Magic Realism at Dominicana Moda

The streets of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial come alive at night: it is after dusk, once the relentless sun has set and the temperatures have dropped, that people go outside, setting chairs in front of open colmados to talk or play dominoes and drinking and smoking cigars in terraces. Bachata, merengue, and salsa music fill the air… And, in the midst of it, a very dressy and chatty local crowd makes its way to the renaissance-built Fortaleza Ozama for a fashion show. We are at the Dominican Republic’s capital for fashion week, unsure of what to expect and completely illiterate in matters of Dominican fashion bar, of course, Oscar de la Renta.



Giannina Azar show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


The week’s first show doesn’t disappoint. A front row full of hourglass figures, sparkly outfits, perfect brushings, and platform shoes is overjoyed looking at Giannina Azar’s exuberant body con dresses in handmade Swarovski crystal-embroidered macramé, and goes wild at the finale, when local reggaeton star Natti Natasha dances down the runway in a rich purple number. It’s like nothing we have ever witnessed in Europe (although comparisons to Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain wouldn’t be out of place), and yet, after the show, people swarm over the designer as if she was the Donatella Versace of the Caribbean.

 

Which she actually kind of is: her designs have been prominently worn by an array of Latin stars from Thalía to Jennifer Lopez to Maluma, but the likes of Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé are also clients. “It’s really moving for me every time I get a call from a celebrity, to think that they resonate with my ‘more is more’ philosophy,” she tells us, unabashedly proud of her aesthetic, which she herself describes as “too much.” But there is a method to her excess. “If I go overboard with sparkle and shape, I stay monochrome to avoid weighing everything down. This collection was inspired by the Dominican jungle, and that was visible mainly in the leaf green and warm flower tones,” she explains.

 


Giannina Azar show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


Giannina is the perfect example of a market whose aesthetic canon is the complete opposite to Europe’s, and which goes underserved by our traditional luxury brands. Apart from the occasional Saint Laurent, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton bag, you won’t see many Paris, Milan, or New York brands here. The wealthy Dominican woman (who often shares her time between Santo Domingo and Miami or other Caribbean countries) wants fashion that caters to her own unapologetically sexy style. Beauty here equals vibrant colours, curves, full on make-up, and all the workings of hyper femininity and can make a foreigner feel like Ally McBeal in a world of Kardashians. Plastic surgery – an industry which has boomed here in the last few years to the point of becoming a health tourism destination – is almost mandatory. Front rows are rife with breast implants and lip fillers and hardly anyone has the nose they were born with. Men, for their part, are adept to skinny jeans displaying footballer-like thighs, satin tuxedo jackets, and high chiseled cheekbones, and they are catered to by designers like José Jhan (who, as we will discover after his show, is actually only designing on the side of his day job as PR for international bachata legend Juan Luis Guerra). Yet there is a sense of proudness to all of these aesthetic workings.

 


Cayena show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


“It all comes down to the current economic climate,” explains Sócrates McKinney, Director of the Fashion Week since its inception 12 years ago. Sócrates is an elegant, well-traveled character usually clad in more conservative black and white, even if he doesn’t hesitate to sport a Jean Paul Gaultier-like long skirt. Over Presidente beers in between two shows, he talks about the long road that has led to the current recognition of Dominicana Moda as the most important fashion event of the Caribbean. “When we started, in 2006, it was not a good moment for Dominican Republic.” The country experienced a severe recession in 2002 after a series of banking corruption scandals and capital flights and for a few years relied heavily on income coming from emigrated Dominicans (which made up for as much as 10% of the country’s gross domestic product) before remarkably turning things around. Today’s economy is the 9th in Latin America and the first in the Caribbean and grows at an average rate of 5.3% per year fueled by tourism and the service sector. “The odds are in our favor now,” says Sócrates. “The Hispaniola island is competitive production-wise. Factories in the border between Dominican Republic and Haiti manufacture clothes for the likes of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Tory Burch; artisans, seamstresses, and shoemakers are skilled, and we have free trade agreements with the EU through the Caribbean Export Agency as well as political initiatives through Caricom and Cariforum, which allow us to build a stronger, more united local market. It’s also the reason why I always bring designers from other Caribbean countries to show here (this season, there are samples of Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and Haitian design). Our problem at the moment lies with the import of textiles, which we don’t produce, and which drive the prices of Dominican fashion up,” he admits.



