Carla Fernández Says The Future is Handmade

Carla Fernandez sits amidst her designs, handmade in Mexico; photo by Mallery Roberts Morgan
Carla Fernández sits amidst her designs, handmade in Mexico; photo by Mallery Roberts Morgan

In a loft on the 6th Floor of 850 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles you can find an optimist’s vision of the future — indigenous crafting methods and rural communities are kept alive, through the design and fabrication of avant-garde clothes and home accessories that last a lifetime.

That’s the goal of Mexico City-based designer Carla Fernández and her team, who has brought her womenswear line and accessories for the home to Los Angeles, following an exhibition at the Gardner Museum in Boston and before she heads to London’s prestigious V & A for a catwalk show there.

Mannequin greets visitors at The Future is Handmade

The exhibition is called The Future is Handmade, and it features her latest designs, fabricated by communities in Chiapas, Yucatan and Campeche that have developed complex handcrafting techniques over centuries. 

DnA met Carla in the LA space and learned about the social ambitions behind the sumptuous designs, what “luxury” really means, and why her approach is good news for sheep.

DnA: Your design is somewhat futuristic in terms of its visuals — and it’s handmade. Is that what the title is meant to suggest?

Carla Fernandez: Yes, I think a lot of people believe that technology is the future and when you come to a country like mine and you see the sophistication of the handmade crafts and product you also see that there’s people living in the countryside, people that do amazing projects and even with the same technology of zeros and ones they weave, you know and they show what they have in their minds so that’s what I wanted to show through this exhibit and through our clothing and our fashion.

Carla Fernandez keeps folkloric tradition alive in this jaguar teeth and head in this dress and headwear; the jaguar is a mystical creature whose teeth are often a hand embroidery feature in the artisans clothing.
Carla Fernandez keeps folkloric tradition alive in this jaguar teeth and head in this dress and headwear; the jaguar is a mystical creature whose teeth are often a hand embroidery feature in the artisans clothing.

DnA: One of your pieces is a textured, black layered wool coat. It has a really interesting story to it.

CF: These come from a little town in Chiappas, in the south of Mexico. There they have sheep all over the village and they sheer the wool without damaging the sheep. They then spin it by hand, they dye it in mud so the black never fades away. So these garments, they can be a hundred years old and the black will be always shiny.

Then they weave it on a kind of loom that was used 4000 years ago — and then the hairy texture that you like comes from rubbing it with their feet for about two weeks.

So two or three meters of these fabric can take as long as four months to be done.

DnA: And then there’s an afterlife for the sheep. Tell us that piece of the story.

CF: That is very nice because in this exchange of the wool the people don’t eat sheep. so when you go to this little town then you see that instead of having dogs or cats you can see all sheep running around and the people will never ever, ever eat meat from the sheep.

Opening day at The Future is Handmade
Opening day at The Future is Handmade

DnA: So this is a way of giving thanks to the sheep? The sheep of yielded them their wool so in turn they will give the sheep their life.

CF: It’s an exchange — if you give me something I will respect you and you also will give me life and protect me. Because it is not only that they give them life; they are very loved and protected.

DnA: But then out of this process, which is very labor intensive, comes this one coat. It’s gorgeous but is it going to be an extremely expensive — something that only a few people could afford?

CF: It is a fair price. It has taken someone four months of labor and that’s what we do with our brands, we show you through our website, through our fashion, through our exhibition and our books how much labor (is involved.)

So if you see all the work that went into it, it’s a good price but it’s also a very fair price for the lady that has been doing it in the countryside.

DnA: But essentially what you’re saying with your designs is that value lies in the handmade and the lasting?

CF: Yes, I think it lies in the handmade and the story of the people that makes these products. You know I really enjoy that there are different ways of living this life in the world. We all think that people have cars, they have TVs or they listen to the radio. But there are people that we work with that don’t speak Spanish, and we live in Mexico.

From Carla Fernandez' Fall/Winter 2015 Collection
From Carla Fernandez’ Fall/Winter 2015 Collection

So it’s also very important that we have this balance in the world, because if all of us come and live in the cities as we are living now, imagine how this world would be, if all of us have a car.

Obviously, we all need health care and that’s what we have to provide but if I want to live and have my kids and live in the mountains that is also very nice. I work with families that are very happy not speaking Spanish and living and doing their crafts in the Highlands. Why would we change that?

DnA: Are there many like you who are able to employ communities like this? Or are these dying communities?

CF: Hopefully there will be more and more and new generations who are trying to work with with the indigenous communities in Mexico. But consumers have to understand these hidden stories to (keep these crafts alive). And we have to stop the extinction of crafts; just as there are some animals that don’t exist anymore, there are some techniques that just disappear and that is happening all the time and we have to stop that.

DnA: Give us an example of a technique that might be disappearing.

CF: When I worked in Chiappas, there was one village where they once weaved with chicken feathers and they forgot the technique. So we had to go back to the books and teach the ladies because no one knew how to do it anymore. So we had to go to a 1600 year-old book to see how it was made and continue making it. So this is happening and we have to stop that.

DnA: When people think about indigenous Mexican communities, I think there are some visuals that come to mind in terms of colors and and shapes and patterns. But you have a very distinct voice. Tell us about that piece of your design.

Nova Snood, Galactic print dress. Archive piece from the 2014 Fall/Winter Collection
Nova Snood, Galactic print dress. Archive piece from the 2014 Fall/Winter Collection

CF: I know Mexico very well, I’ve been traveling since I was very little and people have a stereotype of what Mexico is; and it’s very sophisticated. There are some villages where you only find black, you know, with metal threads inside. I mean this is like watching Lanvin or Dries Van Noten.

You just have to have the eye and take it and place it in the right surroundings and you will see how sophisticated and beautiful and fashionable and sexy and trendy it is.

DnA: Now you are designing pieces of clothing that could last 100 years and yet you are also a player within the fashion industry, and the fashion industry is all about fast turnover.

So is that part of your story — creating pieces that have a kind of a timelessness so that people will feel, I will wear this year after year after year?

CF: We work with very slow processes. When you work with artisans that take four months to make one piece of cloth you cannot go with that fastness, and as you said, fashion moves so quickly that now in Zara every two weeks you have new garments.  But I think people are getting aware of that and some of us enjoy those stories that we were talking about before  — like, I can use this dress for three or four years then my little daughter can use it. Or, I will use it when I’m seventy.

Fashion is very wide and you have to find your own ways and express it in your own way. Fashion doesn’t have to be as people say that it is. So we have to create new channels and new ways of (making) your statement.

The Future is Handmade is on show through September 28, 2015, at 850 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. 

Accessories by Carla Fernandez; photo by Mallery Roberts Morgan
Accessories by Carla Fernandez; photo by Mallery Roberts Morgan