A Modern Twist On Mexican Tradition Hits The Runway Handmade rebozos and huipiles are staples of traditional Mexican attire. Designer Carla Fernández re-imagines those garments for runways in Tokyo and Amsterdam.

A Modern Twist On Mexican Tradition Hits The Runway

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Rebozos are long rectangular shawls that came into style in Mexico in the 16th century, worn by men and women, practical and versatile. You can get married in a rebozo. You can wrap your baby in a rebozo. They carry your luto, your grief. And at the end of your life, they can be your shroud.

Rebozos and the huipil, a woven and embroidered blouse or dress, are the two main elements of Mexican traditional dress. Jacki Lyden has been taking a look at clothing this year in her series, The Seams. And she brings us this story about the past and future of traditional garments in Mexico, which designers are re-interpreting.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: It's just a small shed, partly open to the sky, where about a half-dozen men stand behind huge wooden looms, pedaling side-by-side. Their churning feet make a beautiful harmony.

This tiny, rural workshop represents one thread of a supply chain that loops from Mexico's plains and mountains to catwalks in Tokyo to Amsterdam. I've been brought to this back alley in Tenancingo, two hours from Mexico City, by one of the country's leading designers, Carla Fernandez. She takes these hand-made textiles and manipulates them into something contemporary.

CARLA FERNANDEZ: So this is a rebozo.

LYDEN: She unfurls a blue-and-white, fringed shawl, intricately loomed into a tight herringbone pattern, nearly eight feet long.

FERNANDEZ: And then, we just make these cuts and you can use it as a vest. And then, you can turn it upside down and you will see that it becomes more as a blouse or a sweater.

LYDEN: On the body, it's sculptural and edgy. Laid flat, though, the finished garment keeps its rectangular shape.

FERNANDEZ: And also, we leave the fringes of the rebozo, so you can actually see that this is all handmade.

LYDEN: Mexico's rich, raw fabrics - cotton, shaggy sheep's wool, even rough ixtle from cactus fiber - attracted Fernandez as a teen. Indian women in remote villages wore these fabrics themselves, but the ones they sold weren't as elaborate.

FERNANDEZ: I used to tell them no, I don't want this huipil. I want one like the one you're wearing.

LYDEN: Now 41, Fernandez travels constantly to collaborate with indigenous weavers, from the Chiapas to the Yucatan. In special workshops she offers, weavers can develop new skills or learn to market their old ones.

Hundreds of miles away from the rebozo workroom in the mountains of northern Oaxaca, Fernandez has been invited to the city of Tuxtepec to see if local weavers want to become her suppliers.

FERNANDEZ: (Chinantec spoken).

LYDEN: Some of the weavers here speak only a tonal dialect called Chinantec and demonstrate a backstrap loom, which ties around the waist to a pole. Fernandez is surrounded by women in long braids, wearing bright red huipiles. Their huipiles are woven with symbols, like the tree of life or creation myths of light and darkness. Traditionally, indigenous weaving tells a story.

FERNANDEZ: I'm asking her what is that and it's a pyramid of Mitla.

LYDEN: And those look like Thunderbirds. There's so much cultural significance attached to these garments that issues of historic racism and exploitation can't help but come up. Thirty-four-year-old Marta Xucunostli is a local activist.

LYDEN: What do you think about designers like Carla coming to communities - you've invited her here, I know - but, you know, and working with these women?

MARTA XUCUNOSTLI: Well, at beginning I was like, who is this designer who is coming? Because as a community, we protect ourselves like back in those times of the conquerors, you know? Like giving a mirror and doing some not fair trade. So speaking of Carla in particular, I took my time to Google her.

LYDEN: Caution comes from centuries of exploitation.

MARTA TUROCK: To be an Indian is to be at the lowest link in the chain.

LYDEN: Anthropologist Marta Turock specializes in Mexican textiles. She helped Fernandez establish fair trade practices.

When Turock began her research decades ago, nearly all indigenous women wore huipiles. But as more and more children assimilated and went to school, plaid skirts and acrylic sweaters became mandatory.

TUROCK: And the next thing you know - boom, boom - goodbye braids. Do you think that young girl is ever going to wear a huipil? Probably not.

LYDEN: Since the Zapatista rebellion in the 1990s, the Mexican government has made some attempts at reform, including recognition of indigenous cultures. Even so, says anthropologist Marta Turock, a critical concern is that in seeking new markets, the artisans might compromise their heritage.

TUROCK: Once the designers came in or the non-profit organizations or whatever - even the government organizations - you created a situation of dependency. The artisans became dependent on a third person. And that third person could control the raw material and say, here I'll give you the raw material and I'll just pay you for your labor.

So one of the questions is who is in control of the production?

LYDEN: To answer this question, Carla Fernandez and I drive into the mountains, pass cool, green groves of trees laden with mangos, on her way to meet another group of artisans.

LYDEN: Do know if you can work these women yet or not?

FERNANDEZ: We'll try. I mean, we have the contacts. This trip is very important for us because we have the contacts of the weavers and the artisans. And then, we'll get back to the city and reach them through e-mail, through phones and then we'll know exactly what we can propose.

LYDEN: In the tiny community of Ixcatlan, we pull up outside the hilltop home of Rosina Sarmiento, age 65. Inside, she opens a cabinet overflowing with bright, beautifully embroidered fabrics created in the Mazateca style. What do you think, Carla?

FERNANDEZ: I have lots of these ones at home because I love them.

LYDEN: Birds, flowers - Fernandez checks out bed spreads and cloths, holding them up against her body.

FERNANDEZ: The embroidery is so fine that it looks that it's painted. You know, if you see it from far away, you don't know if it's a print. And then you come very close and then you see that it's amazingly embroidered.

LYDEN: If Fernandez decides to place an order with Sarmiento, she'll pay half up front and half on delivery. The hand-embroidered flowers or parrots might end up on a mini-skirt in Fernandez's Mexico City boutiques. But is it traditional?

FERNANDEZ: What they do for the tourists is not traditional either, you know? These are the communities that want to do, like, new designs. Those are the ones that we work with.

LYDEN: Increasingly, younger, indigenous weavers - wielding cell phones and business cards - seem happy to have their handiwork on the world stage. Says Fernandez...

FERNANDEZ: They know how to do backstrap loom. Who in the world, like young people, know how to do back strap loom? Very few. But something that it makes you very unique is like those things that your grandparents taught you. I think the new generations are pretty into it.

LYDEN: Twenty-seven-year-old Milagros Ortega is part of the next-generation and a full-time weaver. A backstrap loom of red thread is strong across her patio in the community of Ojitlan. She's intrigued by Fernandez, she says, but she won't stop weaving huipiles for herself.

MILAGROS ORTEGA: (Spanish spoken).

LYDEN: These are our roots, she says, meaning, our history, our patrimony. You can see this weaving and Carla Fernandez's designs this summer at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Fernandez herself will give a workshop in August, along with a young weaver from Chiapis who told me, when I weave, I think how each person represents to me a human in the universe. There are as many humans as threads. There is no end. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

SIMON: To see photos and video from Jacki's trip to Mexico, you can visit our website, npr.org/theseams. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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