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Afro-Columbians are stepping up their fashion

By: Iris Shen

This year at Buenaventura, a premier fashion event was held. The models were Black and the fabrics they wore were imported from Africa, which was highly unusual for a major fashion show in Colombia. But what most distinguished them was the designer himself: 23-year-old university student Esteban Sinisterra Paz, who had no formal design training.

He said “decolonization of the human being,” is the aim of his work, along with showing the world an expansive view of “the elegance of identity.” Sinisterra is the designer for Francia Márquez, an environmental activist and lawyer who will become Colombia’s first Black vice president.

In a country where 40 percent of families live on less than $100 a month, Afro-Colombians are among the poorest groups and some of the most neglected by generations of politicians. Black Colombians make up between 6 to 9 percent of the population. But many say that is an undercount that perpetuates a lack of recognition.

In 2014, 41-year-old Lia Samantha Lozano became the first Black woman with a runway show at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.

“A big part of the plan was to make us feel ashamed of who we are, of our colors, of our culture, of our features,” she said. “To wear this every day, not as ‘fashion,’ not to dress up for a special occasion, but as a way of life, as something you want to communicate every day — yes, it is political. And, yes, it is a symbol of resistance.”

In an interview, she called Mr. Sinisterra’s work a critical part of her political identity. “He’s showing young people that they can succeed, using their talent, they can get ahead,” she said. Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. A visit is his dream, along with studying fashion in Paris and “building a school where the children of the Pacific can have alternatives, and their parents, unlike mine, will not think that sewing and cutting and making clothes is only for girls.”

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