Colombia’s Jorge Duque a star act at Bogotá Fashion Week

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Colombian fashion designer Jorge Duque in his Bogotá atelier. Photo: Gustavo Perdomo.

Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” is playing as I wait for Jorge Duque to prepare two cups of coffee, which he makes sure to mention are made with ground beans from Cumbal, Nariño. His atelier, located in a quaint, outwardly unassuming, matte black house in Chapinero, is tailor-made by Jorge himself to accurately reflect his eponymous brand’s identity, from chairs made from hand-slashed leather to a golden ceiling crafted from plastic bottles.

“Our core is the handling of materials”, he says “so it’s important to reflect that. It’s like going to a flagship store, it’s the introduction to the brand. If a client sits here, I want her to leave thinking that whatever she thinks of, that is possible with me.” Mission accomplished. Coffee brewed, the Antioquia-born designer sits down to chat.

We begin by discussing his team’s preparation for their upcoming show at this year’s Bogotá Fashion Week (BFW). “You can’t imagine,” he sighs, “this is rush hour. These three weeks are insane. You have a project and feel like everything is missing. Nothing is tangible, everything is in the middle of a process. It’s a chicharrón (pork rind or Colombian colloquial term for ‘problem’). I’m running on autopilot”.

While Duque Vélez is one of the most highly-renowned names in Colombian fashion, this is perhaps unsurprising, all things considered. A lot goes on behind a garment, from the mannequin to proportions, to fittings. “That is where a dress begins. First I have to understand the body in its three-dimensionality.” Then, come the materials, which are arguably the toughest part of the process for any respectable Colombian clothesmaker. Jorge has to figure out how fabrics fall, how they transform when placed on top of a mannequin, and how they can be altered – but also how he is going to source them. Almost no fabrics (or materials in general) are Colombian.

“In our country, there are no spinning mills, the factories that make the threads with which a cloth is sewn and woven. The spinning industry collapsed and the weaving industry followed suit. Textile ranges are very limited. There is absolutely nothing that I can use. There is no silk, no wool…100 percent of the material has to be imported.”

Once the gargantuan task of sourcing and transporting yards of fabric is settled, everything else comes down to “teamwork.” Jorge and a crew of mostly young students from Bogotá’s top fashion design schools are hard at work. They make patterns, molds, sizing scales, and fabric samples. “We define the silhouette, the type of wardrobe that we are going to achieve and advance to a final product,” he says. “Then, there are the costs…but I have no idea about that”, he laughs. Once the garment is done, the chicharrón of the campaign begins. “I use a stylist because as a creative director, I am not capable of getting into that. It’s too much information at once.”

Duque has a long-standing partnership with Angélica Diazgranados, one of our country’s top names in wardrobe design. If not with her, Jorge reaches out to a team in Los Angeles, but it’s never he who makes final image decisions. “I get involved in everything, but I put everything on trial. I never go to a casting without a stylist, because what seems fine to me, is not like that to them. Designers are not always right”, he highlights. Jorge doesn’t set foot in a campaign shoot as he would rather be surprised.

When asked about what showgoers and fashion enthusiasts can expect from this closing runway at BFW, he mentions more than a fair share of eye-openers. Everything that characterizes the brand – glam, glitz, sculptured pieces — will be there, but there is more. The story behind the show came to Jorge three-and-a-half months ago: “It’s an introspective narrative of what my label does”, he says. “I will place a veil of surrealism over the wardrobe, colored in deep shades of black, purple, and chocolate.”

Bridal collection by Jorge Duque Vélez/courtesy Jorge Duque

Looking for a clash between pre-Hispanic and colonial South America – without parting from his habitual glamorized standpoint – Duque Vélez hopes to explore how this violent past plays into the modern woman’s dress code. “I want geometric shapes, something to do with indigenous armor. Then, something a bit more ladylike, more Europeanised from the point of view of the silhouette.”

Speaking of silhouettes, it is plain to all who have followed his trajectory, for Jorge, women, or a woman’s form, is at the center of everything. “Sometimes I feel like Colombian beauty is alienated beauty. They all look very pretty, but sometimes one feels they are told to wear something. They all look very prestigious, very nice, but they all look the same.” Strong words from a designer whose garments have been worn by everyone, from vocalist Goyo (who he deeply admires), to TV presenters, beauty queens, models, and everything in between. Is there a Colombian icon he would love to dress? “Perhaps Karol G. To me, it’s more interesting to know that someone is buying a piece because they’re going to “party ‘till they drop’ at Coachella.’” Jorge celebrates clients who enjoy ‘living’ creations.

