By Francesca Tarrant
You’re a champion of creativity in Colombia – tell us about how you came to establish yourself in the design industry…
My early childhood was spent in Santander, but my family was displaced in 1948 and we found ourselves in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Although I was very young at the time, that sort of upheaval undoubtedly has a profound effect on how one looks at life. I was determined not to be defeated – I wanted to go out and make a difference. I’ve always loved the creative process and experimenting with different materials, though I’ve never received any formal training – this, combined with a burgeoning interest in business, saw me establish my own eponymous handbag brand in 1978. We’ve never looked back, and I’ve been fortunate to oversee the growth of the business both within Colombia and internationally. I’m delighted to say that we have 60 shops across Latin America and in Russia. It gave me great pleasure to be asked to present the Duchess of Cornwall with one of my designs on the royal couple’s recent State visit. This sort of honour seemed a long way off when I first started out – it goes to show the importance of pursuing one’s dreams, and never giving up no matter what life throws at us.
The Colombia of today is very different to when you were forging your path – is it easier for young designers now?
I wouldn’t say it’s easier – the ability to be creative or to design spectacular pieces is a gift. However, I do think that the way in which Colombia has transformed itself in recent years – the ever-improving security and increasing prominence on the world stage – means that young Colombian designers have a stronger platform from which to launch themselves. I try to play my part too; we offer a number of scholarships and the Mario Hernandez Design Prize to the country’s top creative talent, giving them a chance to study abroad and opening up a whole new world of opportunity. In Colombia we are in the midst of such an exciting renaissance, and not just in the creative sector. If you think of what we achieved during 100 years of war, just imagine the potential we have in times of peace!
Do you see yourself as a Bogotano or does your heart lie in Santander?
I see myself as Colombian – I have a deep love for my country. We have so much to offer visitors and it thrills me that we are now able to open our doors and introduce them to our astounding diversity – mountains, stunning coastlines, the Amazon Rainforest, colonial cities. Colombia is full of hidden gems – the Coffee Region, Barichara or Villa de Leyva – and Colombians are such warm people, delighted to share their history and cultural heritage. This is a really exciting time for us to showcase our wares on the world stage.
You obviously love your country – do you draw most of your inspiration from Colombia?
I try to design for a discerning international audience and, of course, my primary concern is to deliver a high quality product. However, it would be impossible for me not to imbue my designs with some of my Colombian spirit. Our leitmotif, or symbol, is a butterfly – which are prevalent across the country – and many of the vibrant colours I choose are in part an homage to my country’s culture. When it comes to my inspirations, there is barely a minute that goes by when I’m not inspired by something – la vida es bella [life is beautiful] and there’s stimulation from the minute I wake up until I go to bed. Creativity isn’t something you can switch off; it permeates every aspect of my life, from my friendships to making love, designing next season’s collection to embarking on the next chapter of growing the business.
That’s pretty intense – how do you like to unwind?
I find cooking incredibly therapeutic – and that is, of course, another creative outlay. I tend to cook traditional Colombian dishes at home for friends or family – thick vegetable soups that take me back to my childhood or dishes that use some of the spectacular array of fruits and vegetables that we have here. I urge anyone visiting Colombia to try the traditional cuisine – it varies from region to region, but it’s a real taste sensation.
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