Edited 3/15/13: Courtesy of the WayBack Machine, I was able to recreate this entry. In my defense, I did look there after I learned this entry had disappeared but I must not have been using it properly.
ColombiaModa is a large show with buyers and lines coming from all points of the globe (but nearly all Latin American) but nothing on the scale of MAGIC. I think that’s a good thing. Unlike the latter, you can see all of it. That said, one of the services Proexport provides is an “agenda”; a list of suggested booths or people to meet, tailored to the individual visitor. On a personal level, the idea of having someone -an agency no less- arrange my contacts rankled. While opposed to anarchy as a matter of principle, it’s probably more characteristic of my practices than I’d ever care to admit. As it happens, I found the agenda quite useful and would recommend that you avail yourself to the (free) service should the opportunity be provided. Great care was taken to provide me with a listing of companies that matched my interests. That’s not to say I didn’t find others on my own. One is free to deviate from the agenda.
The reason I think to mention this is because my first meeting (my only appointment) was with a designer I would not have had cause to meet otherwise. She didn’t have a booth at the show (long story) and came in just to meet me. That made me feel special; I hope it was worth her while. Her name is Maria Luisa Ortiz and she is probably the most famous designer in all of Colombia. Her photo is above right.
Talking with Maria Luisa was like meeting with an old friend and a colleague who’s been in the trade for years. Despite culture, language (her English was perfect) and distance, I could have been talking to any of you. Amazing how stories remain the same. Now a bit about her and how she started.
Maria Luisa was born in Medellin but her family moved to Bogota when she was young. Her father was a banker and her mother, who died of a brain tumor when Maria was 18, was Colombia’s first fashion designer. Officially second generation in the trade, she started working with her mother when she was 13. Working underage in a parent’s enterprise is common, even in the U.S.. We joked a bit about that. If child labor is institutionalized among company owners, why would we discriminate against hiring our friends or neighbor’s children? I kid, I kid. We laughed a lot about that. Anyway, just before her mother died, she decided she wanted to be a designer too. Her mom had known a Danish designer who’d attended the famous Chamber Syndicale school, alma mater to many great couturiers and inquired how Maria might attend. Long story short, that’s where she went. Her first year was spent learning French. This was followed by three more years of coursework. While there, Maria took first place in the prestigious “Dentelle de Calais” fashion competition. After graduation, she worked at Dior and La Croix where she says “the magic is done”. She says the latter designer is so gifted, it gave her goosebumps watching him work.
She left Paris and moved to Los Angeles and tried to break into the business of becoming a fashion designer for movies. Open to anything, she knocked on doors for six months. She did do one film and individual commissions but returned to Colombia because her results weren’t commensurate with her efforts. I don’t mean that last sentence a way it could perhaps be interpreted. She has no sense of entitlement and strikes me as working inordinately hard. Upon returning home, her father got down to brass tacks and reminded her that her mother started right at the kitchen table. He bought her a sewing machine and as she puts it, threw her “off the deep end of the swimming pool” -which is how she came to launch her own line. She says she barely survived for ten years, working like a “mad cow”. Her stitchers would finish work at five and she’d stay till one in the morning, sewing what they hadn’t finished. She says it’s still hard going. She says that although she’s Colombia’s most famous fashion designer, “nobody knows her”. She means that the demographic slice with the means to buy haute couture garments, don’t find her prestigious or exotic enough to collect; local people don’t see the value. They never do; you’re never a prophet in your home town. It has got to be very tough that one is educated in world class facilities but has to consider export to get any recognition or revenue.
Over the past three years, pragmatism has set in. She’s scaled back on couture offerings and launched a line of high end lingerie called Cecibelle which she hopes to market domestically and abroad. Her price points seem very competitive and her marketing materials are first rate so she should do well once she’s formed contacts in the U.S. and Europe. The only sticking point I could see with her line were minimums (which I didn’t notice until after the fact and would have mentioned if I’d known). Perhaps those are standard in Colombia but $5,000 USD is very high in the U.S., particularly for a new vendor.
Overall, I was surprised at how few domestic manufacturers (DEs) exported, the hang up being finding representation abroad. Toward that end, she is enrolled in ProExport’s export tutorial program. My suggestion was to attend MAGIC on a scouting trip to see if she could connect with some road reps. Neither she, nor any of the others I interviewed, had ever heard of the show. I also recommended that she connect with Leah Wiley. It would be really neat if some of you would meet up with Maria at MAGIC next February. She says she’s going to join our forum so this could be really cool. You’ll like her.