CALI, Colombia — At a flagship fashion event in the coastal town of Buenaventura this year, a pair of towering models strolled the boardwalk, one in a red mini dress with a ribbed top inspired by an open seashell and the other in a blue and gold dress fit for a modern queen.
The models were black and the fabrics imported from Africa – unusual for a major fashion show in Colombia. But what distinguished them most was the designer himself: Esteban Sinisterra Paz, a 23-year-old university student with no formal design training who is at the center of an Afro-Colombian fashion explosion.
“Decolonization of man” is the aim of his work, he said, along with showing the world a comprehensive view of “the elegance of identity”.
mr. Sinisterra is the man behind the wardrobe of Francia Márquez, an environmentalist and lawyer who will become Colombia’s first black vice president on Sunday.
In a country 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, emerging as the voice of millions of poor, black and indigenous Colombians.
In a matter of months, she has not only pushed racism and classism to the center of the national conversation, she has also revolutionized the country’s political aesthetic, rejecting starched shirts and suits in favor of an outspoken Afro-Colombian look that she calls a form of rebellion.
Natural hair. Tough prints. Dresses that accentuate her curves.
But Ms. Márquez and Mr. Sinisterra are just the most visible ambassadors of an Afro-Colombian aesthetic that proponents say is part of a larger movement demanding greater respect for millions of black Colombians.
In a country where 40 percent of households live on less than $100 a month — a percentage that has grown during the pandemic — Afro-Colombians are among the poorest, with regions predominating, including the Pacific coast, some of the most neglected by generations of politicians.
Officially, black Colombians make up 6 to 9 percent of the population. But many say this is an undercount that perpetuates a lack of recognition.
“The colonization was trying to wipe out black people,” says Lia Samantha Lozano, 41, who began outfitting her hip-hop and reggae band, Voodoo Souljahs, in African fabrics more than a decade ago, positioning her as a pioneer in the movement.
In 2014, she became the first black woman to have a runway show at Colombiamoda, the country’s biggest fashion event.
Today, politically oriented brands of Afro-descendants have proliferated on the Internet and in stores in Cali, a major hub 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 become the fashion week of the movement.
Ms. Lozano now sells a bright, hip-hop-inspired line in a major shopping center in Bogotá’s capital.
“A big part of the plan was to be ashamed of who we are, of our colors, of our culture, of our features,” she 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 politics. And yes, it is a symbol of resistance.”
Among the signatures of the movement are brightly patterned fabrics called wax, which are extremely popular in West, East and Central Africa and famous for telling stories and sending messages through their photos and designs. (Prints can celebrate everything from pop culture to religion and politics, with tubes of lipstick, the faces of religious figures, or portraits of politicians and celebrities.)
The Afro-Colombian aesthetic often references nature—Mr. Sinisterra has a dress with sleeves like wings inspired by Colombia’s famous butterflies—and can include elaborate beaded jewelry and woven bags by artists from Colombia’s many indigenous communities.
The leaders of the movement are not only Ms. Márquez, but also Emilia Eneyda Valencia Murraín, 62, a mentor of Mr. Sinisterra who started Weaving Hope in 2004, a multi-day celebration of Black hair in Cali.
Colombia’s sartorial moment is years, many would say centuries, in the making, based on activism in Latin America, Africa and the United States; the baggy street style of hip-hop and the sparkling astral vibes of Afrofuturism; the turbans of Colombian market women; the mermaid silhouettes of Senegal and Nigeria; and even the influence of Michelle Obama, who famously used clothing to make political statements.
The aesthetic is also elaborate and fluid, including everyday wear – such as Consuelo Cruz Arboleda’s Baobab tunics – and showpieces such as Mr. Sinisterra, a tight, ruffled strapless dress whose grandeur he said embodies the modern cultural empire Africa’s descendants built in the Colombian Pacific.
“We are transforming the image we have of power,” said Edna Liliana Valencia, 36, a popular Afro-Colombian journalist, poet and activist.
mr. Sinisterra is one of the newest stars of this movement. Born to a poor family in the small town of Santa Bárbara de Iscuandé, near the Pacific Ocean, his family was forcibly evicted at the age of five by gunmen, one of the millions of Colombians who were victims of the decades-long internal conflict in the country.
In the nearby town of Guapi, and later in the port city of Buenaventura, Mr. Sinisterra learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother, whom he called “the neighborhood designers.”
“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 went to university as a social work student.
But he started to build 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. She had been referred to him by a mutual friend and needed an outfit.
mr. Sinisterra is in his seventh of eight semesters at university. When he’s not in class, he sews the vice president’s outfits in a windowless room in his little apartment in Cali. His friend, Andrés Mena, 27, is a former nurse who changed careers to become general manager of Esteban African.
One of the brand’s most famous items are two pairs of earrings. One is the map of Colombia, etched with its 32 divisions. A second resembles two golden orbs intended to evoke the mine pans Mrs. Márquez used as a miner in the mountains of Cauca, near the Pacific coast, long before she became a household name.
Mrs. Márquez once slept on an earthen floor next to her siblings. She later worked as a live-in maid to support her children, went to law school, and eventually won an award known as the Environmental Nobel.
In an interview, she called Mr. Sinisterra’s work a crucial part of her political identity. “He shows young people that they can succeed, by using their talent, they can move forward,” 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,” he said, “and their parents, unlike mine, will not think that sewing, cutting and make clothes Just for girls.”
Today, he said, his father is proud of his work.
Lately, he’s been plagued by media and client requests, and he manages his newfound fame by working around the clock.
One July day, barefoot and sweating, he laid a few fabrics on the floor, cut them freehand, and sewed them together with a new Jinthex sewing machine he’d bought with his now-rising wages. He made another dress for Mrs. Márquez.
On election day in June, he undressed her in kente fabric, a Ghanaian print whose interlocking lines are reminiscent of basket weaving, to symbolize the gathering of votes.
The dress had a frill on the front, representing the rivers in Ms. Márquez’s region, and the jacket on her shoulders, all white, symbolized peace, he said, “in this country so torn by political attitudes.”
He has made three outfits for the inauguration day. “Whatever she chooses, I’m fine with it,” he said.
Ironing the freshly sewn piece, he said he was both excited and concerned about Mrs. Márquez’s rise to power.
In the past few months, he’s come to feel like he’s part of her political project, and she’s made huge promises to transform the country after decades of injustice.
“The responsibility will grow,” he said.
“My responsibility, Francia’s responsibility, to support this process so that the people – our people – do not feel betrayed.”