CALI, Colombia — At a top fashion event in the coastal city of Buenaventura this year, a pair of towering models strutted down the catwalk in a red mini dress with flutters inspired by an open seashell and a blue and gold dress fit for a modern-day queen.
The models were black and the fabrics were imported from Africa — unusual for a major fashion show in Colombia. But what stood out the most was the designer himself: Esteban Sinisterra Pazone 23-year-old university student with no formal design training who is at the center of a fashion boom in Afro-Colombia.
“Decolonizing the human being,” is the goal of his work, he said, along with showing the world an expansive view of “the elegance of identity.”
Mr. Sinisterra is the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Márquez, an environmental activist and lawyer who on Sunday will become Colombia’s first black vice president.
In a nation where race and class often define a person’s status, Ms. Márquez, 40, has made a remarkable leap from deep poverty to the presidential palace, elevating the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.
In the space of a few months, she has not only pushed racism and classism to the center of the national debate, but has also revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, ditching starched shirts and suits in favor of a distinctly Afro-Colombian look that she calls a form . of the rebellion.
Natural hair. Bold prints. Dresses that highlight her curves.
But Ms. Márquez and Mr. Sinisterra are merely the most visible ambassadors of an Afro-Colombian aesthetic explosion that supporters say is part of a broader movement that demands greater respect for millions of black Colombians.
In a nation where 40 percent of households living on less than $100 a month – a rate that has risen during the pandemic – Afro-Colombians are among the poorest groups, with the areas where they dominate, including the Pacific coast, some of the most neglected for generations politicians.
Officially, Black Colombians compose between 6 and 9 percent of the population. But many say this is an undercount that perpetuates a lack of recognition.
“Colonialism tried to erase black people,” he said Leah Samantha Lozano41, who started outfitting her hip-hop and reggae band, Voodoo Souljahsin African textiles more than a decade ago, positioning her as a pioneer in the movement.
In 2014, she became the first black woman to walk the runway at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.
Today, politically oriented brands of African descent have proliferated online and in stores in Cali, a major center of Afro-Colombian culture, with black celebrities, models, politicians and activists increasingly using clothing as a political tool. And the Petronio Álvarez Festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian culture that draws hundreds of thousands of people to Cali, has emerged as the movement’s fashion week.
Ms. Lozano now sells a glamorous hip-hop-inspired line in a major mall in the capital, Bogota.
“A big part of the plan was to make us ashamed of who we are, of our colors, of our culture, of our features,” he continued. “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’s political. And, yes, it is a symbol of resistance.”
Among the signatures of the movement are brightly patterned fabrics called keri, which are extremely popular throughout West, East and Central Africa and are renowned for telling stories and sending messages through their images and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, with tubes of lipstick, faces of religious figures, or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)
The Afro-Colombian aesthetic often references nature — Mr. Sinisterra has a dress with wing-like sleeves inspired by Colombia’s famous butterflies — and can incorporate intricate beaded jewelry and woven bags by artists from Colombia’s many indigenous communities.
Leaders of the movement include not only Ms. Márquez, but also Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murraín, 62, Mr. Sinisterra’s mentor who in 2004 started Weaving Hope, a multi-day celebration of Black hair in Cali.
Colombia’s crowning moment is years, many would say centuries, in the making, based on activism in Latin America, Africa and the United States. The loose street style of hip-hop and the sparkling star vibes of Afrofuturism. the turbans of Colombian market women. The mermaid silhouettes of Senegal and Nigeria. even the influence of Michelle Obama, who famously used clothes to make political statements.
The aesthetic is also expansive and fluid, including casual wear – like tunics from the brand Baobab by Consuelo Cruz Arboleda — and exhibits like Mr. Sinisterra’s Royal Imperialism, a tight, ruffled strapless gown, the grandeur of which he said embodied the modern cultural empire that African descendants have built in the Colombian Pacific.
“We are transforming the image we have of power,” he said Edna Liliana Valencia36, popular Afro-Colombian journalist, poet and activist.
Mr. Sinisterra is one of the younger stars of this movement. Born into a poor family in the small town of Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé, near the Pacific Ocean, his family was forcibly displaced by armed men when he was 5 years old, among the millions of Colombians who have fallen victim to the country’s decade-long internal conflict.
In the nearby town of Guapi, and later in the port of Buenaventura, Mr. Sinisterra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called “the designers of the neighborhood.”
“Esteban African,” he said of his clothing line, “started out of a need 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 to make a name for himself by designing increasingly elaborate pieces for a growing list of clients, finding inspiration online and selling his work on Instagram and Facebook. Then, in 2019, Ms. Márquez called. He had been referred by a mutual friend and needed an outfit.
Mr. Sinisterra is in his seventh of eight semesters at university. When he’s not in the classroom, he sews the vice president’s clothes in a windowless room in his small apartment in Cali. His friend, Andrés Mena, 27, is a former nurse who changed careers to become general manager of Esteban African.
Among the brand’s best-known items are two pairs of earrings. One shows the map of Colombia, with the 32 departments engraved. A second looks like two gold spheres meant to resemble the mining pans Ms. Márquez used as a child miner in the mountains of Cauca, near the Pacific coast, long before she became famous.
Mrs. Márquez once slept on a dirt road next to her brothers. She later worked as a maid to support her children, went to law school and eventually won a prize known as the environmental Nobel.
In an interview, she described Mr. Sinistera’s work as a crucial part of her identity politics. “It shows young people that they can succeed, using their talent, they can get ahead,” he said.
Mr. Sinisterra has never been to Africa. A visit is his dream, along with fashion studies in Paris and “to build a school where Pacific children can have alternatives,” he said, “and their parents, unlike mine, won’t believe that sewing, cutting and making clothes is only for girls.”
Today, he said, his father is proud of his work.
Lately he’s been inundated with media and client requests and manages his newfound fame by working around the clock.
One day in July, barefoot and sweaty, he laid a pair of cloths on the floor, cut them by hand, then sewed them together using a new Jinthex sewing machine he had bought with his now-improved wages. She was making another dress for Mrs. Márquez.
On Election Day in June, he draped her in kente cloth, a Ghanaian print whose interlocking lines evoke basket weaves, to symbolize the gathering of votes.
The dress had a ruffle on the front, representing the rivers in Ms. Márquez’s home region, and the jacket on her shoulders, all white, symbolized peace, she said, “in this country that is so torn by political attitudes.”
She has made three outfits for opening day. “Whatever he chooses is fine with me,” she said.
As he ironed the newly sewn piece, he said he was both excited and worried about Ms. Márquez’s rise to power.
In recent months, he has come to feel part of her political agenda and has made huge promises to transform the country after decades of injustice.
“The liability will grow,” he said.
“My responsibility, Francia’s responsibility, to support this process so that the people – our people – do not feel betrayed.”