The tropics are not a trend, they're an evolving imaginary in Colombia

By Jen

Details from the Caprice Collection. Source: Inexmoda

Last week we witnessed the end of a new edition of Colombiamoda, Colombian Fashion Week. This time, the 30th, which brought a considerable amount of memories from those who have been part of the organization for a long time, like professor William Cruz, who gave us an amazing Twitter thread with photos of 30 years ago.

One of those memorable moments happened in 2014, and the two authors of this blog were there to witness it. That was the year in which Johanna Ortiz was the closing runway with her Nativa collection, in which she showed us a tropical woman who loves to travel the world with a cadence and grace result in a sort of mix between the Caribbean flavor and the Parisian allure. One of the central pieces of that collection was the ‘Tulum’ top, a piece that fitted perfectly in the off the shoulder trend of that season, and became the must-have of the summer for many, driving the spotlight not only to Johanna, but to a whole generation of designers that embraced a certain aesthetic, one that helped redefine the imagery of Colombian fashion to the world.

Remember this? The Tulum top was born in 2014. Below we see Gloria Saldarriega (with Miguel Mesa) wearing it for the 2019 fashion show.

This phenomenon, which started with the designer’s success and later booking in Moda Operandi (that since then has signed over a dozen Colombian brands and designers, such as Leal Dacarett, Pepa Pombo and Mercedes Salazar) has been given many names: Tropical Chic and Caribbean Chic are only a few that come to mind. Back then, I was far from thinking that this topic would be the subject of my master thesis, and that I was going to dig really deep and research what is that magical quality that has fascinated international buyers, even after a few years, when it comes to everything that comes from Colombian fashion.

In the 80s and 90s, the idea of Colombian design was very different from what we know now. Even to this day when you ask people in the street about Colombian fashion they bring up shapewear and butt-lifting jeans (which is actually the center of Melissa’s thesis). But when Johanna entered Moda Operandi with an array of ruffles and tropical references, she started appealing to a different audience: those who travel in the summer, who are always searching for their next exotic destination. A destination that often is located in the Caribbean, and with a list of preconceived ideas in which Colombia fits perfectly.

But why are we talking about this, 5 years later? Well, this edition of Colombiamoda that just finished not only brought Johanna back after 3 years and 4 collections after Nativa, in which her production grew from 4 to 28 thousand pieces (according to data released by Inexmoda) and because ever since this tropical ‘boom’ started we have heard voices asking for designers to tone it down, probably unaware that the answer is the opposite: being able to explore (and exploit) that imagery so more designers can open their doors to the world.

Johana gets criticism for not being innovative, but her aesthetic is pretty clear

Of course, Colombia is not only the Caribbean. We know, but people outside the country have no idea. According to researchers like Molina and Valdivia (2004), Latin America and the Caribbean have been historically exoticized, which leads us to remember the western obsession with latin icons such as Carmen Miranda and Frida Khalo. This same phenomenon makes the western gaze unable to identify the boundaries between countries and ethnicities and “erases all the specifications of what being Latino means”, according to Apacio and Chavez Silverman (1997). When the world thinks about Colombia we often forget that we have different climates and some people don’t even imagine that we have mountains. To the eyes of the world, Colombia is the Caribbean, and that is the identity they want to purchase from us.

That is something that Johanna figured out in 2014 and that her brand is still benefiting from, 5 years later. After several collections inundated with ruffles, the designer revealed her resort collection, Caprice, at Colombiamoda, in which she showed signs of the evolution of her own vision, with a more opaque palette using earth tones, but always playing with different volumes and silhouettes for that free and flowy freedom: off the shoulders, big sleeves, mix of prints and, always flowers. The use of flowers in her imagery has gone from the orchid to angel’s trumpet, which she used to adorn her Caprice. 

In Caprice we felt an evolution of the tropics that Johana proposes. We had sleeves and ruffles, but also fresh prints and flower petals 
En Caprice se sintió una evolución del trópico que propone Johanna Ortiz. Hubo mangas y boleros, pero también estampados novedosos y los 'petalos' de flor como recurso estilístico.

But she is not the only one. The tropics, as an idea, have been used with great success by Silvia Tcherassi (who as a Barranquilla native is very familiar with the symbols of Caribbean culture), Esteban Cortazar, Leal Dacarett, all of them highly coveted among international buyers and retail platforms. All of this, probably without knowing that part of the country does not know this movement and is actually resisting the idea that, more than being a trend, is the distinctive mark of our national industry in the world, something that can be very fruitful if we know how to use it. Why are we demanding to move on from the Caribbean Chic, when we can actually take advantage of this great moment of the industry and expand the narrative beyond the naked shoulders and ruffles?

The real power of this imaginary is that we can use it to approach an audience, through the allure of the tropics, and once there explore new options. For the content of my thesis, I spoke with several creators, among them Juan Pablo Socarras, a designer who reminded me that despite his long career he has yet to see an international buyer who wants to order a fall collection from a Colombian brand. We are not that to them, even though there is also room for evolution in that area. If you don’t believe me ask Monica Holguin, the head designer at Pepa Pombo, who transformed the knitted pieces of the brand to splash them with color, a very refreshing change that made them stand up (and that won them the signing by Moda Operandi, surprising nobody).

Do we have to survive as an industry perpetually designing floral prints and ruffles? Of course not. But with rigorous and careful research, we can find other elements of this narrative that the international industry can find attractive while at the same time serving the narrative of the designer. Pilar Luna (also in an interview for my thesis) introduced me to Juan de Dios swimwear, a brand with botanical prints which is the perfect definition of what I like to call ‘tropical evolution’ and that blew away the audience in their debut at Colombiamoda. It’s not the typical flowers you’d see everywhere, but it has the tropical feeling and that makes it attractive. 

Pieces from Juan de Dios Swimwear


Another brand that is doing great in adapting the narrative to their identity is Alado, which is a far bet from ruffles and big skirts that we see everywhere these days. This team, led by Andres Restrepo and Alejandro Gonzalez is always doing their research and has done a great job representing different social and cultural moments in our country, with a frame of work that focuses on the local and employs craftsmanship from indigenous and artisanal communities. This year Alado showed us Terracota, a collection inspired by the ceramic art of the embera-chami tribe, with fluid silhouettes, abstract prints, and hand-made details that give unique touches to the garments. 

Images from Ceramica, Alado's collection
Source: Inexmoda

The tropics are more than florals, palm trees, and low cut dresses, and the 2019 edition of Colombiamoda was proof of that. It is possible that we create a national aesthetic with nods to craftsmanship, while at the same time represents the notion that international buyers and audiences have of us, to please their gaze. Local designers have the urgent task of taking successful elements of their work and make them the connecting threads of their aesthetic, and we, the audiences, have the duty to stop asking for this ‘trend’ to go away because the tropical imaginary is everything but a trend to Colombia. Is the core of its identity as a country and a very attractive feature that draws business, nurturing from the imagination and exoticism that this concept exudes.

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