By  on March 14, 2005

NEW YORK — If Mariana Cortés has her way, Argentina’s greatest export will be — Borges, beef and the tango aside — thongs, as well as briefs, bikini bottoms and granny panties.

But any old knicker won’t do. Cortés prefers her brand of kicky, homespun innerwear to bear the “Made in Argentina” tag.

From her boutique on El Salvador Street in Palermo, a district of Buenos Aires, Cortés designs the kind of unmentionables that come straight out of a party piñata. Juana de Arco, the name of her seven-year-old line, which translates to “Joan of Arc,” is part kitsch and part whimsy, where a single undergarment comes in a rainbow of colors — all bright, as is the Argentines’ wont. A multicolor polkadot thong, for example, has different colors for the lining and the hem.

Her bottoms, which she named “Your South,” come in 13 silhouettes. Retailing for $25 and up, they range from the typical undie to thongs with side streamers. Cortés said the diversity in selection initially arose more out of necessity than creative freedom.

“In the beginning, business was hard,” said Cortés, referring to her country’s economic hardships, especially the crisis of 2001. “Not many people would come visit, so the few clients I had, well, I had to keep doing new designs for them. I had clients who also must have been panty fanatics because they would have, like, 50 pairs.”

What once began with three bikinis has become a full-fledged brand. Juana de Arco — a name, she said came spontaneously to her — now includes bra tops and camis (what she calls “Your North”), loungewear and ready-to-wear, as well as shoes, handbags and rugs. Innerwear, however, will always be her focus, she said.

In many ways, Juana de Arco can be compared with Project Alabama of the American South. Again citing Argentina’s fiscal troubles, which led to high unemployment, Cortés said she began the company in large part to help create jobs within her community. To that end, she enlists the aid of local Palermo artisans, as well as those in the neighboring towns of Arribeños and Florencio Varela, which explains the arts-and-crafts feel of her products. To wit, her rtw pieces include artsy fare such as a polyp-friendly tube top and chunky knits with miscellaneous egg-shaped appliqués.One-third of her Palermo boutique is a white-walled gallery, where the works of local and up-and-coming artists are displayed on a rotating three-week basis. Cortés is also something of an installation artist herself, having recently completed a large nest-shaped still life with her Florencio Varela craftsmen. Measuring 86 square feet and made from knotted leftover scraps of fabric used in her shop, Proyecto Nido (Nest Project) was hung high up in a tree during February’s Campo Konex Festival, an interdisciplinary cultural festival held in Carlos Keen in Buenos Aires.

“The art world nourishes me,” Cortés said.

Still, that’s not stopping her from her commercial endeavors. In November, Cortés opened her first boutique in Barcelona and another in Tokyo late last month.

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