The strength of Oropéndola lies in its artisans. Their hands speak of the experience and honor of the craft; the stories of their lives woven into each thread represent the strength and passion for their craftsmanship.
Where does your love for craft work come from?
I’m Colombian and was born in Medellín. Ever since I was a little girl my father and I traveled a lot throughout Colombia. Even at that age I was fascinated with observing the work that is done by hand; I was very curious and amazed to see how people had the ability to create by the simple act of combining different knots and techniques.
When I enrolled in the Bolivarian University in Medellin to study fashion design, the futuristic style was very much in vogue. However, I strayed from that and sought to go towards the ancestral with each of my creations. I investigated the different cultures, their techniques and rituals, and focused my work on mixing textiles and ancient techniques.
How was Oropendola born?
I decided from the get-go that Oropéndola would be my graduation project. I was very clear (even from the beginning) about the idea and spirit of the brand. I wanted to change the purchasing model. That is to say: take what we usually consider mere accessories (whose function is to merely accompany other garments), and get them to become the main character. This way, artisanal, hand-made pieces could take center stage and be accompanied by a more basic clothing line.
The issue was that I realized that, in order to actually materialize those enormous accessories that I wanted to bring to the catwalk, I needed to connect with artisans. That was the beginning of a new path in my professional and personal history.
That’s when I met Willy. He continues to work with us today and is the one in charge of leading every artisan; from goldsmith to weaver. At first I did the molding using cardboard, but it quickly became impossible to sustain. Then we understood that we needed to weave directly on the mannequins, in order to follow the lines of the body and accompany the silhouette better. Finally, we got there; but I still felt that I needed to go one step further and learn how to best manage my brand. So I went to Italy for a year to do a master's degree in Fashion Brand Management in Florence.
I kept in touch with Willy and the communities with the conviction of wanting to make a handmade brand. I was certain that my dream was going to come true, and it did! We now have been working together for 6 years.
How is your bond with the artisans?
I work with local artisans and my relationship with them is super close and very trustworthy. I always tell them that they are like my therapy -she laughs-, because when my energy’s off, I go to them. Not to work, but to talk.
In all these years I’ve learned from them to live one day at a time. They teach me to live more lightly and be more flexible, because they are like that. They don't like there being a set schedule because they say it limits their creativity. And they learned the opposite from me. Unintentionally, I taught them the importance of generating a certain structure in order to have their income and the importance of saving and thinking about the future. Their eagerness to train and continue growing is amplified constantly. They translate it into the words stability and value, which is what they feel our work together gave them. Before we established our partnership, they functioned with a day-to-day modality, seeing what work was demanded of them that day without setting any type of continuity. They also coexisted with the feeling that their craft was not valued either.
What does the fabric connect you with?
The fabric tells me a story. Many times, when I receive a garment I turn to them and ask: were you angry or thoughtful? And they laugh, but that's how it is. Within each fabric lies the representation of their moods, of the moments they go through; the intensity they put into the knots..., for me each piece is the narration of the human being who made it.
And the magical part is that this bond with the threads doesn't exist only between the artisan and myself, but between the artisan and our client. And that is the raison d'être of the brand.
What is the Oropendola woman like?
I am going to tell you an anecdote that is very closely related to this. I’ve always said that wearing a piece of Oropendola makes you feel empowered, quite like Wonder Woman. Basically, you feel big, strong, powerful and like the main character: you can do anything.
When I got married (and first I should probably point out that I was never very conventional), I chose to wear pants and one of my designs, which had many straps and was quite cheerful. Besides that, I told my dad that I wanted us to ride in on horseback. Imagine! That’s how I wanted to feel. Not for the show of it, but because of the way I see us women.
Suddenly I was dancing and a woman came up to me with a little girl who told me: “you look like Wonder Woman”. At that moment I felt an emotion that I can hardly put into words. That girl, from a genuine place, was confirming what I’ve always tried to transmit through my creations. It meant that people were connecting with my pieces.
You decided to work with customized pieces, how does that process go?
I always believed that we had the capacity to produce tailor-made garments where customers could be involved in the process, and be part of it: from the ideation, all the way through to the materialization of their desire.
All of it is part of our philosophy, since we work with little stock and paying close attention to demand. That work, which can take up to three months from prototype to materialization, is a reflection of craftsmanship, of what is done by hand. And so that, in itself, manages to communicate the value of our pieces to people.
I like that they can be customized, because it also speaks to the nobility of weaving and ancestral techniques: the threads are not always what you see, but rather what you dream you can create.
What does artisanal design represent in your life?
Handcrafted design is the representation of what one truly is, our strength and energy. It involves embracing our origins. I feel it is faithful to my essence. Ever since I dreamed it up in college, and up until today, it is how I seek to communicate. Usually straying the path set by trends and instead gaining closeness to the bond we establish with those garments.
In craftsmanship, each piece tells a story, and you can make it your own by knowing where that narrative comes from.
A hotel in Colombia?It's called Madre Agua, in the department of Nuquí. You have to live flowing with the tide, nothing depends on you. You never know when it's going to be low or high. It's situated within the jungle and electricity runs exclusively from four in the afternoon to ten at night. There is no internet signal, no cars and you get there by boat. It is super exotic. The designer aimed to merge construction techniques with ancestral ones. Everything is rescued from the region and brought to contemporary design.
Your favorite restaurant in Colombia?Las Palmas in Envigado, Colombia. A historic house that serves incredible fish. But my favorite food is chicharrón. I love it, and the best place to eat it spicy is El Social in Medellín.
Your favorite destination in Latin America?I'll have to go with the Madre Agua Hotel in Nuquí. It's my favorite place in the world. Though I also like Barichara, in Colombia, which is a town that preserves the stone architecture of its ancestors.
A favorite craft?The Wayúu backpacks, they are everything. There is the Arhuaca backpack, which hails from the highlands, and the Guajira, which is more colorful. Both fascinate me.
A ritual when you design...I love to read, reading inspires me; not from the visual, but from the words.
Your favorite materials?Cotton in all its forms
A texture.Nature in its different forms, walking barefoot, the texture of grass, the shapes within the bark of trees.
A person who marked your path within design?My parents, both for different reasons. From my dad I learned the desire to take projects forward; he is enterprising, multifaceted, and enjoys the thousands of activities he does. I am like that, very active, very productive. And my mom, she is the complement to that. She is the calm, always ready…and she teaches me that not everything has to be now, that it is important to be connected with the world.
By Gaby Ratner