Hailed in a New York Times article, datelined 2002, on the city’s Fashion Week as a “prodigy” of the runway, Esteban Cortázar, matured from aspiring designer to being an influential voice of an industry where technology moves faster than one can say – couture.
As the youngest person ever, at age 17, to have an individual show in the highly publicized seasonal event, when the Bogotá-born designer turned 23, he took charge of the legendary French fashion house Emanuel Ungaro, as its creative director. This leap marked one of the pivotal moments in the life of the now 33-year old Esteban Cortázar, and which resulted in his moving from sultry Miami Beach to the prestigious First Arrondissement in Paris where fashion is venerated as a religion.
After two years designing collections for Ungaro, infusing luxury ready-to-wear collections with his eclectic vibe of bold prints, snug hemlines and soft-to-the-skin fabrics, in 2009, Cortázar decided to strike out on his own by establishing his namesake on the world’s most glamorous runways. Then, a litany of glossy features in magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair, praising the son of an English mother, Dominique Vaughan, and Colombian father, Valentino Cortázar, for originality, chicness and capacity to reimagine womenswear. Magic realism didn’t seem to just exist in the literature of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, it was emblazoned on Cortázar’s effervescent aesthetic. Vibrant, at times kitsch, and jarring to the senses like a Colombian street corner, Cortázar’s “spontaneous relationship with Colombia” continues to inspire his DNA.
Having concluded a 2018 Spring Summer show in Paris in which Vogue highlighted a “butterfly pattern intarsia riffed on the Colombian flag,” Cortázar’s love of his home country’s iconography, emblems and symbols is a motive for on-going projects, even those that go beyond the spotlight of the industry’s happenings, shows and fashion shoots. “I like to celebrate the integrity of my country and its culture. Elements that far too often we take for granted, such as the idiosyncrasies of language, and which are not considered elegant or fashionable,” remarks Cortázar.
The Colombian designer has also given the fashion world plenty of new vocabulary, such when he designed limited edition T-shirts with bold prints of colloquial Colombian expressions, including Parcero and Bacán. And the designer still gets asked by colleagues and friends where on the map of Colombia might Chango be, or when is an appropriate time to tell someone they are an Juemichica.
The cross-generational look and feel of this designer has been praised as a “love song to Colombia” and tribute to years spent in South Beach as an outsider to the hallowed and tantalizing world of fashion. One that was incarnated during the 1990s by the Italian fashion genius Gianni Versace. When Versace was lacing his haute couture with the iconography of Miami’s hot street culture, Cortázar was in his own reverie, soaking up the tropics, and observing how Latin women danced salsa.
Grounded with fond memories of a childhood in Bogotá, attending the French school Liceo Frances and Campo Alegre, by age 11, Esteban moved to stateside. But, Colombia was always present with holidays spent on the fincas of both the Vaughan and Cortázar families. “Each household was fantastic with their lifestyles,” recalls Esteban of his English grandfather Richard Vaughan, who loved nature and started a successful flower-growing business in the Sabana de Bogotá. Esteban’s father, Valentino, is a surrealist painter who lives in Cartagena, and together they love to relish in a city so steeped in history and with direct literary references to one of its most-admired inhabitants, Gabito – Gabriel García Márquez. “You don’t really appreciate places until you grow up and realize they are such a fundamental part of your life,” says Esteban. “I am influenced by where I have lived and by my experiences. I bring these into the conversation with my staff when coming up with a collection.”
Esteban’s enthusiasm for life and observing details that would otherwise go unnoticed to others, is inherent in his craft and the sophistication of his style. It was this enthusiasm that caught the attention of interior designer, film director, and fashion guru, Todd Oldham, whose home was above News Cafe on Ocean Drive, epicenter of Miami’s suntanned bohemians. Through Oldham, Cortázar met Gianni, Donatella, Emanuel and stepped through the gilded gates of fashion, to become one of the industry’s young luminaries.
While many talented designers would be overwhelmed by hanging-out with celebrities or having to jet set between fashion weeks in Milan, Paris and New York, Esteban doesn’t take his place in fashion too seriously when it comes to the publicity his name generates. “I am not a one man show,” says Cortázar of the importance of working as a team and preparing a collection.
Following instinct, rather than trends, has defined the Cortázar look – if one can pin it down. “You don’t see a specific fashion period in my collections,” says the designer. “It’s about today,” emphasizing that clothes cannot be created to garner “likes” on social media or satisfy hordes of marketing “influencers.” According to Cortázar, external pressures, from social media to having to tailor to a specific time period, is blurring the industry’s lines. “We are living a moment where fashion’s identity is missing,” claims Cortázar. “Everyone wants to run their own race, appropriating images and information from others.”
Cortázar’s belief that fashion can be in the hands of everyone led to another pivotal moment in his life, and this time, not only the designer, but Colombia made headlines around the world. In July 2017, Cortázar turned Colette, a Parisian concept store that had earned cult status into a typical Colombian “tiendita.” Colette, a high-fashion emporium founded in 1997 by Colette Roussaux and her daughter, Sarah Andelman, was about to close its doors, and for its final oeuvre, asked the Colombian designer to make a big splash on the fashion scene. So, Esteban, decked the shelves with hand-woven mochilas from La Guajira, typical sweets from Cartagena, art books, accessories and carefully curated products that all Colombians are familiar with, but to outsiders, a source of amusement and curiosity.
For twelve days, the aesthetic of a typical “tiendita” found in towns across this country graced Rue Saint-Honoré, and many of items were sent to the French capital expressly for an occasion that also celebrated 2017 as Colombia-France Year. The store even served guests a menu of Colombian dishes created by chef Carlos Peñarredonda of the Parisian-based restaurant Candelaria. “What started out as something small became the biggest project of my career,” said Cortázar of the Colette show and which gave an opportunity for the Colombian government to showcase its artisan heritage and promote tourism in a year in which the country was embracing a post-conflict. “Colombia isn’t just crafts and coffee,” remarked the designer to Fashion Network, also breaking stereotypes of a war-ravaged nation. Newspapers Le Figaro, Guardian, The New York Times heralded Estaban’s Colombia-happening as “sizzling the Seine,” a “fiesta of craftsmanship,” and “celebration of kitsch.” Colombian rapper J Balvin even had a unique hoodie designed for the occasion.
Even though the designer didn’t want his Pandora’s Box of Colombian objects to “feel too serious,” he has proven to be earnestly serious in every stitch and thread of this work. From Lady Gaga hashtagging her #EstebanCortazar top to Lindsay Lohan inviting millions to follow her latest Colombian accessory, Esteban, is also motivated to make fashion an agent of social change. “I love to give. To use my story to inspire young kids, so one day they can pursue their dreams,” he says, quietly slipping The City Paper a “chiva” (news flash) about his next big Colombia-inspired project. “I hope to one day create a platform for vulnerable children, to empower them.”
Future collaborations with Medellín-based Seven Seven are also in the works, but as Vogue’s “most uninhabited designer” continues to expand his retail exposure in Barneys New York, Bergdorff Goodmans, Le Printemps, among 30 stores worldwide, as well as create a line of Pop Up stores, Colombia remains a powerful messenger of expression, whether it be in his ‘Chontaduro’ or the couture.