Byline: Georgia Lee

MIAMI — Fashion Week of the Americas — four days of high-energy South Beach events — succeeded as a showcase for Latin America’s considerable design talent. But, given the dearth of national buyers, designers looking for a trade-show toehold in American retail were mostly preaching to the choir.
Designers showcasing their wares were certainly enthusiastic about the event; however, they wished for a greater representation of retailers and implored organizers to develop and promote a more significant business element in the future.
The week was produced by Miami’s Sobol Fashion Production Inc. along with 40 government and corporate sponsors and expanded on last year’s International Fashion Week, the first attempt to present Latin American designers to U.S. buyers and press. The 1999 show was held at the Miami International Merchandise Mart.
This year’s event, which ran April 6 to 8 in a trendier South Beach venue, highlighted 25 designers from 11 countries in South America and the Caribbean in continuous individual and collective fashion shows.
Wednesday’s kick-off featured Chilean designer Ruben Campos, who received a “New Star in Fashion” award from Miami’s ultra-upscale Mayor’s jewelers. Campos hopes to follow the path of his friend Angel Sanchez, a South American designer now carried in better American stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Fashion Week culminated Saturday night with an appearance by Oscar de la Renta, a native of the Domenican Republic. Along with around 1,000 visitors, de la Renta sat in the audience to view his fall collection.
Nobody could fault the hype and excitement of the shows, held at the Level, a hip South Beach nightspot, and in nearby tents. Saturday night’s energy was palpable, as dozens were turned away at the tent’s entrance by headset-wearing security guards in Italian suits. Inside, scantily clad women kept champagne flowing for the audience while music by Ricky Martin, Carlos Santana Marc Anthony blasted from the speakers. The runway action was at times hilarious — part of the silver “Oscar de la Renta” logo, stuck on the back wall, kept falling down. After the second time, de la Renta stuck the fallen letters s-c-a-r to his chest, telling the audience it was all part of a promotion for his new perfume, called “O.”
Producer Beth Sobol, who has launched fashion shows in Miami and throughout South America, estimated total weeklong attendance at 10,000 and registered media at around 350. But numbers included the public, which plunked down $25 a day and $150 for the de la Renta show. Media, with a few exceptions, were mostly Latin American publications like Vanidades, which is based here and was also a sponsor.
Fall collections ran the gamut from Ruben Campos’s sleek, sophisticated $2,000 evening gowns to Trinidad designer Yoko Fung’s S&M-inspired leathers, complete with whips as accessories. Heavy on dramatic eveningwear — most designers started out with a custom clientele — the collections here also featured plenty of the python pants, mohair sweaters and sheer layering pieces from a growing group of young contemporary designers.
But an accompanying exhibition at a nearby facility on Ocean Drive, intended as a trade show to attract buyers, was all but deserted during the entire week. Participants, including producer Sobol, acknowledged the need to develop the business side of Fashion Week of the Americas, through possible coordination with trade show organizations in the future. The event will become biannual this fall, starting with an Oct. 25-29 show at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
In an interview before his show, de la Renta acknowledged the difficulty penetrating the U.S. market. He encouraged designers to back up collections with strong business plans and production capabilities, and he stressed identity as a designer first, a Latin American second.
“This is a great opportunity, but Miami should invite stores, not just the press, and designers should also visit areas where there are big markets,” he advised. Of the designers showing here, he said Ruben Campos and Colombia’s Silvia Tcherassi were ready to break out successfully in the the U.S.
Oscar de la Renta said Latin American designers’ penchant for high-end eveningwear was predictable.
“It’s typical of designers everywhere,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the opulence of showing dramatic evening gowns, when sometimes a simple sweater and skirt can be just as challenging and beautiful.”
Local retailers attending the show, including Sonia Gibson, special events manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bal Harbor, said she was impressed with Campos’s eveningwear, Venezuelan Oscar Carvallo’s mixed textures and Peru’s Ani Alvarez Calderon’s modern design. She also cited Carlos Molina, an Ecuadoran shoe designer who created footwear for all the shows. Gibson said she would recommend her favorites to the Saks buying team in New York.
“There’s some great talent here, and this is exciting for Miami, but with competition so fierce in the U.S., the event needs to become more of a trade show, along with a fashion show,” said Gibson.
Designers pointed out the glaring differences as well as the increasing similarities in doing business in the U.S. and South America. Some, particularly those with Miami connections, stressed the importance of sheding stereotypes or stigmas associated with Latin America. Others, celebrities in their own countries, were baffled as to how to break in here.
Couture designer Hernan Zajar, a native of Bogata, Colombia, designed a ready-to-wear line for the U.S. that includes sportswear and jeans and will move production to Miami. In Colombia, where he has four stores, business is quite different from in the U.S.
“I’m a prima donna there, and just a number here,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Here, it’s all about money, not just whether you come from a good family.”
While many Latin American designers at the show cater to wealthy custom clients — women who seek to outdo each other with the most opulent, most exclusive gowns — a few young designers are building businesses aimed at an emerging middle-class woman with different values.
“My customer is a woman who might work for a living,” said Liz Cardenas, a twentysomething Ecuadorean designer who bucks the sexy-glamour stereotype. “She has substance, and she’s not just a sexy showoff. My clothes prove you don’t have to be half-naked to make a statement.”
Victoria Lopez Castro, a Cuban-American designer with a 3,000-square-foot store here, who also sells to local boutiques, said the show did not bring the contacts she had hoped for. Most of the photographers and press at each show were Latin American media covering their own native designers, she said, and buyers were limited to a few local store representatives.
“It doesn’t help expand our U.S. businesses to show mainly to the Latin press,” she said. “Fashion Week needs to target more U.S. media and get more buyers through incentives. It’s competitive enough in New York. It will take years, and more than fashion shows, to develop Miami as a fashion center.”