Rosario Mendoza: Fashion From the Fields to the Runway
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even cheeky fashionistas like a good come-from-behind story.
By Meghan Walsh
“Every embroidery has a different story,” says fashion designer Rosario Mendoza, as she glides her fingers across an intricately woven skirt. Her own meticulously stitched story starts in a forgotten, rural village in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where she grew up one of five kids. There was no running water, no electricity, certainly no Manolo Blahniks strutting down the dusty cattle-trodden streets. At 17, Mendoza became a wife and shortly after a mother, and it’s there, around kids, husband and home, that her story might have settled.
But the domestic life, it turned out, awoke an entrepreneurial spirit that decades later has made Mendoza something of a global fashion pioneer. Her designs, which blend buoyant textures and colors with peasant fabrics and Frida Kahlo-esque flourishes, have appeared on catwalks around the world, won awards — including an Emmy — and made her a favorite of former President Felipe Calderón. With her black hair, pale skin and upright posture, Mendoza has an air of grandeur, but it’s her business savvy that’s made her “an ambassador for Mexican fashion abroad,” says Anna Fusoni, founder of the Fashion Network, a Mexico City consultancy. As the profile of Latin American fashion rises, Mendoza is well-placed to ride the wave, including with a rollout of international franchises.
Inside her atelier, a vine-covered multistory house in a colorful Guadalajara neighborhood, she explains her secret: “To be successful, you have to find a hole and then fill it.” When Mendoza started out in fashion, in the 1990s, the couture world had no time for heritage or indigenous designs. Indeed, her first business was making jewelry using materials imported from the States, which she sold to department stores. For 12 years she thrived, but her product eventually proved out of reach for most Mexicans, and she went out of business.
For round two — she couldn’t let her three daughters see her stay defeated — Mendoza doubled down: no foreign materials. The guayaberas she saw men wearing in the countryside, made from a sturdy, cotton fiber called manta, gave her an idea. With the sewing skills passed down by her mother, she took the coarse fabric, usually associated with peasants, and transformed it into something stylish that Mexicans could be proud to wear: white tasseled rebozos, or shawls; black peasant skirts with contrasting florals; azure tunics garnished with coral, emerald and yellow. She named the brand Takasami, a mashup of her daughters’ names. While it began 20 years ago with just women’s clothing — pants and dresses that sold mostly to foreigners in resort towns like Puerto Vallarta — in 2010, Calderón and his wife wore Mendoza’s designs to a swanky gala.
The Calderóns remained loyal customers and, in 2011, asked Mendoza to design the costumes for the opening ceremony of the Pan-American Games, hosted in Guadalajara. Men in hot pink sombreros and women in gold metallic gowns danced across the stage. Shortly after, Mendoza was at a fashion expo in Las Vegas with her daughters when she received a call. The English speaker on the other end of the line said something about being nominated for an award, but she couldn’t understand much else. It wasn’t until she physically showed up on the red carpet in New York City that she realized what a big deal the Emmys are. She became the first Latin American to hoist the award for outstanding costumes for a variety program or special.
Mendoza’s success is part of a regional trend. For decades, only Rio de Janeiro merited fashionista notice — and mostly for its beach apparel — but in recent years, the Latin American couture scene has won a wider profile. In New York City, the Museum of Arts and Design just wrapped up the first-ever American exhibition on contemporary Latin American design, and the Museum at FIT last month launched a gallery on emerging fashion capitals, one of which is Mexico City. Sure enough, many of the fresh-faced designers getting noticed are imitating the indigenous meets high-fashion style that Mendoza pioneered. “It’s very popular to blend those two worlds right now, but Mexico stands out because it has that rich culture and indigenous textiles,” says Ariele Elia, who curated the FIT exhibition.
Today, Mendoza holds onto her flagship store in Guadalajara and is working on franchising internationally. Already Takasami, which has a staff of 38, designs uniforms for clients around the world, including Hyatt. But Mendoza remains best known for her runway designs: skirts that involve voluminous frames, sleek-edged halters and Frida Kahlo allusions. Mendoza sometimes hires women from indigenous tribes and women in prison to do the embroidery, and every last piece is hand-stitched. Some designs, like the one she showed me earlier, take up to 1,000 hours — which is why those same peasants who inspire her designs can’t afford to purchase them.
Of course, just because something shimmers on the runway doesn’t mean people will actually wear it. “Her pieces are catwalk or red-carpet fashion,” says Lucia Cuba, a Peruvian designer who recently joined Parsons School of Design. “They are difficult to transition.” And while the fashion scene in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, is ratcheting up, it can’t yet compete with its southern neighbor, Mexico City. Mendoza believes it’s just a matter of time. In the meantime, she’ll continue going home every day to fix lunch for her husband of 47 years.