In the Emberá Chamí indigenous community, established in different regions of the Colombian mountain range, “chaquira” beadwork (bead weaving) is an ancient tradition. They turn these colorful fibers beads into handicrafts and designs that embody their religious or cultural beliefs.

Out of the various Emberá Chamí subgroups, there is a very special one that lives in Jardín (Antioquia), a town in northwestern Colombia. There are 11 transsexual women who live in a shelter separated from their indigenous community, who harvest coffee for a living. During their free time they engage in what they learned from childhood: weaving chaquiras.

At the beginning of 2018, designer Laura Laurens arrived in that region, more than 500 kilometers away from Bogotá, referred by a friend. She was so surprised by the craftwork that she compared it to a meditation therapy session; a way for these women to spin their own path, their own human and spiritual transformation.

“Seeing these looms full of figures is like deciphering a binary language that represents what they are as indigenous people and Colombians. It’s just amazing, “recalls the designer, whose career in the industry has allowed her designs to be present in more than 10 countries around the world.”

THE BIRTH OF EMBERÁ CHAMÍ BY LAURA LAURENS

Colombian Fashion
Designer Laura Laurens created “Emberá Chamí”. Photo: InexModa

Laura Laurens’ namesake brand is part of the Colombian Handicrafts fashion program called Moda Viva (Live Fashion), which aims to show the diverse identities and cultures of the country through collections and fashion accessories, in which designers and artisans develop ideas to present them in international markets.

Within this context, a creative and collaborative dialogue took place between Laura and these young ladies, in order to demonstrate that craftsmanship can be translated into the language of fashion as a way to ensure the future of this ancestral technique.

Due to the time constraints between the city and the mountain range, technology was key in these nine months of work. “I sent them the prints by whatsapps and each artisan interpreted it in her own way, making it a unique piece”.

The beadwork was used as appliques (on cuffs, buttons and collars), accessories and within the garment’s own pattern. Accustomed to weaving broken lines and rectangular formats, it was a challenge for the Emberá Chamí ladies to experiment with spikes and curbs.

In her proposal, which she called Emberá Chamí by Laura Laurens, chaquiras were blended with camouflaged military fabrics that Laura reinterpreted and dyed with ecological materials, as a reflexive voice regarding the Colombian armed conflict, a theme that has always been present in her original brand.

With a consumer who cares more to know where the garment comes from and what it represents, it is important for Laura to impact the environment as little as possible. “The fashion industry is the second most pollutant in the world, so part of our responsibility as designers is to look for eco techniques or processes that are as non-invasive as possible. 

Colombian Fashion
Laura Laurens captures the indigenous legacy in her creations. Photo: InexModa

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BCapital, – Inexmoda’s “nomadic” fair, an institute that connects all the actors of Colombia’s fashion system – saw the debut of this clothing line, in which oversized shapes crafted from linen had the leading role.

Currently, the garments are not only in the Laurens showroom located in the Chapinero district of Bogotá. They have also landed on Asian and European soil through concept stores and luxury boutiques.

THEY ARE THEIR OWN VOICE

Laura always wonders what has been the role of clothing in the construction of society. She believes that the answer is to dignify these ancestral trades whose legacy has played a huge part in the fashion market, but that rarely enjoy the recognition they deserve.

For that reason, she moved away from the pyramid concept where the designer “is the one who takes credit for everything”. And that is also why, from the beginning of the project, she clarified that they held the power. “It’s a bilateral relationship where we all benefit financially. None of us is doing the other a favor”.

She also stresses the fact that “it is necessary for this approach between the designer and the artisans to go beyond the work itself”. She believes that our communities need to be portrayed with great respect and honesty.

Colombian Fashion
Laura Laurens was inspired by the work of transsexual women from the Emberá Chamí indigenous community in Jardín (Antioquia). Photo: InexModa

And in that exercise of empowering them, the project has made the story of Roxana, trans leader of the community, a media interest in Latin America and Europe.

It all stems from the recent participation of Laura Laurens in the 2019 British Fashion Council, within the framework of the London Fashion Week, with Wraparounds, (which means anything that can be wrapped), in which the Emberá Chamí’s excellent touch and  craftsmanship shines through once again in every piece.

A SHOWCASE OF ANCESTRAL MASTERS

Another platform created to project and feature the traditional practices of the Colombian Aboriginal peoples and the work of their craftsmen is Maestros Ancestrales(Ancestral Masters).

