A report by Emily Neil for Al Día News.
The Moore College professor is making a splash on the world stage, but remains focused on her impact close to home.
As described in the opening episode by hosts Alexa Chung and Tan France, Netflix’s new series “Next in Fashion” showcases “18 of the world’s best and brightest designers.”
And among those best and brightest of fashion is Philly-based designer Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González, chair of the fashion department at Moore College of Art & Design, whose work is informed by her Boricua identity and her commitment to sustainable, slow fashion.
The show is a reality TV competition which pairs up fashion designers and gives them challenges relevant to niche parts of the industry to see who advances to the next round – and who doesn’t.
Although (spoiler alert!) Ortiz-González didn’t make it very far in the competition, she said that the experience of filming with and getting to know a group of designers from a variety of backgrounds and aspects of the industry has broadened her horizons as a fashion designer, while also giving her increased access to new audiences with her appearance on a show created by the world’s largest streaming platform.
“I met amazing designers, and I think that was the most important thing, because sometimes when you are not in contact with the industry, you are like, ‘Am I doing the right thing,’ or ‘Am I concerned or worried about the right thing,’ comparing yourself with contemporary designers. So that exposition of knowing ‘Ok, I’m not that behind, I’m concerned about the environment, and I’m concerned about slow fashion, and these designers have the same concerns,’ I think it was very important to me,” Ortiz-González said.
Out of 24 designers who answered the invitation to apply to the show – which Ortiz-González initially thought was spam when it showed up in her inbox – the Puerto Rican designer was among the final 18 selected for actual filming which took place a year ago.
She noted that it also has been impactful to see how her appearance on the Netflix series has impacted her students at Moore College, an all-women’s college. Ortiz-González also noted that many of her students are first-generation students and “minorities on many levels” who do not necessarily see themselves reflected in the design world.
“I think it was very important for them to see themselves represented in a way,” she said, noting that they held a screening of “Next in Fashion” at the college.
“It’s very [beautiful] to see them feel like they can get there and it’s possible,” Ortiz-González said.
Ortiz-González took on a different kind of world stage this month: Paris Fashion Week. Her collection, “Appropriation,” uses donated denim to construct ready-to-wear pieces that are an homage to miners in the gold rush era in U.S. history, whose physically intensive work spawned the creation of “jeans,” or denim, a material that was originally intended to last “the rest of your life,” Ortiz-González said. In that sense, the collection takes aim at consumerism.
“Denim is something that is very durable, we all use it, but it’s one of the most contaminated pieces that we have because all the water that you need to use to create the dye,” Ortiz-González said.
In addition to her focus on sustainability in her designs, Ortiz-González has incorporated messages and investigations into Puerto Rico’s political, social, and cultural history and reality.
Her collection, “Stranded,” which was shown in Paris Fashion Week in October 2018, used digitized images from Puerto Rico’s political and economic struggles since it was declared a U.S. colony in 1898 to form patterns on the pieces. What at first appears as a colorful, holographic pattern is revealed in its full detail when viewed through 3-D glasses.
Nearly three years ago, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in Sept. 2017, Ortiz-González teamed up with architectural, stage and lighting designer Marién Vélez to co-found 22 Studio, which aims to help communities in Puerto Rico rebuild using concepts of participatory design.
“22 Studios came after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico – we saw a lot of stuff happening, and not enough hands to rebuild everything. A lot of the professionals on the island left, and we wanted to help, and we started working with participatory design and social design, with the communities,” Ortiz-González explained.
“The concern that we had was that a lot of developers were going to the island, and helping even when they don’t understand the context, they don’t understand the culture of the country. It’s very different…Through participatory design, we collaborate, we give the power to the people,” she said.
It’s work that Ortiz-González said has only been heightened since the sequence of thousands of earthquakes which have rocked the southwestern part of the island since December 2019 – the strongest of which was a 6.4 magnitude temblor which hit in the early morning hours of Jan. 6.
“They are suffering right now. It’s very sad that we still have blue tarps from Maria and now the earthquakes just aggravated the whole situation,” she said, referring to the blue tarps that still serve as the roof for many homes throughout the island.
But for Ortiz-González, the answer to Puerto Rico’s future lies in the organizing power of everyday people.
“Community-based work is very important and it can be the response,” she said.
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