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FIT Museum Explores Latin American Designers - 2002-03-15

New York's Fashion Institute of Technology is recognizing the influence of Latin American designers on the U.S. fashion scene in a new exhibition.

The exhibit - "Exploring Identities on the New York Runaway" - takes an unprecedented look at the evolutionary role of Latin American designers in U.S. fashion.

Through a selection of nearly 100 garments, accessories and photographs, the show highlights the styles of new and celebrated Latin American designers in New York City.

The work of established high fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta, originally from the Dominican Republic, and Venezuelan-born Carolina Herrera, is juxtaposed with the garments of a younger generation, including Cubans Isabel Toledo and Narciso Rodriguez. Fashion Institute of Technology professor Patricia Mears says this is the first exhibit of its kind, despite the growing role of Latin Americans in U.S. society.

"It's very ironic that Latin America represents the largest ethnic population in our culture, whether you're talking about high art, or things for the pop-culture or mainstream, very little attention has been paid to their impact in the fashion world," she says. " They've had tremendous impact, some of it going all the way back to the turn of the century."

New York has been the historic center of both the U.S. fashion industry and immigrant communities from throughout Latin America. So it is not surprising that the city became a hub for Latin American designers.

The designers are known for their frequent use of lace and the color black. But bright shades of pink, blue and yellow associated with Mexico, Peru and Guatemala are noticeable on dresses manufactured in the United States as far back as World War II. In an effort to create a purely American style, designers such as Vera Maxwell looked away from Nazi-occupied France, and turned south.

Curator Cathy Maguire says there is no unifying theme to the exhibit. Instead, the curators focused on the question "What is Latin American fashion?"

"What we endeavor to do is show the huge scope of the amount of work that has been done by Latin American designers," she explains. " And from one designer to another, that can mean very different approaches with very different end results."

Traditions that play an important role in Latin American life and art, such as Catholicism, surrealism and dance, have had a strong impact on the designers' style. For example, one collection conjures images of Spanish Flamenco and the Argentine tango of the 1920s. Ms. Macguire says a silk Oscar de la Renta dress from 1969, covered with embroidered yellow flowers, comes alive on the dance floor.

"Although the tailoring is very, very simple, what makes this an incredible piece for dance is that the bottom half of the dress is just this long black fringe," explains Ms. Maguire. " Even though it's really simple, it's really powerful when it's moved in."

Another section of the exhibit illustrates the influence of Spanish art on Latin American designers. Curator Maguire says the so-called "Kangaroo Dress," is representative of Isabel Toledo's unique sense of style.

"It's draped so that there's a kangaroo pouch across the woman's stomach, which most women would have a problem with, having so much fullness around the stomach. But this dress is one of the most sophisticated dresses I've ever seen. It's just beautiful," she says.

European designers continue to make their mark on U.S. fashion. But the curators at this exhibit say it is time to fully recognize Latin Americans - whose styles are a familiar part of the New York runway.