ruffled top inspired by an open seashell and a blue-and-gold dress fit for a modern queen.

The models were black and the fabrics imported from Africa – unusual for a major fashion show in Colombia. But what distinguished them most was the designer himself: Esteban Sinisterra Paz, a 23-year-old university student with no formal design education who is at the center of an Afro-Colombian fashion explosion.

“Decolonizing the human,” is the goal of his work, he said, along with showing the world an expansive view of “the elegance of identity.”

Mr. Sinisterra is the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Márquez, an environmental activist and lawyer who on Sunday will become Colombia’s first black vice president.

In a nation where race and class often define a person’s status, Márquez, 40, has made a remarkable leap from abject poverty to the presidential palace, emerging as the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.

In the space of a few months, she has not only pushed racism and classism to the center of the national conversation, she has also revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, rejecting starched shirts and suits in favor of a distinctly Afro-Colombian look that she calls a shape. of rebellion.

Natural hair. Bold print. Dresses that accentuate her curves.

But Ms. Márquez and Mr. Sinisterra are just the most visible ambassadors of an Afro-Colombian aesthetic boom that advocates say is part of a larger movement that demands greater respect for millions of black Colombians.

In a nation where 40 percent of households live on less than $100 a month — a percentage that has grown during the pandemic — Afro-Colombians are among the poorest groups, with the regions where they dominate, including the Pacific coast, some of the most neglected in generations by politicians.

Officially, black Colombians make up between 6 and 9 percent 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 began outfitting her hip-hop and reggae band, the 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 have a runway show at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.

Today, politically oriented brands by Afro-descendants have proliferated on the internet, and in stores across Cali, an important hub of Afro-Colombian culture, with black celebrities, models, politicians and activists increasingly using clothing as a political tool . And the Petronio Álvarez Festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian culture that draws hundreds of thousands of people to Cali, has emerged as the movement’s fashion week.

Mrs. Lozano now sells a bright, hip-hop-inspired line in a large mall in the capital city of Bogotá.

“A big part of the plan was to make us ashamed of who we are, of our colors, our culture, our features,” she continued. “To wear this every day, not as ‘fashion’, not to dress up for a special occasion, but as a lifestyle, as something you want to communicate every day – yes, it’s political. And, yes, it’s a symbol of resistance.”

Among the signatures of the movement are brightly patterned fabrics called wax, which are very popular in West, East and Central Africa and known for telling stories and sending messages through their images and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, with tubes of lipstick, faces of religious figures or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)

Afro-Colombian aesthetics often refer to nature—Mr. Sinisterra wears a dress with wing-like sleeves inspired by Colombia’s famous butterflies—and can include elaborate beaded jewelry and woven bags by artists from Colombia’s many indigenous communities.

The movement’s leaders include not only Ms. Márquez, but also Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murraín, 62, a mentor to Mr. Sinisterra who in 2004 started 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 shimmering astral vibes of Afrofuturism; the turbans of Colombian market women; the mermaid silhouettes of Senegal and Nigeria; and even the influence of Michelle Obama, who famously used clothes to make political statements.

The aesthetic is also expansive and fluid, including everyday wear—like tunics from the Baobab brand by Consuelo Cruz Arboleda—and showpieces like Mr. Sinisterra’s Royal Imperialism, a tight, ruched strapless dress whose grandeur he said embodies the modern cultural empire the descendants of Africa have constructed 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 among this movement’s newest stars. 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 when he was 5, among the millions of Colombians affected by the country’s decades-long internal conflicts.

In the nearby town of Guapi, and later in the port city of Buenaventura, Sinisterra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called “the designers of the neighborhood.”

“Esteban African,” he said of his clothing line, “began out of a necessity to bring home money.”

Mr. Sinisterra wanted to study fashion, but his father thought it was only for girls, so he entered university as a social work student.

But he began building a name 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, 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 outfit in a windowless room in the small apartment in Cali. His girlfriend, Andrés Mena, 27, is a former nurse who switched careers to become general manager of Esteban African.

Among the brand’s best-known items are two pairs of earrings. One has the map of Colombia, etched with its 32 departments. Another looks like two gold balls meant to evoke the mining pans Ms. Márquez spent as a child miner in the mountains of Cauca, near the Pacific coast, long before she became a household name.

Márquez once slept on a dirt floor next to his siblings. She later 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. Sinisterra’s work a critical part of her political identity. “He shows young people that they can succeed, by using their talent they can get ahead,” she said.

Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. A visit is his dream, along with studying fashion in Paris and “building a school where the kids in the Pacific can have options,” he said, “and their parents, unlike mine, won’t think that sewing and cutting and making clothes is only for girls.”

Today, he said, his father is proud of his work.

Lately, he’s been overwhelmed by media and customer requests, and he’s managing his newfound fame by working around the clock.

One day in July, barefoot and sweaty, he laid a couple of fabrics on the floor, cut them freehand, then sewed them together with a new Jinthex sewing machine he had bought with his now improved salary. He made another dress for Ms. Márquez.

On election day in June, he dressed her in kente cloth, a Ghanaian print whose intertwined lines evoke basket weaving, to symbolize vote-getting.

The dress had a ruffle at the front, representing the rivers of Ms. Márquez’s home region, and the jacket on her shoulders, all white, symbolized peace, he said, “in this country so torn apart by political attitudes.”

He has made three outfits for inauguration day. “Whatever she chooses is fine with me,” he said.

As he ironed the newly stitched piece, he said he was both excited and anxious for Ms. Márquez’s rise to power.

In recent months, he has felt part of her political project, and she has made huge promises to transform the country after decades of injustice.

“The responsibility is going to grow,” he said.

“My responsibility, Francia’s responsibility, to support this process so that the people – our people – do not feel betrayed.”

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