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Colombia’s first black vice president shines a light on Afro-Caribbean fashion




CALI, Colombia At a premier fashion event in the coastal town of Buenaventura this year, two towering models strutted down the boardwalk in red minidresses with an open seashell-inspired fluted top and a blue dress and gold fit for a modern queen.

The models were black and the fabrics imported from Africa, unusual for a big fashion show in Colombia. But what sets them apart the most is the creator himself: Esteban Sinisterra Paza A 23-year-old college student with no formal design training who is at the center of an Afro-Colombian fashion explosion.

The decolonization of the human being is the goal of his work, he said, while showing the world an expanded view of the elegance of identity.

Mr. Sinisterra is the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Mrquez, an environmental activist and lawyer who will become Colombia’s first black vice president on Sunday.

In a country where race and class often define a person’s status, Ms. Mrquez, 40, has made a remarkable leap from deep poverty to the presidential palace, becoming the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.

Within months, she not only pushed racism and classism to the center of the national conversation, but she also revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, discarding starched shirts and suits in favor of a distinctly Afro-Colombian look. which she calls a form. of rebellion.

Natural hair. Bold prints. Dresses that show off her curves.

But Ms. Mrquez and Mr. Sinisterra are just the most visible ambassadors of an Afro-Colombian aesthetic boom that its supporters say is part of a larger movement demanding greater respect for millions of black Colombians.

In a nation where 40 percent of households live on less than $100 a month, a percentage that has increased during the pandemic. Afro-Colombians are among the poorest groups, the regions where they predominate, notably the Pacific coast, being among the most neglected by generations of politicians.

Officially, black Colombians form between 6 and 9% Population. But many say it’s an undercount that perpetuates a lack of recognition.

Colonization tried to erase black people, said Lia Samantha Lozano41, who started outfitting his hip-hop and reggae band, souljah voodooin African fabrics more than ten years ago, positioning her as a pioneer of the movement.

In 2014, she became the first black woman to walk the runway at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.

Today, politically-oriented Afro-descendant brands have proliferated on the internet and in stores in Cali, a major center of Afro-Colombian culture, with black celebrities, models, politicians and activists increasingly using more clothing as a political tool. And the Petronio Ivarez Festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian culture that draws hundreds of thousands to Cali, has become the movement’s fashion week.

Ms. Lozano now sells a bright line inspired by hip-hop in a large mall in the capital Bogotá.

A big part of the plan was to shame us for who we are, our colors, our culture, our traits, she continued. Wearing it every day, not as fashion, not to dress up for a special occasion, but as a way of life, as something you want to communicate every day yes, it’s political. And, yes, it is a symbol of resistance.

Among the signatures of the movements are shiny patterned fabrics called wax, which are very popular in West, East and Central Africa and famous for telling stories and sending messages through their images and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, with lipstick tubes, the faces of religious figures, or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)

Afro-Colombian aesthetics often refer to nature. Mr. Sinisterra has a dress with wing-like sleeves inspired by Colombia’s famous butterflies and can incorporate elaborate beaded jewelry and bags woven by artists from many of Colombia’s indigenous communities.

Leaders of the movements include not only Ms. Mrquez, but also Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murran, 62, a mentor of Mr. Sinisterras who in 2004 launched Weaving Hope, a multi-day celebration of black hair in Cali.

Colombia’s sartorial moment is years, many would say centuries, in the making, drawing on activism in Latin America, Africa and the United States; the baggy street style of hip-hop and the twinkling astral vibrations of Afrofuturism; the turbans of Colombian merchants; the mermaid silhouettes of Senegal and Nigeria; and even the influence of Michelle Obama, who used clothes to make political statements.

The aesthetic is also broad and fluid, including everyday wear like the brand’s tunics. Baobab by Consuelo Cruz Arboleda and showpieces like Mr. Sinisterras Royal Imperialism, a tight, ruffled strapless dress whose grandeur he says epitomizes the modern cultural empire that the descendants of Africa have built in the Colombian Pacific.

We transform the image we have of power, said Edna Liliana Valencia36 years old, popular Afro-Colombian journalist, poet and activist.

Mr. Sinisterra is one of the new stars of this movement. Born into a poor family in the small town of Santa Brbara de Iscuand, near the Pacific Ocean, his family was forcibly displaced by armed men at the age of 5, among the millions of Colombians victims of the internal conflict that has been going on for decades.

In the nearby town of Guapi and then the port town of Buenaventura, Mr. Sinisterra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called the neighborhood designers.

Esteban African, he said of his clothing line, started out of a need to bring money home.

Mr. Sinisterra wanted to study fashion, but his father thought it was only for girls, so he entered college as a social work student.

But he began to make a name for himself by designing increasingly elaborate pieces for a growing list of clients, finding inspiration online, and selling his work on Instagram and Facebook. Then, in 2019, Ms. Mrquez called. She had been referred to him by a mutual friend and needed an outfit.

Mr. Sinisterra is in his seventh of eight semesters at the university. When he’s not in class, he sews VP outfits in a windowless room in his little one. apartment in Cali. Her boyfriend, Andrs Mena, 27, is a former nurse who changed careers to become managing director of Esteban African.

Among the brand’s best-known items are two pairs of earrings. One presents the map of Colombia, engraved with its 32 departments. A second looks like two golden orbs meant to evoke the mining pools Mrs. Mrquez used as a minor child in the Cauca Mountains near the Pacific coast, long before she became a household name.

Mrs. Mrquez once slept on a dirt floor next to her siblings. She then worked as a maid to support her children, went to law school, and eventually won a prize known as the Environmental Nobel.

In an interview, she called Mr. Sinisterras’ work an essential part of his political identity. It shows young people that they can be successful, using their talent they can get ahead, she said.

Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. A visit is his dream, in addition to studying fashion in Paris and building a school where children from the Pacific can have alternatives, he said, and their parents, unlike mine, will not think that sewing , cutting and making clothes is reserved for girls. .

Today, he says, his father is proud of his work.

Lately, he’s been inundated with media and client inquiries, and he’s managing his newfound fame by working around the clock.

One day in July, barefoot and sweaty, he laid a pair of fabrics on the floor, cut them freehand, then sewed them together using a new Jinthex sewing machine he had bought with his rising salary. He was making another dress for Mrs. Mrquez.

On election day in June, he dressed her in kente fabric, a Ghanaian print whose interlocking lines evoke basketry, to symbolize the collection of votes.

The dress had a ruffle on the front, representing the rivers of the region of origin of Mrs. Mrquez, and the jacket on her shoulders, all white, symbolized peace, he said, in this country so torn by political postures.

He made three outfits for inauguration day. Whatever she chooses is fine with me, he said.

As he ironed the newly sewn patch, he said he was both excited and anxious about Ms Mrquez’s rise to power.

Over the past few months, he has felt like part of her political project and she has made huge promises to transform the country after decades of injustice.

Accountability will grow, he said.

My responsibility, Francia’s responsibility, to support this process so that our people do not feel betrayed.




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