mexican-fashion-03
Bárbara Sánchez-Kane

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It’s difficult to pinpoint what brought about Mexico’s most recent global renaissance. Maybe it was The New York Times declaring Mexico City its number one place to visit in 2016, or maybe the country’s vividly colored aesthetic was just too well-suited to millennial travelers’ Instagram feeds. What’s clear is the spotlight formerly monopolized by Mexico’s overdeveloped beach destinations has spread to other corners of the country, most notably the capital, a metropolis of nearly 22 million with a rich history of inspiring both local and foreign artists. Being the “focus of international attention” can be an ambivalent, fleeting thing. The designers and artists defining the future of this capital must inevitably ask themselves: How can a place sustain the hype?

In Mexico City, as far as fashion and design are concerned, the answer lies in embracing the everyday. Instead of mining the aesthetics of Mexico’s traditional, artisanal designs, or simply mimicking foreign brands, it means turning inwards to see everything that had been overlooked. “I think my generation is changing what aspects of our culture are considered worthy of being appreciated,” says Víctor Barragán, founder and creative director of his eponymous label, BARRAGÁN, now based primarily in New York City. “We’re taking references that had never before been held up as standards of beauty.”

The idealized, colorful, often saccharine depictions of Mexico that have dominated abroad for decades are being actively rejected by the country’s blossoming fashion scene, which is heavily concentrated in the capital. Favoring a more diverse approach, this generation wants to highlight Mexico City’s idiosyncrasies — its unique urban landscape and contemporary culture — positioning them as interesting and valuable in their own right.

“There’s a certain spontaneity about life here; you can be walking around the Centro Histórico and see people wearing the most surprising mixes of colors and prints, because it works for them, and it’s very natural to them,” says Emilia Cuahutle, co-founder of the concept store Hi-BYE, located in the Roma neighborhood. Cuahutle’s partner, Carla Valdivia, agrees. “The city sort of forces a sense of versatility and utilitarianism on you, with, for example, how the weather can change so much in a single day, and you have to be able to respond to that,” she adds. “That part of the day-to-day life here definitely inspires what we do.”

“I don’t know if it was just the Trump era, but many of us realized over the past five years or so that we have a lot going on here,” says Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, a creative whose recent endeavors in the visual arts have led her to eschew a comprehensive title, though she initially made a name for herself as the founder and creative director of SÁNCHEZ-KANE, an experimental menswear line. “Mexico City is a mountain of chaos and beauty, and you don’t need to rely on the typical Mexican portrait,” she continues. “There’s millions of ways to twist tradition in the most perverse way, the funniest way, the most beautiful way.”

Beyond the valorization of modern-day folklore, there’s a political edge to what designers here are producing. The creative scene as a whole has become more representative of brownness, queerness, and body diversity. Conversations around class and gender dynamics — previously considered taboos by some — are being ignited. “It’s important to use our work to put certain subjects on the table,” says Nayeli de Alba, a stylist based in Mexico City who’s had a decade-long career championing local brands, “and to give visibility to people and situations which have long been ignored by those sectors of society who would rather remain in a bubble of sorts.”

“As a brand pushing a product, you have to be aware that you’re also part of the system you’re criticizing, and so you have to find ways to support those who are entirely dedicated to fighting for the cause,” says Barragán. “I think my generation of designers understands that we can be a tool, but we’re not going to be the ones to transform our society altogether.”

To understand the shift driving the Mexico City renaissance, we spoke to eight key designers, stylists, and creatives who mapped out their influences in the studio and on the street.

01. Sofía Elías, Founder and Creative Director, Blobb

“When I started Blobb, the idea was to create little sculptures for the body. The handmade uniqueness of each piece is something I’ve seen throughout my life across Mexico. Artisans do terrific work here, and I admire them so much, but also just driving around the city is an inspiration — seeing the colorful stacks of buckets or cups that people sell on the street, the neon cardboard signs packed together announcing the prices. These visuals are really essential to the city. When you’re Mexican, you get it.”

