Colombia’s Isabel Henao embroiders nature and art in Silvestre

Silvestre collection by Isabel Henao. Photo: Manuel Olarte.

Isabel Henao has been a household name for Colombian fashion enthusiasts for decades. Her sleek, elegant couture-like gowns have graced red carpets, adorned brides and wedding celebration attendees, and have been worn by socialites, celebrities, and even First Ladies. One thing is for sure — after almost twenty years starring as the industry’s leading lady – Henao knows how to make a dress.

We met Isabel during the final hour of the shoot for her latest collection – Silvestre –  and is gracious to answer our questions in the middle of supervising final fittings, outfit changes and makeup retouches. “We’re all exhausted,” she says with a laugh, as she surveys six-foot-tall South African model Danielle Van Randen donning a wedding gown. “For several years, one of our most important markets has been brides and celebrations. Brides are something that I love to do madly, and since the pandemic it is what we have focused on the most as the brand’s main strategy”.

This, the first collection Henao has released since 2020, is meant to make a statement on what her brand represents today. The self-imposed hiatus also served to consolidate what she stands for. “We chose to hibernate” she says, in stark opposition to what most demi-couturiers, and ready-to-wear brands, opted for in previous years.

The hiatus also served to strengthen her vision and potentialise the impact of the collection, which has been two years in the waiting. Every dress has been imagined to reflect a story, one of an elegant yet unique woman. One who feels feminine, but who loves to feel different, to stand out: “There’s a wonderful description that a journalist once wrote: A woman who flees from excess but who loves the special”. So wedding dresses, yes, but they’re always constructed in a non-traditional manner. “I think it’s important to allow yourself spaces for wonder and for the renewal of creativity”.

Silvestre collection by Isabel Henao. Photo: Manuel Olarte.

As for the evening gowns, the capsule portion of the collection, this time Henao has drifted slightly from her usual color palette of cold hues, violets and blacks, and has included mint tones and green. “I have never worked with green before, I’ve suffered through it! We’re still trying to understand it.” Mustard-colored pieces also meld in with her palette. “We wanted to play, to be honest we are just happy to be able to give life to a collection that was postponed for so long.”

When it comes to materials, Henao makes sure to use only the crème-de-la-crème of fabrics – satins, crêpes and embroidered jacquards which she handpicks and commissions from Italian and French suppliers: “They’re the best at what they do. Sadly, you can’t find fabrics of this quality in Colombia. It’s impossible.” For this collection, buyers will be able to spot elaborate dandelions and chrysanthemums delicately sewn into her romantic pieces.

Colombian fashion designer Isabel Henao. Photo: Andrés Oyuela.

After twenty years bringing out collections, Henao’s brand has experienced important transformations. Besides having a major focus on bridalwear, her label has completely switched from retail to 100% appointment-only atelier. Isabel Henao stores can no longer be found anywhere in the country, nor does she sell her pieces online. It’s all a matter of coherence with her brand: “Our product is so special and unique that it makes no sense to have a stock of sizes. They’re garments that carry a different type of process”. Henao’s clients now have their pick at colors and fabrics, and get involved in a personalized creative process.

She also set aside, at least for the most part, Cozitas, her children’s label, which was born out of her relationship with her daughter. “There comes a time when it’s important to focus your energies and strength on what you enjoy doing the most, and the children’s line… I loved doing it, but it was a market with other types of needs and demands that did not fit us,” reminisces the designer.

“With girls’ dresses, something that’s very special is rarely sought. People don’t usually want to invest in something that will accompany you all your life, because by definition it will not accompany you all that, but three or six months, maximum, depending on how old your little girl is. In that sense, the costs began to make keeping the line open not so viable,” she says.