Duque Vélez also has one strong, undisputed muse for this collection, singer Kali Uchis. “I understand a woman like that. Her visuals impress me. I feel like she truly represents us rustic Latinos.” That “rustic” femininity, which for some borders on grotesque, defines Latin Glam for Jorge.

That’s Colombian Latin Glam to him. And just as Colombian? “fajas”. “We’re going to have some of these at BFW, as well. “We’re going to make a wedding dress out of girdles. That, to me, is the great Colombian garment”. It all sounds like a lot to take in, especially for a creative known for not being too keen on accessorizing. “I hope people are moved. Let’s hope it all comes together!” he laughs.

The girdle conversation drives him to speak about something he’s profoundly passionate about – bridalwear. One of the financially healthiest segments in fashion, it drives enough cash to guarantee the survival of the brand. To blend both this and editorial design, his self-proclaimed consentida, he will be putting seven bridal looks on the runway. Just not like one would expect, meaning white and its variants will be nowhere to be seen. “We’ll have black, gold, and nude. I don’t go to a runway show to sell clothes.” Indeed, it is far more interesting to see how a brand’s language permeates the BFW audience.

Jorge has always followed the path less traveled. As designer who taught himself to sew at age twelve, fashion first came to him as a hobby. His area of study was nowhere near any creative pursuits – Jorge is a physiotherapist. According to him, the transition from one thing to the other is completely organic. “I didn’t realize it. One day this just took up 100 percent of my time. I already had my little workshop in this very house. And of course, I went bankrupt. I’ve had my fair share of economic hardships – which everyone has – but in the end, it worked out.” The eclectic house, now a full-fledged worskhop, was once the family’s home.

A background in orthotics and prosthetics set the stage for what Duque Vélez is most celebrated for – corsets. “I am seduced by sculpture,” he says. “It is how human beings constantly try to change shape, altering themselves anthropomorphically. I am a physiotherapist, and I like aesthetics”. Jorge’s sharp corsetry looks more like head-turning undergarments than classic lingerie. For Jorge, the artist, garments must have a simple surrealist charge. “I never sought to be recognized for those pieces, but I admit that they are visually powerful. They are identifiable.”

Identifiable enough for New York’s FIT to obtain one for their collection, something that is only a pipe dream for most brands. “They had been analyzing the brand for four years, and they decide to unlock a new level. It will be exhibited from May 30 at the Viva la Vida exhibition in NYC.” Is this the most important milestone for Duque Vélez? He can’t say. For someone who can count on winning a reality TV show, opening and closing fashion weeks, and having his clothes featured in editorials for Vogue Italia, it’s easy to understand why it might all be a bit foggy. “It all stayed there, in the past. I always think of the present as the most special moment one has. We will all one day become anachronistic. On that day I will retire.”

Duque cites the legacies of luxury giants like Loewe and Cartier, and is as unapologetic as his clothes. “I don’t know what form “heritage” has. I don’t know how it’s done…but how nice would it be to achieve it.” For Jorge, brands that manage to create a heritage, do it by achieving an identifiable aesthetic narrative over decades. “You see a Pucci and you see a recognizable heritage. Hermés has the Birkin, Fendi has the Baguette. Norma Kamali made her name because she understood lycra drapings and cut-outs, Diane von Fürstenberg created the wrap dress; Sonia Rykiel lives-off knitting; Chanel from tweed”, he affirms. This is his dream, to create a piece, just one, that consolidates the Duque Vélez label. “I still don’t know if I do anything identifiable.” We beg to differ.

A 20 Questions with Jorge Duque. IG: @jorgeduquevelez

Favorite restaurant in Bogotá? Contracorriente. Their Catch of the Day is spectacular.

Your favorite dish in Bogotá? The mondongo from Las cazuelas de la abuela, in Chapinero. I love it.

Your go-to place for drinks? Río.

Your go-to drink? A Martini. Dry.

Your favorite book? El libro de los símbolos by Taschen.

Your favorite visual or plastic artist? El Bosco, no second thoughts.

A Colombian brand you love? Papel de Punto, I like their aesthetic. And Creep Brand, from Medellín

Your favorite spot in the city? My home.

Your favorite thing to do in Bogotá? I love the Museum of Modern Art (MAMBO).