Backstage at the Cayena show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


Sócrates’s thoroughly realistic vision is striking and shared by almost everyone in the local industry. Good times can’t make designers forget their country’s inequalities, and many strive to make a social and ecological difference through their work. It’s the case of Cayena, a brand established by the country’s Vice President Margarita Cedeño to support artisan women working in the most impoverished areas. This season, accessories made out of leather and raffia from an invasive reed species were the highlights of the collection (and would be guaranteed to rake in likes worn by boho chic instagirls worldwide). Understanding their potential among foreigners, Cedeño explained they will be sold mostly in tourist-oriented shops in strategic points of the country such as Punta Cana or Puerto Plata.


Also making reality her key to success is Jenny Polanco, who caters to a different kind of Caribbean woman, more Old World. “It’s not a coincidence: I’ve been working on my brand for the past 40 years,” she says backstage before her show, sporting a wide smile, decadent smoky glasses, and a leg cast, a result of a minor accident a week ago which doesn’t, however, prevent her from running around giving orders. Jenny’s trademark pieces are dresses, palazzo pants, and wide shirts in white linen, “a slightly hippier version of what Caribbean women want, which is to look dressed to the nines, impeccable, and a bit flirty,” says the designer. Apparently, Caribbean women are not the only ones who want her collections: Jenny Polanco is also sold in 14 states across the US. “But lately I’ve been scaling back,” she admits. “I was working 24/7, doing all the international trade shows. Lately I’ve shifted my focus to work more with artisans and produce more handmade clothes for the Caribbean market.”



Jenny Polanco show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


Maybe it’s this earnest attitude which makes Jenny the most revered figure in today’s Dominican fashion scene. She is the one students mention as a reference during a visit to Altos de Chavón, the local fashion school, which has a partnership with Parsons New York. Here, future designers learn fashion with their feet firmly planted on Earth, and their reflections on the industry are a refreshing change from the often-entitled views of their colleagues in more privileged countries. “Starting my own brand? It’s not something I have given any thought to, really… Maybe in the long run, after gaining enough experience from other people,” says 2nd year student Mery. When it comes to the dilemma between staying home or working abroad, she is torn. “Knowing different markets is, of course, a strength; I’d love to work in New York for a while, but I’m not necessarily obsessed with luxury houses or fashion capitals. It’s about finding something that works for you.”



Backstage at the Jenny Polanco show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 


Which is exactly what Carolina Sanz did. A bubbly blonde with a downtown Manhattan look, this designer worked for five years at Rosie Assoulin and Oscar de la Renta (Fernando García, Creative Director of the latter and also a Dominican, is actually also here, getting ready to show the brand’s resort collection in a public show in the legendary Parque Colón as the grand finale to Dominicana Moda the next evening). Carolina has just come back to Santo Domingo for good, to launch her own brand. With a tasteful presentation on the patio of a colonial house, she introduced a collection inspired by the flora and fauna of Hispaniola, mixed with cotton poplin gingham in cutout cocktail dresses and high-rise skirts worn with bralettes, all of it crowned with halo-like artisan-made straw hats. “To me, it’s the perfect fusion between my home country’s style and what I have learned abroad. My goal with my new brand is to have everything made in Dominican Republic, to make something firmly based here but with an international projection, now that I can,” she says. Her whimsical chic and softly feminine collection looks like it could have mad potential in the EU, Asian, and US markets. “But first, the Caribbean,” she concludes, before being dragged by her PR to meet the US Ambassador.



Backstage at the Carolina Sanz show in Santo Domingo during Dominicana Moda 2018. Photo by Amandine Hui Boissy for NOWFASHION. 

“That’s, after all, the thing about us,” explains Sócrates. “The Caribbean is comprised of so many islands, all coming from a Spanish, French, British, and Dutch background, which makes for a rich mix of aesthetic references, some with more European influence, some with an African twist, others with a very a very US flavour. It’s a force, but at the same time it has made us live with our backs turned away from each other for way too long. And yet we have so much in common, in fashion as much as elsewhere… I firmly believe a powerful common market would enforce our region globally.  Then we will be ready to take over the world.”