This year, Isabel took a decision that shocked the industry: She chose to forgo her usual participation in the latest edition of Bogotá Fashion Week. A popular staple within the runway circuits of our country, these no longer make sense to her when she thinks of her brand’s business model. Undoubtedly a tough call for her, who’s always been one of the most highly-anticipated names in such events, for both makers and visitors: “We had to understand that the BFW strategy has to work for a wide range of brands, and that we are not necessarily sheltered within that strategy.

The strategy of the event is aimed at being a platform for wholesale in the international market, and retail here in Colombia. “And we do neither,” she shrugs with a regrettable expression. “We had to make that call with great sadness, and understand that our path at this time may be another. We love the Chamber of Commerce, we love BFW, it’s the first time we haven’t been there, but we understand the different moments we can be in.” Henao will also skip Colombiamoda and other fashion shows, at least for this year. She doesn’t completely rule out participation in the future, but at the moment she wants to focus her efforts on working directly with clients.

Henao, who doesn’t like sketching as much as working with fabrics directly on a mannequin – “fabrics tell you a story” – always felt in her soul she wanted to be a fashion designer. She credits Helen Wong Chong, her professor at Milan’s prestigious Marangoni Fashion Institute, for teaching her very early on that “sometimes one goes to the other side of the world to realize that one has to search with oneself to find that DNA that makes you completely unique as a creator.”

That’s what she’s been doing for the past decades, striving to find inspiration within every time she brings out a collection. Not so formal in her everyday clothes selection, she hardly ever thinks of herself when designing, nor does she think of what people, clients, will want to see her put out. What she does do is try to create an aesthetic experience. Her usual starting points? Art and Nature.

“It’s hard to maintain the capacity for wonder and creative renewal connected every day, but I think it’s about always continuing to wonder, to continue questioning and observing and connecting what one sees and what one feels in the world with the know how, both mine and that of the women who make up the atelier, who are fundamental to me”.

Her years of efforts have brought important triumphs. From becoming well-to-do Colombian women’s favorite bridal and evening designer — Henao’s first bridal gown, and one of her favorite pieces ever, was for an art gallerist, made in indigo fabric, she’s certainly come a long way since then — to headlining fashion events and becoming one of the heavyweights of Colombian fashion design, to dressing, among others, the likes of ex First Lady María Clemencia de Santos for her husband’s presidential inauguration.

A lesson learned from such an experience? How to tackle daunting responsibilities. “María Clemencia was a fundamental support for us, as well as a great pleasure creating for her. You have a responsibility to understand that clothing is a code, that without words it sends a message that can also be political. You have to take many things into account, not only the personality of who you are dressing, but the labels of different times, and the language and orientation of power,” she says.

No easy feat for anyone, but Henao rises to the occasion with grace, as she has done since her first indigo fabric creations.

With the fashion shoot complete, a still-radiant model and fatigued team are left behind. Henao gives us some last words and final wish for the industry: “Each brand or segment has absolutely different needs, which are sometimes difficult to understand or reconcile, but in this diversity lies the capacity we have as a country. It is a matter of intertwining and connecting those changes that are taking place.”

A short Questions and Answers with Isabel:

TCP. Your favorite restaurant in Bogotá?  Semolina

TCP. Your favorite dish in Bogotá? The beetroot cappelletti at Semolina

TCP. You go-to place for drinks? Our bar at home. There’s nothing like the gin my husband makes: Opihr with ginger, pink pepper and rosemary.

TCP. Your favorite book? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

TCP. Your favorite artist or singer? Massive Attack

TCP. Your favorite visual or plastic artist? Olga de Amaral

TCP. Your favorite spot in the city? Quinta Camacho

TCP. Your favorite thing to do in Bogotá? Depends on my mood. Cultural plans, having a delicious meal, or enjoying a sunny morning at a park.

To book an appointment with Isabel Henao, contact her atelier at: (+57) 321 202 5553. Calle 114 No.6A-92, Hacienda Santa Bárbara, Bogotá (By appointment only).

Silvestre collection by fashion designer Isabel Henao. Photo: Manuel Olarte.