A Bolivian designer is looking to export the outfits worn by his nation’s indigenous women to European fashion capitals.
Centuries ago, Spanish colonizers forced their Bolivian servants to wear the puffy skirts that have come to symbolize the country’s “cholitas”, or indigenous women.
Today, one local designer is turning the tables with plans to export high-end cholita fashion — blossoming skirts, bowler hats and intricately woven shawls — to Madrid, Paris and beyond.
Fresh off her first show at New York Fashion Week, Eliana Pa co, a 34- year-old indigenous Aymara designer, is ready to bring her take on a once stigmatized style to the world.
Cholitas — a diminutive of “chola”, a sometimes derogatory world for a woman from Bolivia’s indigenous majority — were once seen as a silent underclass of maids and manual laborers.
But in a changing Bolivia currently governed by its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, Paco said she sees the traditional women’s costume as a symbol of “identity and pride.”
She has already made her mark on the local fashion scene, where TV presenters and cabinet ministers often sport the indigenous look, updated and embellished.
Her mission now is to “use that sophisticated touch to cross borders,” she told AFP.
She took a big step in September in New York, where she made headlines with her latest collection, “Pachamama” (“Mother Earth”, in the Quechua language).
“It’s the first time a chola women’s suit has arrived on the runway. There were 12 international models wearing our designs,” she said.
Paco’s exuberant dresses, vibrant shawls and gravitydefying bowlers captured industry insiders’ attention.
“I love cholita clothing. It reminds me a lot of Yves Saint Laurent and the best era of Armani, when he used bowler hats,” said Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.
“I would love to take (Paco’s designs) to Madrid, to Paris,” she told AFP in Lima, Peru, where she was presenting her own collection.
“Until now there had never been a cholita with the marketing sense she has.”
Paco said she sees an international market for her designs.
“I think it’s possible European women could use the shawls or hats for everyday wear,” said the designer.
She envisions her shawls accessorizing Western dresses or jeans, she said.
Paco, the daughter of two artisans, takes pride in the quality of her designs.
Her colorful “aguayo” shawls are hand-woven with naturally dyed alpaca or vicuna wool. The best ones take a team of three people two weeks to finish.
The below-the-knee skirts have three or four layers, each using up to six meters of fabric. They can weigh up to 10 kilograms.
A full outfit can cost $200 to $4,300.
For special occasions, members of Bolivia’s newly wealthy “cholita elite” add gold or silver pins, brooches and jewels that can add thousands of dollars to the price tag.
“Tome (the outfit) symbolizes culture, identity, pride and work, because chola women work long and hard,” said Paco, a mother of three.
“It’s also about the empowerment of independent and professional women,” she said.
Bolivian designer Eliana Paco at her workshop in La Paz after presenting her traditional creations at New York Fashion Week.