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Cali, Colombia — At this year’s premier fashion event in the coastal city of Buenaventura, a pair of tall models wore red miniskirts from open shells and one fit for a modern queen.

The models are black, and the fabrics are imported from Africa – unusual for a large fashion show in Colombia. But what sets them apart the most is the designer himself: Esteban Sinistra PazOne A 23-year-old college student with no formal design training is at the center of an explosion of Afro-Colombian fashion.

He said the “decolonization of humanity” was the goal of his work, while showing the world a broad vision of “the elegance of identity”.

Mr. Sinisterra, the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Márquez, an environmental activist and lawyer, will become Colombia’s first black vice president on Sunday.

In a country where race and class often determine a person’s status, Ms. Márquez, 40, has made a remarkable leap from extreme poverty to the presidency, becoming the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.

Over the course of a few months, not only did she put racism and classism at the center of the national conversation, she revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, ditching the rigid shirts and suits in favor of something she called a For a form of rebellion with a distinct Afro-Colombian look.

natural hair. Bold. Dress that accentuates her curves.

But Ms Márquez and Mr Sinisterra are just the most high-profile ambassadors of the Afro-Colombian aesthetic boom, which supporters say is part of a larger movement calling for more respect for millions of black Colombians.

in a country 40% of households living on less than $100 a month — a percentage that has grown during the pandemic — Afro-Colombian, one of the poorest groups, dominates regions including the Pacific Coast and is the most neglected areas.

Formally, black Colombian makeup Between 6% and 9% s population. But many say it’s an understatement that has long lacked recognition.

“Colonial tried to wipe out black people,” says Leah Samantha LozanoAt 41, she started outfitting her hip-hop and reggae bands, Voodoo Soulin African fabrics more than a decade ago, positioned her as a pioneer of the movement.

In 2014, she became the first black woman to hold a fashion show at Columbiamoda, the country’s largest fashion event.

Today, politically oriented African-American brands are proliferating on the internet, with black celebrities, models, politicians and activists increasingly using clothing as a political tool in stores in Cali, a major center of Afro-Colombian culture. The Petronio Álvarez Festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian culture that draws hundreds of thousands to Cali, has become the movement’s fashion week.

Ms. Lozano now sells bright hip-hop-inspired collections in a large shopping mall in the capital, Bogota.

“A big part of the program is making us ashamed of who we are, our skin color, our culture, our identity,” she continued. “Wear this every day, not for ‘fashion’, not for special occasions, but as a way of life, as something you want to communicate every day — yes, it’s political. And, yes , it is a symbol of resistance.”

One of the movement’s hallmarks is the brightly patterned fabric known as wax, which is popular in West, East and Central Africa and is known for telling stories and delivering messages through pictures and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, including lipstick tubes, faces of religious figures or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)

Afro-Colombian aesthetics often reference nature — Mr. Sinisterra has a dress with wing-like sleeves, inspired by Colombia’s famous butterfly — and can incorporate beaded jewelry and woven bags crafted by artists from Colombia’s many indigenous communities.

The movement’s leaders include not only Ms. Márquez, but also 62-year-old Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murraín, mentor to Mr. Sinisterra, who in 2004 organized a several-day “Weaving of Hope” event in Cali.

Colombia’s clothing moment is years, many would say centuries, in the making, capitalizing on Latin American, African and American activism; hip-hop’s baggy street style and Afro-futuristic sparkling star vibes; Colombian market women hijabs; mermaid silhouettes in Senegal and Nigeria; and even the influence of Michelle Obama, who is known for her sartorial political rhetoric.

The aesthetics are expansive and fluid, too, including everyday wear — like the brand’s robes Baobab by Consuelo Cruz Arboleda — and exhibits like Mr. Sinisterra’s Royal Imperialism, a slinky, ruffled strapless gown whose grandeur he says epitomizes the modern cultural empires of African descent in the Colombian Pacific.

“We’re changing the image of power we have,” said Edna Liliana Valencia36, a popular Afro-Colombian journalist, poet and activist.

Mr Sinisterra is one of the newest stars of the movement. Born into a poor family in the small town of Santa Barbara de Iscund, near the Pacific Ocean, his family was forcibly displaced by armed men when he was 5 years old, becoming a victim of the country’s decades-long civil conflict in Colombia. one of the people.

In the nearby town of Guapi, and later in the port city of Buenaventura, Mr. Sinistra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called “the neighborhood designers.”

“Esteban African,” he says of his clothing line, “started to bring money home.”

Mr Sinisterra wanted to study fashion, but his father thought it was only for girls, so he entered university as a social work student.

But he began designing increasingly sophisticated pieces for more and more clients, finding inspiration online and selling his creations on Instagram and Facebook. Then, in 2019, Ms. Márquez called. She was introduced to him by a mutual friend and needed an outfit.

Mr. Sinisterra is in the seventh of eight semesters at university. When not in class, he sews the vice president’s clothes in a windowless room in his small room. Cali’s apartment. His boyfriend, Andrés Mena, 27, is a former nurse turned general manager at Esteban African.

The brand’s most famous products are two pairs of earrings. One of them is a map of Colombia with 32 departments inscribed on it. The second, which looks like two golden balls, was designed to evoke the mining disks Ms. Márquez used as a child miner in the Cauca Mountains off the Pacific coast, long before she became a household name.

Ms. Márquez once slept on the mud floor next to her siblings. She later worked as a live-in maid to raise her children, went to law school, and eventually won an award known as the Nobel Prize for the environment.

In an interview, she called Mr. Sinistra’s work an important part of her political identity. “He showed young people that they can be successful, that with their talents, they can be successful,” she said.

Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. Visiting is his dream, aside from studying fashion in Paris and “to build a school where Pacific kids can have alternatives,” he said, “and their parents, unlike mine, don’t think sewing, tailoring and making. Clothes are only for girls.”

Today, his father is proud of his work, he said.

Recently slammed by the media and client requests, he manages his newfound fame by working around the clock.

One day in July, with sweaty bare feet, he laid two pieces of fabric on the floor, cut them freehand, and sewed them together with a new Jinthex sewing machine he bought with his now-increasing wages. He is making another dress for Ms. Márquez.

On Election Day in June, he dressed her in Kente, a Ghanaian print whose staggered lines are reminiscent of basket weaving and symbolize the collection of votes.

The frills on the front of the dress represented the rivers in Ms. Márquez’s home region, and the all-white jacket over her shoulders was a symbol of peace, he said, “in a country torn apart by political gestures”.

He made three outfits for Inauguration Day. “I can do whatever she chooses,” he said.

As he ironed his newly sewn clothes, he said he was both excited and anxious about Ms Márquez’s arrival.

Over the past few months, he has come to feel like he is part of her political plan, and after decades of injustice, she has made a huge promise to change the country.

“The responsibility will grow,” he said.

“My responsibility, Francia’s, is to support this process so that the people – our people – do not feel betrayed.”

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