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Learning Latin

"We did focus groups in New York and California," said Pulaski's Kelly. "We asked: 'What kind of furniture do you like?' The answer was, "We are mainstream Americans, but we are from the Latino/Hispanic background and we like a touch of that in our home.' "

In recent years it has been clear that multicultural marketing is making inroads in America's marketplace, evidenced in the sushi sold at grocery stores and the Latin pop explosion in the music industry. Such celebrities as Jennifer Lopez and Thalia Sodi are marketing clothing and fragrance lines. Automobile and pharmaceutical manufacturers are pitching ads directly to Spanish-speaking Americans. Mojitos are rivaling martinis at bars. Last year, Sears launched a fashion collection by Lucy Pereda, a Cuban-born former model who now hosts a Spanish-language show on cooking and decorating. According to a Sears spokeswoman, the clothes feature a lot of embroidery, bright colors and a body-conscious cut.

Cristina Saralegui and her first collection for Pulaski are targeting the Hispanic customer. (Sara D. Davis for The Washington Post)

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"I think more and more we are becoming more aware of our culture and proud of it," said Alexandria designer Victoria Sanchez, who comes from a Mexican background. "If I had a Latin American client, I would be interested in trying to include something like this, because we have this common bond." Sanchez does see a market for Casa Cristina in places such as Washington, California, New York and Chicago, with their large Hispanic populations, but she wonders if many non-Hispanics have yet heard of Cristina.

Pulaski is the first major U.S. furniture manufacturer to specifically identify the Hispanic audience with a major collection.

Other introductions at the October market here, however, had decidedly Latin influences: Stanley Furniture introduced Santa Barbara, rich aged-maple pieces distinguished by leather, scrolled iron and hammered-metal hardware. The South America Collection from National Geographic Home drew on design inspiration from Venezuela and Peru in more than 200 products designed by nine licensees. One licensee was Lane Home Furnishings, whose designs include ornately carved wardrobes and beds and feature tooled leathers and wrought iron. Palacek, another licensee, produced pillows embroidered with leaf patterns taken from the Venezuelan rain forest.

John Dumbacher, National Geographic's senior vice-president of licensing, said the company was not deliberately targeting a Hispanic market. "That wasn't our original concept; we do our pieces for a global market," he said, acknowledging that some consumers may purchase the South America pieces because of family connections to that region. "Heritage and our genealogy play a big part in how we all live."

Pulaski approached Cristina about a year ago. "I started hearing a different beat to the music: not Tommy Bahama or Polo; it was Latino/Hispanic," said Kelly. "We said, 'Who can help us get the flavor and the heartbeat of this culture?' Only one name made sense."

He contacted Cristina, 56, and her husband, Marcos Avila, former bass player in Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine and now her manager, about licensing opportunities. The couple, parents of three children, invited Kelly to their house, a 1932 Mediterranean estate on an island in Miami.

Cristina said she was amazed when the Pulaski team whipped out cameras and started snapping photos of her Florida-casual look, full of terra-cotta floors, Cuban art and warm woods. "The Pulaski people came over with a little camera. I said, 'Is this for the Enquirer?' But I was so thrilled because actually I'm a frustrated designer."

Cristina said her approach to design -- like her interviewing style -- is down to earth. "I love decorating and homes, I love it better than clothing," said Cristina, relaxing in a back office in the Pulaski showroom. "I am dressed all day in a St. John's suit with pantyhose and pearls. When I get home, I want to put my feet up. My house has to be comfortable."

The collection, said Kelly, had to stand on its own merits, so even people unfamiliar with Cristina would like it. But that's not going to be a problem in many U.S. markets. "Everybody knows Cristina," said Santos Moreno, a buyer for Casa Linda Furniture in Los Angeles. "Ninety percent of my customers are Hispanic. And probably 100 percent have heard of Cristina."

And next year, even more consumers will know who she is. In March, her furniture will arrive in stores, locally at IMI Furniture in Sterling and Persiano Gallery in Gaithersburg. And last week, it was announced that Cristina has signed agreements to create home accessories and rugs.

The real estate, lending and homebuilding industries also are targeting the fast-growing Latino population; see story in this Saturday's Real Estate section.

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