A Peruvian Designer Goes Global…With the Soft Touch
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Apparently, how clothes feel matters just as much as how they look.
By Shannon Sims
Next Saturday, in a castle outside of Lima, Peru, you’ll be missing one of the hottest Halloween parties in Latin America. There, amid crumbling stones and grand entrances, the people bonita will gather, dressed to the nines for a fête of holiday extravagance. And if you were there, you might notice, off to the side, with perfectly tailored pants and a martini glass in hand, a shorter man among the models, silently watching it all. You might not suspect it, but he’s the reason they’re all there.
He’s Sergio Davila, one of the hottest fashion designers in the world today, with a fascinating tale you also might not suspect — both about his rise to pending fame and about the fabrics he sticks with. A Peruvian by both birth and profession, he’s managed to find a way to go local, showcasing the softness of Pima cotton and alpaca wool, materials that even before they turned trendy, he morphed into country-club-chic designs that send the bloggers scrambling each time his models strut around at the latest fashion week.
Talk to Kelly Cutrone, basically the Simon Cowell of the fashion-tuned reality-TV circuit, and you’ll understand the appeal. Instead of eviscerating this designer, she softens when she speaks of Davila. “His pieces are refreshing,” raves the CEO of the fashion PR firm People’s Revolution. “His color palette makes sense.”
In fact, Davila’s soar might be tied to the emergence of Peru as a potential Latin economic star … a surprising replacement for other Latin American money meccas like Buenos Aires and São Paulo, where times these days are quite dificil. Although the IMF projects the country’s growth this year to be at a meager 2.4 percent, that’s much better than Brazil or Ecuador’s negative projections. In Lima, the downtown is in resurgence, dusting off its grime to reemerge as a colonial gem. And nestled in the middle of what used to be a barren part of the businessy centro is a soaring building of gold-plated arches and elaborate, wrought-iron windows. Behind the glass, lit by warm lamps, are racks of supple sweaters and sharp khaki blazers: It’s Sergio Davila’s flagship store. Even the Google Street View of the store’s windows shows them turning the heads of the men passing by.
The flagship store is a well-timed victory for the 43-year-old Peruvian, who once only reached potential customers when they complimented his pants on the subway. He’s hustled his way to the top, to be sure, but didn’t come from the toughest conditions either. He was raised in an upper-middle-class, close-knit family of six in a 10,000-person town on the road out of Lima toward the Andes. Davila spent summers at a family condo in Punta Hermosa, a chic surfer spot south of the capital. Today, each of his siblings own their own condo in the same beachfront building, where they gather their families regularly throughout the year.
Davila first tapped his aesthetic side as a 16-year-old party planner — hosting blowouts not dissimilar to the Halloween fest he’s planning this year. He organized increasingly extravagant events, including fashion shows, while working toward a civil engineering degree until finally, at 24, he realized that creating fabulosity was his destiny. He decided to head to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to study fashion design, where he retells a favorite trick he used to get ahead: wearing his own designs — sewn from military bags he found in an Army supply store — during a part-time sales job in a clothing store, in hopes of picking up future customers. That, and passing out cards to strangers on the subway who complimented his pants, finally landed his whole collection in a store on Market Street.
Today, Davila’s price point is consumer-friendly: $100 for a pair of preppy shorts. Fati Zed, a Montreal fashion blogger who loves his work, which is 80 percent menswear and features pleated pants beneath knitted sweaters flourished with cross-stitched tropical plants, says she likes “the way movement plays with structure” in his pieces. His fashion role model? Ralph Lauren, naturally. Davila owns 100 percent of his company, which includes the flagship in Lima, plus collections in eight more stores around Peru, an online shop and a forthcoming store in the West Village, where he lives. “I’m just another single gay guy in the Village,” he laughs with an accent.
He’s shifted his focus from vintage to fine textiles, a reflection of the assets he has to work with in Peru, where he says he benefits from the country’s “million-year history of knitwear.” Efrain Sales, director of Lima Fashion Week, agrees that the textile industry in Peru is going “great.” Alpaca’s being called the new cashmere, and according to the Sourcing Journal, in 2014 Peru exported nearly $300 million in garments and textiles, a 7 percent increase from the year before. Count Davila’s clothes in that math: While the majority of high-end designers produce their clothes in Italy, Davila produces his in Peru, using local fabrics, like “the softest Pima cotton I can find,” he says.
But focusing on the fabrics is an expensive habit when most textiles come to us via Bangladesh or China. Even Davila admits that he buys his own basics at the Gap, just like everyone else. Indeed, Davila is banking on customers caring a lot about the feel and durability of their clothes, a bit of an antiquated theory on consumer economics in an era of H&M and annually upgraded iPhones. He’s noticed that “the way Americans buy their clothes is by touching the fabric” and thinks that’s proof his big bet on imported alpaca will pay off. But in the meantime, he’s had to shutter his Nolita store and is currently only selling in the U.S. via his online shop, eliminating the feel-factor from his bottom line.
But just as some folks are bullish on Lima’s textile industry despite Latin America’s shaky economics, so are others on Davila. Cutrone says he is an example of a “success story” that can have a great impact: “He is setting the tone for the next generation of global designers.” But don’t expect to see him swinging from the chandelier at the Halloween party: “I’m not a party guy, a fiestero,” he admits. “I’m the guy in the middle of the party who likes to just stand and watch.” And he no longer measures success by how many people compliment his own pants on the subway. Now, the tables have turned; his happiest moment is “when I walk into the subway and see someone wearing my sweater.”