May 19, 2014

"Taller Flora" Book Review

Indigenous fashionI am reading Taller Flora - a book compiled by fashion artist Carla Fernández. I first became aware of Fernández's work on my recent trip to the East Coast when I took a day trip to Boston and visited Fernandez's fashion exhibit. Though it was a small show, it had a great impact on me. The exhibit was titled Carla Fern├índez: The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community and explored how the traditions and techniques of Indigenous Mexican artists can be applied to modern fashion and styles.

I loved how Fernández combined Indigenous traditional clothing with avant-garde styling, ancient technology with new techniques, and sketchbooks with anthropological books, and it all made sense. It wasn't awkward, it was seamless and beautiful. It wasn't pushy, it was cool.

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I wanted to touch the fabrics, try on the shoes, watch all the videos, create my own videos, pour over all her sketch books. I wanted to start beading again. I wanted to meet all the artists with whom she worked.

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She had many books there on display, and Taller Flora was one of them. I had to own it. I flipped through it, but I had to read it. So I ordered it online, and I am reading it now.

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Taller Flora is a project headed up by Fernández that involves researching Indigenous clothing techniques, workshops with Indigenous artisans, and designing couture and ready-to-wear garments based upon the research and workshops. The results are exciting. 

Indigenous fashion

One of the key concepts that Fernández highlights is geometry. A very cool idea, she points out that nearly every Tzeltal, Mixtec, Nahua, Huicholes and other Mexican Indigenous traditional garment begins as a square or rectangle. This draws off of the practice of weaving with a backstrap loom (and thus creating rectangular shaped fabric pieces) but the concept continues to this day even though the materials are not created on a loom, because, as the artists explain, "It's our custom." This concept of geometry then may be the part that makes a garment 'Indigenous.' Fernández plays with this idea and the results are insanely cool.

But back to the book. 

Fernández does an amazing job when describing the entire weaving process from beginning to end, from the cotton still in the pod, to creating the warp and loom, to weaving the intricate designs, to rolling up the loom at the end of the work day. She then goes on to describe the Indigenous clothing of pre-Hispanic origin and of Mestizo origin.

This information is vital to set up what's to come at the end of the book. Through diagrams, drawings, photographs, definitions and descriptions, you can almost see her thought process of how the basics of Indigenous design are perfect for haute couture. Your mind begins to think, "Which core concepts can be adapted for contemporary use? What assets can Indigenous technology and worldview offer the global fashion industry?"

And, "How can we translate this information without slipping into yet another situation of extraction?" - in other words, how can we respect the artisans as true creative artists and not merely as sweatshop workers replicating an outsider's design to be consumed by outsiders? These extraction practices, cloaked as innocent attempts to help 'the underprivileged' continue to this day. They happen in Mexico, yes, but also in New Mexico, Oregon, and New York. Fernández knows the artists have much to teach her, and she views this rightfully as an asset. (Note: Click images to zoom)

She states, "Creativity is encouraged but new models of production are never imposed." The artists, she notes, introduce the changes and invent new styles.

She further explains, "Traditional garments often merely need a 'nudge' to be transposed into the world of fashion." Through minimal alterations - changing the color, size, or thickness, or adding belt loops, etc - the garments then become attractive to someone who is unfamiliar with this type of clothing.

The book was published in 2006 in a limited edition, so snatch it up now and get inspired. It's a hardcover book and beautifully produced. Think about your own heritage - what core clothing and adornment concepts of your ancestors can you apply in today's fashion world? Think deep, look deep to the core - what maintains? Why? How can you nudge those traditional aspects? The possibilities, I think, are endless and are very, very exciting.