MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Camila Ortega, the daughter of socialist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, launched Nicaragua Disena in 2011 to help promote the country’s poor yet talented emerging designers. But what started as a pet project has become a growing event drawing 12,000 people, providing regional designers with a promotion platform and attracting international design schools.
The event’s popularity (the government was said to invest $100,000 in the 2015 edition that closed last weekend) comes as other fashion weeks are mushrooming in Central America, with Panama and Costa Rica hosting large events under the Mercedes-Benz banner and El Salvador and Guatemala developing their own iterations.
“We want to bring this to a higher level and become the leading design platform in Central America,” said Ortega, 27. As Nicaragua Design director, Ortega has a modeling hobby and walked several runways in a 30-strong lineup, including local designers Shantall Lacayo and Erick Bendana, as well as Argentina’s Paula Tierr and Venezuela’s Carmela Osorio.
While the event will remain a fashion design platform, it will also seek to promote talent in other areas, including interior design, film, craftsmanship and arts, Ortega said. This year there were 88 designers and 75 stands, compared with 75 and 50, respectively, in 2014.
She said Managua is also considering offering scholarships and other financial aid to the country’s new designers. A fashion school or other training university is in the works.
That’s where Savannah College of Art and Design comes in. SCAD was in town as part of a strategy to boost Latin American recruits by 70 percent by 2020, from about 130 students admitted last year.
Global recruiter and international design consultant Carmela Spinelli led a marketing and social responsibility campaign called SCAD-Fashion Design Workshop. Under a five-day challenge, 10 aspiring designers went through a sewing boot camp to come up with a special collection (introduced through an emotive documentary in the new Cinemateca film school) that drew praise from the audience.
“We want governments to see that if they invest in their own designers, they can develop their creative economy,” said Spinelli, adding that SCAD is talking with the government to come up with a scholarship initiative. Explaining the region’s recruitment potential, she added, “Latin America is a very important demographic where 70 percent of people are under 25. We love their artisan culture, aesthetic sensibility and passion. You can’t teach passion.”
Already, SCAD has offered partial tuition to five Honduran designers after making a similar trip to Honduras last year, said Latin American recruiter Franyel Zelaya, adding there are plans to visit Mexico next year and Guatemala, Dominican Republic and even Cuba down the road.
Zelaya said the school, whose fashion programs cost around $35,000 annually, will also offer half-tuition to nine Honduran design teachers and hopes to do something similar in Nicaragua.
Underpinned by growing economies and consumption, Central America (and Latin America as a whole) is ripe for designer development and financing. “Fashion design is growing and needs local promotion platforms,” said Leonora Jimenez, director of Costa Rica’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. “There are no regional policies to promote national products, but people are starting to see value in artisanal clothing with a national identity and proposal; also, clothing that adapts to our two rain and summer Caribbean seasons.”
Jimenez said the MBFW twin editions in San José and the Guanacaste beach resort should draw 9,000 people this year, up from the much smaller single edition launched in 2012. New York designer Charles Harbison will close the Guanacaste edition held right before New Year’s. The last San José edition featured Parisian designers On Aura Tout Vu, as well as Mexico’s Man Candy and Peru’s Sergio Davila.
Jimenez hopes to draw 30 international buyers next year, compared with 15 in 2015 (including Barneys New York) to the event, which lured nearly $400,000 in sponsor financing last year.
Jimenez envisages a day when a regional Central American Fashion Week could take place, adding that she is in discussions with Ortega (for a possible designer swap next year) and hopes to enter similar talks with others including Panama (which is hosting its Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Panama later this month) in the future.