(Originally published on April 13, 2012 in PeruthisWeek.com)
“One of the things I appreciate about New York is that you’re able to come close to so many different expressions of art, not just fashion,” Lucia Cuba tells me when we meet one snowy morning in her neighborhood of Williamsburg-Brooklyn, NY.
“For example, the installation by artist Judy Chicago in the Brooklyn Museum, Dinner Party,” she continues. Chicago completed the massive installation that depicts an ornate table setting for thirty-nine historical female figures in 1979. “It’s that type of content, preparation and levels of interpretation that I’d like my work to have.”
So, who is Lucia Cuba? She’s a Peruvian designer and social scientist. She holds a Master’s in psychology and a Ph.D. in public health, both from Cayetano Heredia University, Lima, Peru. Currently in New York culminating a two-year Master of Fine Arts in Fashion Design and Society at Parsons New School for Design, Cuba will graduate in May when she presents her final project entitled Artículo 6.
A unique perspective on fashion
“My master’s thesis is based on the case of forced voluntary surgical contraceptives that occurred in Peru between 1995 and 2000. The installation talks about [ex-president] Fujimori, about the women in provincial towns, all these local levels that I’m representing in a very universal manner. I’m posing it from a place of empowerment and not of mourning.”
Cuba isn’t your average designer. Since taking her first steps in the formal world of fashion when she founded her clothing label Lucco in 2004, she has been a participant of the Peruvian fashion community that has emerged with tremendous strength and growth since the early 2000s.
However, Cuba’s contribution to fashion isn’t in setting trends for the next season. It has been a more subtle yet valuable contribution to the formation of an industry still in its infancy.
Perhaps it’s her aesthetic inclination that sets her apart, one that focuses on symmetry, structural pieces, and simple lines. Form and construction crowd her thoughts, not market trends. “I’m interested in seeing the logic behind what’s simple, what’s geometric and what’s comfortable,” Cuba says.
Or perhaps it’s the continuous self-reflection and analysis of fashion as it relates to society that sets her apart from the more retail-friendly designers. “My work is more theoretical, I like that it has content,” asserts Cuba. Possibly too much content, she quips, telling me how she’s constantly looking for the middle ground in her work.
“I don’t want to leave behind the aesthetic aspect, my own proposition as a designer, but how do I achieve to rescue the narratives [of Artículo 6] while having it be comprehensible to different publics?”
For Cuba, it’s a balancing act. Surely what makes fashion fascinating is having an unique voice and making a statement, but Cuba knows it’s equally important to be relevant. Her short but influential career reveals how Cuba sees and understands fashion.
Becoming a designer in Peru
“I would make garments as a hobby. At least at home that was always possible. My mom sewed and made our clothes when we were little,” Cuba recalls of the creative atmosphere she grew up in. She came to love psychology in college but it was an adventurous stint in Bolivia, when she created her brand Lucco for a fashion show, that she felt “a great desire to know more about what fashion design entailed,” Cuba recalls.
In 2005, Cuba began her formal studies in fashion design at CEAM, the Center for Studies in Fashion in Lima. “That’s what I did for two years, I worked as a psychologist at Cayetano University and at night I studied fashion design.” Her incursion into the industry coincided with a boom in urban design in Peru.
Loosely defined as the emergence of alternative propositions to clothing massively produced in retail outlets, urban design (also known as alternative fashion) grew as the demand for original and exclusive styles increased. “I connected with different people and friends encouraged me to showcase my creations. So little by little I began to participate and my brand slowly went in that direction, of independent and urban design.”
She sold her designs at La Pulga in Miraflores, a boutique that emerged in this environment as a haven for independent Peruvian designers. “I started defining my brand and my market. I started a business project, so to speak,” Cuba explains.
In the process, Cuba applied to Flashmode 2006, an event sponsored by Peru’s Alianza Francesa aimed to showcase and support up-and-coming designers. “It was a wonderful experience. I met a lot of dedicated and authentic people.” She won the Young Designer award, propelling her to enter the Young Creators to the World contest sponsored by PeruModa, the industry’s largest trade fair, the following year. Cuba won the first prize.
Encouraged and empowered to continue paving her own path, Cuba says “the next step was to continue to develop something that would respond to the urban and independent market, because I definitely feel that I’m not mainstream in terms of what’s commercial.”
She may not be commercial in terms of mass market but Cuba recognizes that urban design has the potential to be a major reference as a particular kind of fashion in Peru. “It allows for the development of new platforms for fashion and in some way a [platform to] rebuild the industry.”
