Esteban Cortazar RTW Spring 2017

Colombia’s fashion industry is coming of age with designers such as Johanna Ortiz and Esteban Cortazar generating buzz in New York and Paris, selling in Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods and opening stores worldwide.

“We are immersed in a very interesting process,” said Martha Cálad, fashion trends and consulting director at Medellín-based fashion and export institute Inexmoda. Colombian designers are attracting attention by blending indigenous craftsmanship and artisan culture into contemporary collections that talk a global language, she added.

“We have found our fashion soul in the past five to 10 years,” Cálad said, adding that top beachwear, underwear and denim brands such as Agua Bendita [Holy Water], Onda de Mar, Leonisa or Studio F are boosting U.S. and global exports and opening shops in Latin America.

Still, she tempered some views that the nation has become a top-10 global fashion market, adding: “We are second to Brazil but for us to be in the top 10, we would need many more designers to be at a higher level.”

Inexmoda is working to make that happen with its incubator programs Epica and El Cubo gaining traction in recent months and several emerging designers showing “unique styles and prints” during the latest Colombiamoda fashion week earlier this  year. One of the program’s protégés, Jorge Orozco, won kudos for his punk- and goth-inspired “Desamor” [“Heartbreak”] collection during the show, joining other favorite beachwear brand Awa.

Orozco and dozens of other new designers also showed during Inexmoda’s B Capital, a new business-to-consumer platform featuring 70 designers and 50 pop-up stores targeting consumers in Colombia’s capital, Bogota.

“Bogota has 38 percent of Colombia’s fashion consumption so we wanted to do something to reconnect Bogotans with fashion, said Inexmoda’s chief executive officer Carlos Botero.

B Capital competes with the recently relaunched Bogota Fashion Week that is also aiming for a piece of Colombia’s 19 billion-peso, or $6 billion at current exchange, fashion apparel market. Botero said the show focuses more on new talent from the city and hosts industry conferences.

Bogota Fashion Week, which drew 10,000 in its latest fall edition, is more “traditional” and focused on promoting national designers in runway shows where consumers can buy collections backstage, according to curator Pilar Luna, who said the event delivered close to $100,000 in sales.

Emboldened by their country’s recent transition into peace and prosperity — including the recent signing of another peace deal between the government and leftist rebels — Colombian designers have traveled and studied abroad to develop their craft, market experts said.

Cloclo Echavarria, owner of Creo Consulting, which markets Colombian and Latin American brands around the world, said some designers are setting off trends.

“Johanna Ortiz marked a trend with the off-shoulder tops she introduced in spring 2014,” said Echavarria, adding that socialites including Bianca Brandolini carry Hunting Season’s exotic leather Trunk bags. Mercedes’ Salazar “statement earrings,” made of acrylic or silver dipped in gold and inspired by different Colombian artisan communities, have also generated attention, she claimed, as has handbag brand M2Malletier.

“Colombian designers are in the international scene,” she said, adding that a string of new names has been increasing their presence in New York, London and Paris since 2014.

For example, “Aquazzura and Esteban Cortazar show in Paris. Cortazar has a beautiful atelier in Rue Rivoli that can compete with any other designer’s and he is selling in Colette, which is one of the hardest stores to get into.”

Echavarria, who also represents El Salvador and Brazilian brands Piamita and Isolda, respectively, said Colombian designers don’t want to be limited by their heritage or artisan influences.

“We don’t want to be identified as strictly Colombian,” said Echavarria, who is Colombian but lives in London. “We are an international culture that travels and our designs stand out not just because they are Colombian. While we use a lot of artisanal methods, that’s not the only proposal we have.”

High-end women’s designer Pepa Pombo, which sells in New York boutique Fivestory and Moda Operandi, is an example.

“Pepa Pombo is handmade…and some of the stitching in her dresses can take 90 hours to make. You can call it artisanal couture, but it’s also just well-made and well-crafted fashion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be called artisanal,” Echavarria said.

Claire Distenfeld, owner of Fivestory, which carries Pepa Pombo, Cortazar and Mercedes Salazar, said Colombian designers are bringing “super unique and authentic” silhouettes that are well received by her clients.

“Colombia was in a place where no one was looking at it, but its designers have infiltrated themselves into the fashion world in the last year and a half. They are in the spotlight and wowing the fashion world,” she said.

Colombian design is also “very well made, very artisanal and at an accessible price point,” Distenfeld added. “They don’t compromise on quality and their product is really price competitive. As a retailer, that is the first thing that opened my eyes” about Colombian brands, which she has been carrying for several seasons.

Ortiz, whose evening dresses retail for up to $4,000, said “This is the best time for Colombian fashion. Colombian designers offer something different and many have studied abroad and returned to Colombia to build their businesses.”

Ortiz, who studied fashion design at Fort Lauderdale’s Art Institute in the U.S., is one of them. Her elegant and feminine designs with a festive edge have earned her a following internationally, where she plans to roll out eight doors this year including the Saks Fifth Avenue debut of her latest resort collection and new areas in Neiman Marcus.

“Fashion has to be fun and you have to have fun with it,” said the 42-year-old of her designs. “Not everyone is going to go to lunch with a top full of ruffles but for me that is the ideal way to wear something out of the ordinary and mark a difference.”

With sales of about $6 million annually, Ortiz hopes to open 10 doors by 2019 to take her count to nearly 50. Most openings will be aimed at consolidating her presence in key markets. Apart from New York, Ortiz stocks her clothes at Harrods and Selfridges in London, as well as in Bon Marché and Colette in Paris. She also has doors in Asia and the Middle East, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Dubai and Qatar. Ortiz is set to launch a retrospective capsule collection with Moda Operandi in December.

With 150 workers in her Cali, Colombia, factory, Ortiz makes 5,000 garments a season, employing low-income women to offer them career opportunities.

She rejected rumors that she underpays workers, noting that her salaries exceed Colombia’s minimum wage while she offers more social benefits.

Meanwhile, men’s wear label Jon Sonen is also eyeing expansion, taking on much bigger archrival Arturo Calle. Simultaneously, Grupo Crystal is enlarging its Punto Blanco (for which it recently launched a separate sportswear banner) and GEF underwear and ready to wear labels, respectively, mostly in Central America, while shapewear brand Leonisa continues to grow globally.

Sonen, which sells Caribbean-inspired clothing, hopes to open 40 points of sale to take its count to 240 by 2018, founding designer Jon Sonen told WWD during Colombiamoda.

The bulk of the expansion will focus on Mexico, where 10 standalone stores are planned, while the firm will look to deepen its foothold in the U.S. and its territories where it already sells in Nordstrom and in Saks in Puerto Rico.

Sonen, which has 34 standalone units in Colombia and doors across Central America, specializes in classic men’s suits, with its latest collection of straw-linen looks harking back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Colombia retailing for around $800.

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