Homegrown fashionistas emerge in Mexico City's La Roma district

By Alexis Okeowo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 2, 2010

The wind is chilly, the sun is rising and I am on a mission.

It's early morning in the Mexico City neighborhood of La Roma, a longtime haven for artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers. Tree-crowded plazas with waterfalls border the wide streets. A traditional antiques market runs along the median strip, its multicolored tents visible from miles away. On this weekend morning, stalls have popped up offering fresh juice, fruit, vegetables and tacos deep-frying under radiant sunlight.

Families, couples and groups of teenagers linger over tables of pirated DVDs and counters of pungent chicharrón. But I'm looking for something else. I plan to spend the day scouring the neighborhood for one-of-a-kind Mexican clothing designs and meeting some of the movers and shakers who are helping transform the Mexican capital from its grungy stereotype to a rising style center of Latin America.

From the boutique of Cuban American vintage clothing lover Joel de Fandino, which sells young up-and-coming designers, to the modern showroom of Mexican designers Enrique González and Denise Marchebout, it's becoming easier to avoid American and European chain stores here and to indulge in Mexican creations. Frequent trunk shows in the green, leafy parks of the La Condesa neighborhood feature the city's most talented upstart designers. Last fall, Mexico's fashion week brimmed with designers who sell their lines in shops in the city's hippest neighborhoods, attracting local and visiting buyers alike.

Conveniently, the most notable of these shops and showrooms are in the eclectic La Roma. I start at De Fandino's shop, Vintage HOE (the "HOE" stands for "Heaven on Earth"), a favorite among my more stylish friends. It sits on a quietly bustling street corner amid restaurants and banks. Indoors, luxurious bags in deep burgundy and green with gold chains perch on high white shelves, and racks of vintage and contemporary clothes and shoes fill the small but airy space.

De Fandino tells me that he started Vintage HOE two years ago in response to the lack of choice in Mexico City shopping. Bland department stores dominated at the time. "There wasn't a second type of option for Mexicans, and that was really one of my major drives -- to do something fun and that has a relaxed, unpretentious attitude," he says.

Before moving to Mexico City, the wiry, gray-haired shop owner worked in Los Angeles as a stylist for films, music videos and magazines. He also worked for legendary decorator and designer Tony Duquette for six years. Customers now rave about his impeccable taste. De Fandino's boutique promotes such emerging local designers as the Guadalajara-based Chicle Chicle, a young designer from the state of Leon; jewelry by the team Superfluous; and the popular Carlos Peralta.

Every week, Peralta, who hails from the poor outer borough of Ixtapalapa, introduces new collections, which consistently sell out, of whimsical printed camisoles and slinky slips with flirty rock-and-roll details such as metallic zippers and chains. As dance music pumps in the background, I try on a silky blue-and-green plaid sleeveless blouse with a giant bow and am immediately sold. Only 19 years old, Peralta is self-taught and has had no formal design training. His pieces, like everything else in the store, cost less than $50 -- an impressive feat, since most homegrown fashion is still priced at a range inaccessible to most Mexicans. De Fandino also updates vintage pieces by such vibrant Mexican labels from the 1960s to 1980s as Vanity, Marsel and D'Luv, which used fresh and edgy fabrics.

Next I head to nearby Goodbye Folk, a tiny shop that also specializes in re-tailoring both classic and eccentric vintage clothing. Owner Moises Tehuitzitl and his stylists, Paulina Garcia and Melissa Pintos, tell me that they not only remake clothes, but also take custom orders and design their own clothing and shoes. I can't help fawning over the delicate, lacy dresses and flouncy blouses that hang beside structured skirts and pants and bright silk scarves. I try on but ultimately decide against a ruffled pink leather jacket and admire a pair of cheetah-spotted pointy men's shoes. Unisex purple suede hats mingle with chunky leather purses in the homey, wood-floored boutique. The store's vintage clothing, also from the '60s to '80s, was originally designed by a mix of Mexicans and foreigners and handpicked by the shop's owners and designers at the city's huge secondhand markets.

* * *

I reluctantly leave Goodbye Folk and set off for Clinica, a showroom so hidden that I walk right by it at first. Co-owner Enrique González says that Clinica is constantly on the lookout for unique talent that no one else is selling. "Most of these pieces are one of a kind," González says, pointing to the tall racks of garments that fill his shop.

Clinica sits just behind a park in La Roma and is where you go to indulge in Mexican couture clothing and shoes. Avant-garde, moody and sexy pieces from Julia Mayfair, Numero Cuatro, Te Amo and Clinica partner Denise Marchebout stand out in the shop with black-curtained walls. I spy bondage-style heels from Antigona. I also see a sensational cut-out peach dress by Maxtlii and have to slip it on. Even though it's a great fit, it's nearly $200, and I have to promise myself to come back another day, when I can afford a splurge. González's own label, EGR, is also finely represented by an embroidered denim jacket with white chiffon sleeves. Handmade Costa Rican jewelry is on display in a handsome glass case. As a bonus, there is just one of nearly everything, so I don't have to worry about showing up a party wearing the same outfit as someone else.

I tear myself away from the mirror and the cut-out maxtlii dress to wander over to interior designer Héctor Galván's grand open-roof mansion. Besides housing Galván's design line Omelette, the mansion plays host to a clothing, jewelry and art bazaar at the end of every month and is also the new home of designer Paola Fernandez.

Fernandez's high-quality, handmade sheaths, capes and coats are knitted in streamlined patterns or dark solids. Chic boxy jackets, colorful scarves and belts in sleek grays and blacks pepper her studio on the second floor of the fantastically ostentatious house. I fall in love with a chunky black-and-white snood in a thick wool that seems perfect for the fall-like weather.

Galván's Colección República furniture line of angular, recycled-wood beach chairs is downstairs.

"Mexico is a country of many images," Galván says. "The city for us is a lab to experiment with fashion, interiors, textiles, furniture and ideas."

On Roma's Colima Street, both Sicario and Lemur cater to the city's legions of T-shirt and skinny-jeans-loving skaters and hipsters.

Sicario is a two-floor loft that hawks rock band T-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, sunglasses and neon-colored wallets to its cooler-than-thou customers. Some vintage pieces are thrown in here and there, but what Sicario does best is its large collection of lightweight, unisex cotton T-shirts printed with original artwork by Mexican designers. In pale yellows, grays and whites, the breezy shirts are flighty and creative. In Lemur, you can find more T-shirts, wildly colored sneakers, surf shorts and swimwear. But since my style is more girly than punk, I'm not tempted to add to my paltry T-shirt collection.

If you're interested in lavish, bizarre antique finds, Chic by Accident is your boutique. French expatriate Emmanuel Picault, like many visitors to Mexico City, explored the extensive local curio markets of eccentric furniture, decor and odds-and-ends. He decided to stop just looking and start buying, eventually opening a shop that has attracted the likes of buyers for the art auction house Christie's. At one end of the stylish showroom you can find 1970s Murano baubles and Japanese prints, while the other end showcases a stunning black-lacquer-treated table from Michoacán and other Mexican-made furniture.

In neighboring La Condesa's lush Parque Mexico, where I go to sunbathe and ride my bike, there is the Bazar Fusión, where young artisans sell their designs once a month and where I usually find playful new additions to my wardrobe. And while boutiques in the swanky neighborhood of Polanco are not known for their budget prices or Mexican offerings, two shops, Ula Dress and Esquina Azul, are worth browsing for innovative, lesser-known local labels.

Mexico City's fashion scene may not yet rival those of New York or London, but it's on its way. You only have to look at my growing wardrobe for proof.

Okeowo is a freelance writer living in Mexico City.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company