In 2008, as part of the PeruModa prize, Cuba finished an internship with the brand Kenzo in Paris, France, and it was there that she delved into her work as a fashion scholar. “I was able to give my first talk on fashion design and the development of independent fashion in Peru. It was also a sort of reflection, to see what was happening with me as a brand.”
She began to focus on the theoretical aspect of design, more than the practice of it. Cuba developed academic courses on the sociology of fashion and the Peruvian reality, which she taught at CEAM. They aimed to “generate an inclination towards the critical construction of fashion by way of social analysis,” Cuba explains.
“I don’t think you can be a designer without developing that critical capacity; of whatever you’re doing but you should have it.” I ask Cuba if fashion institutes in Peru are equipped to instruct on fashion analysis and theory. Unfortunately, many aren’t. “They called me from another institution to teach a class but I couldn’t. So they asked me to recommend someone because they can’t find anyone,” she recalls.
Within any society, a culture of fashion emerges parallel to a “development of local theory. If we don’t have a base to use as a reference, then from where?,” Cuba questions. Acquiring the necessary tools to question and appreciate the diversity in Peruvian fashion is important in cultivating quality and innovation.
Homegrown designers should “demand that their work be analyzed, there shouldn’t be such a fear of critique,” Cuba says. A deep understanding of the industry by designers, fashion journalists and aficionados brings legitimacy and instigates growth. “It has to do with the possibility of continuing to promote Peruvian fashion,” at home and abroad.
Proyecto Gamarra, a study on the country’s largest textile and clothing commercial hub, helped Cuba visualize Peru’s industry in a holistic manner. “I created this project for Flashmode in 2009 presenting designs that were based upon the analysis of ethical fashion,” she explains. The garments were made with eco-friendly recycled raffia bags.
“It questioned what people understood as ethical fashion, and ethical labor, which really embarks everything: from the conception to the commercialization of products.” Ethical, in this project, also meant being fair in giving Gamarra the credit it deserves. “Gamarra allows me, all designers, to be here,” acknowledges Cuba.
Cuba also created a website where people could discuss the garments and, importantly, stream information and news about the emporium. Her goal is to create channels for activism and promote original material produced by collaborators, not only designers but also artists of every kind. “It’s a sort of itinerant campaign,” she says.
“I have the possibility to talk through clothing. It’s the biggest thing Proyecto Gamarra has taught me,” Cuba says as she reflects on her journey thus far.
“Clothing becomes a source of content that you can extrapolate. It can be a beautiful garment but if you take it, read it, study and analyze all of the content it contains, it responds to a topic. I’m interested in those levels of interpretation.”
“I began to learn and discover myself here in New York,” Cuba says of her experience living abroad. Along the way, she also realized that her brand Lucco “has completed a cycle that corresponds to my maturing.” Being physically displaced has also helped Cuba observe Peruvian fashion through different perspectives. “I’m more confident in my work as a social scientist and designer.”
The future of fashion in Peru
Last year was an enriching one for Cuba. In between her studies at Parsons, she was able to present the project entitled Peruvian Processes, Fashion and Design at the CCE, Spain’s Cultural Center in Lima. She was in charge of curating the work of seven designers for the exhibit.
“The idea was to analyze emerging and contemporary design. We wanted to highlight the authenticity behind the process with local designers, many who are self-taught; it’s an important way in which fashion has emerged in Peru,” Cuba explains.
The curated exhibit was arguably one of the first major attempts at presenting Peruvian fashion within an explorative environment, generating an examination of and discussion around the creative process of designing. It’s an important step in cultivating an interest in the serious study of fashion in Peru.
“I will continue to try to understand what goes behind the construction of clothes. I don’t know if what I’m creating is fashion,” Cuba says of her own pursuits as a designer. “I’m creating clothes that can be placed or not on the runways or in stores. I don’t reject the idea of commercializing what I do, but right now what I’m doing responds to an artistic result more than a commercial result.”
For Cuba, there’s a moral and professional commitment to completing and presenting the Artículo 6 project. Her desire is to generate awareness on the public health issue that affected and violated the rights of thousands of Peruvian women. “I’m working on interpretations of moments and narratives of gender, strength and politics,” she says.
“My work, from the visual and aesthetic side, is a tool and I’ve been able to say, ‘This is what’s happening.’ Clothing is an agent for change made material.”
Innovative designer, fashion scholar and proponent of an ethical (in its various manifestations) and autonomous Peruvian fashion industry. “Fashion does exist in Peru but not just one, there are Peruvian fashions,” Cuba claims.
Lucia Cuba is an engaging individual who encourages dialogue, a supportive fashion community and design that pushes boundaries. “We’re in the beginning stages of being able to define a plan of action that will allow fashion [in Peru] to grow organically, not forced.”
(By Susana Aguirre)