02. María José Jiménez and María del Mar Carbonell, Co-Founders, Minena

María del Mar Carbonell: “There’s so many subcultures within Mexico City, and I think people are beginning to realize that it’s not one unified aesthetic or identity. We’re interested in reclaiming femininity, in rediscovering the culture around theater and performance that really thrived here in the 1920s, and in shining light on just how surreal the urban landscape has always been.” María José Jiménez: “There’s layers to the city that remain unexplored. After Salvador Dalí spent time here, he declared he would never return. He said, ‘I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings.’ Our work has always been inspired by the surreality that is present here, and we’re beginning to find a community of other young creatives who want to explore that and collaborate.”

03. Emilia Cuahutle and Carla Valdivia, Co-Founders, Hi-BYE

Emilia: “We founded the store in 2018 and our intention at the time was to present an alternative to the lack of diversity that we perceived in the existing retail spaces of the city. Everything seemed so homogenous!”

Carla: “We wanted to showcase truly contemporary Mexican design, inspired by the city, our lives, and our experiences. Before, many labels tried to emulate what was working in other countries — to be the Mexican version of new and popular European or American brands. In the end, we didn’t seek to please anybody but ourselves.”

04. Roberto Sánchez, Designer

“I’ve been designing for a long time now, but Roberto Sánchez as a brand started maybe nine years ago. Looking back, I’ve noticed I design as if I’m working on an endless collection, without a time stamp, and it’s all tied to my mood, what I see on the streets when I walk around in Centro, or the conversations I have with younger people. I’ve always done whatever I’ve wanted to, and now I want to do that even more. The fashion scene in the city has definitely transformed a lot since I started out. I think my generation started something that enabled younger kids to believe they could do it, too. Now there’s so much more going on, more voices are being heard. It’s exciting for me to share my experience and guide those who have ideas they want to develop, because at one point, somebody did that for me, and I love to be able to pay it forward.”

05. Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, Founder, SÁNCHEZ-KANE

“In Mexico today, my generation doesn’t need titles — fashion designer, painter, sculptor, etc. You just go for it, and I think that’s the main goal of creativity, to express what’s happening in your world: in politics, art, or society. I think maybe even five years ago a lot of designers here didn’t take much inspiration from Mexico. They were like: ‘What’s happening in Europe? What’s happening in the US?’ And then suddenly this shifted. The city is so chaotic and diverse, sometimes you turn around and see something, an object or a situation, there on the street, and it’s full of unexpected beauty. I’ve lived abroad, in Italy and then LA, but this is what I really know. For me, it’s always been Mexico.”

06. Víctor Barragán, Founder and Creative Director, BARRAGÁN

“Mexican society is transforming very quickly. It’s beginning to really appreciate what’s happening within the country. In my case, my work was never published by national media until it began to get attention in New York, and that was curious. It’s improving now, and seeing so many people outside of Mexico value what we’re doing is changing the mentality of new generations. The kids I see now back home are so awake, they have different ideas, and they’re so aware of the many privileges that come with being Mexican. I’m sure in 10 years there will be a new boom there with an even more advanced way of thinking.”

07. Josefina Valdés, Founder, Scent

“My family is from Uruguay, and I was born in Chile. We immigrated to Mexico when I was seven years old, and I’ve been living here ever since. Scent is for sure inspired by my life in Mexico City, but not in the obvious way it’s usually represented. It wouldn’t feel right for me to directly reference the aesthetics and imagery of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures, for example, because I think they’re really sacred, and I wouldn’t like to use them for my own benefit. There’s also such a rich and interesting culture developing here now that there’s so much more to showcase. I feel embraced by the design scene that’s come together; it’s a very inclusive community that lifts each other up. And Opening Ceremony’s ‘Year of Mexico’ collection changed the game for a lot of us — it validated what we were doing here in the eyes of many people who perhaps needed to see that foreign stamp of approval.”

08. Nayeli de Alba, Stylist

“Supporting Mexican designers certainly became a trend in recent years, but now I think it’s becoming a part of life. I’ve seen how brands have become more experimental with their designs and improved their quality, and that’s really changed old notions of what Mexican fashion can be. I’m part of this ‘new’ generation, but we’re not so new anymore — behind us, there’s an even younger wave of kids who no longer even have to consider these issues. For me, it’s important to support them and to use my platform to showcase everything that Mexico can do when we’re in it together.”

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