The initiative of the Colombian magazine Fucsia – with the support of other economic and academic actors – finds its balance point by merging contemporary fashion with the ancestral knowledge of indigenous communities (many of them in extreme vulnerability).

Colombian Fashion
Colombian designer Carolina Sepúlveda. Photo InexModa

After an exhaustive selection process, designer Carolina Sepúlveda, who burst onto the market in 2012, was one of those invited to participate in the second edition of the project. She traveled to the upper Putumayo, to understand the reality and the knowledge of the Inga and Camëntsá peoples, who for decades have fought against mining and armed groups.a

The simbology of corn through woven pieces was one of the starting points of her recent collection entitled Dibujos (Drawings) because she also included the drawings done by the children of the community itself when she asked them what corn meant to them.

Something that captivated her is that they are all unselfish when it comes to sharing their knowledge and although they speak different languages, communication was never a barrier to work hand in hand.

Finding our own language through what is natural is essential to Sepulveda. Creative work with communities matched her understanding and, while she acknowledges that creative work is a long process, the results were well worth it.

“Several tests were made with the techniques of the loom and the flat weave until they obtained the finished look they expected,” she explains. Thus, their garments show geometric forms, pure and organic, in which the iconography of the corn and the children’s drawings blend without causing a visual clash. The collection has had great acceptance, not only in Bogota, but in other cities of Latin America as well.

That is the kind of indigenous language that she wants to replicate in future collections because she is convinced “that these communities deserve full recognition from designers, and with these initiatives, it has become clear that we can co-create together, in a participatory and democratic atmosphere”.

Colombian fashion
One of the collections of Colombian designer Carolina Sepúlveda. Photo: InexModa

AN OUTCRY FOR A RETURN TO THEIR ORIGINS

The position of creator Manuela Álvarez on the importance of aboriginal communities in Colombia, not only in fashion, but in all sectors of society, is compelling: “As time passes we have disconnected ourselves from our ancestral culture and have lost our real identity as Colombians because we are always looking outside”.

This has made it rethink her own identity as a Colombian. “We have the responsibility of preserving our ancestral culture strong, up-to-date and in force; not dilute it by thinking of other cultures”.

Her clothing design brand MAZ is also part of Ancestral Masters and, like Carolina Sepúlveda, she started her creative work with the Inga and Camëntsá communities.

Colombian Fashion
The designer Manuela Álvarez, creator of the firm MAZ. Photo: InexModa

In addition to vertical weaving, both ethnic groups stand out – like the Emberá – for their chaquira beadwork. She used these valuable techniques and included them in her garments, which carry a “contemporary tailoring” style, as described by Manuela herself.

She also wanted to convey this exaltation for the Colombian woman, who is, ultimately, an indigenous woman. She did it with the chumbes, “which are girdles worn by Inga and Camëntsá women to protect the belly”, as an expression of live poetry.

“Primitiva” is the collection that is already known internationally. “This high-quality clothing has a great emotional and social component for whoever buys it. With MAZ, we tell customers, through social media, labels and our website that each garment has an ancestral value, which is made by the indigenous communities of the country, and that is a luxury”.

It is already the second collection coming from the able hands of indigenous communities, presented by Manuela with Ancestral Masters, and within her future plans she intends to continue collaborating with these initiatives.

Colombian fashion
Manuela Álvarez began her creative work with the Inga and Camëntsá communities. Photo: InexModa

ACKNOWLEDGING THE ANCESTRAL LEGACY

The more these brands and designers are attracted to this transformative movement, which involves ancestral practices as a form of cooperation and equality, without falling into the sin of cultural appropriation, the greater the chances of Colombia of gaining visibility as an exporter of pieces with identity.

Leonor Hoyos, connections director of Inexmoda, – organizing institution of 2 of the most important fashion gatherings in the country, such as ColombiaModa and BCapital – explains that there is an international audience specialized in the search for a design with a unique seal.

“There is real recognition for our designers and for the identity and culture products that are unique and attractive in the international market and we have been able to measure that with the post-event approaches we make after each annual fair”, she assures.

Inexmoda has promoted sustainability seen from all fronts. “When you talk about sustainability, it’s not just about the environment; there are other pillars such as the social and the cultural, which are fundamental in connecting with the consumer”.

Hoyos believes that fashion is dynamic, it is a way of telling stories and a powerful vehicle for communicating many situations and phenomena. In this case, it is the visible resource and platform to showcase and honor the legacy of Colombia’s ancestral communities.

It is undeniable that the fashion industry and the artisans are ‘weaving’ the future of Colombian industry in the world.

Article written by Alicia Pepe