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FIT's '¡Moda Hoy!' Exhibit Celebrates the Diversity — and Common Threads — of Modern Latin American Fashion

The Museum at FIT typically devotes its gallery space to looking back. But its latest exhibit is focused squarely on the now, highlighting what fashion creatives from Latin America and the diaspora are creating today.

¡Moda Hoy! Latin American and Latinx Fashion Design Today” spans over 60 objects all from the 21st century, from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which are new to the archive thanks to this exhibit. 

“When we were thinking of the organization of the exhibition, we thought, ‘How many designers should be in our collection that aren’t there yet?,'” says Tanya Melendez-Escalante, FIT’s senior curator of education and public programs, who put on “¡Moda Hoy!” alongside Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research. “We had a lot of garments from designers of Latin American background, but the number of designers themselves wasn’t as long — we had many [pieces] from a few people — so we wanted to balance that and have wider representation, also of people who are active in their own countries, not only people who have migrated to New York or Europe, or who might only sell in certain countries.”

A dress by Kika Vargas (left) alongside Equihua’s Devotion coat (right) open the “¡Moda Hoy!” exhibit at the Museum of FIT.

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of FIT

By Marra-Alvarez’s estimate, “more than half of the [exhibit] is new acquisition,” meaning the permanent collection got a lot of new names that previously weren’t represented therein.  The last time the Museum of FIT put up an exhibition about Latin American fashion was over two decades ago, she says — “but it focused on designers who were working in New York, so it was a very small scope.” 

“One of the aims of the exhibition was to highlight the diversity of talent and the diversity of creativity, which casting that net wider allowed us to do,” she continues. “This was really a great exercise to help build the collection, to add more diversity and more designers of Latin American heritage.”

“There were other people like Jorge Duque in Colombia that we didn’t have in the collection. Willy Chavarria, we didn’t have in the collection; Luar, we didn’t have in the collection,” adds Melendez-Escalante. (“¡Moda Hoy!” opens with two new acquisitions: a coat by Brenda Equihua, a Chicana designer in Los Angeles, and a dress by Colombian Kika Vargas.)

The opening look from Luar’s Spring 2024 show — plus the brand’s iconic Ana bag — are now part of the Museum at FIT’s permanent collection.

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of FIT

Even limited to pieces from the year 2000 onward, the exhibit is an ambitious endeavor — to stage a survey of fashion from a region that has over 650 million people, and another 32 million in its diaspora — plus a range of cultures, histories, politics, religions, languages, races and ethnicities. 

“It was an exercise in editing,” says Melendez-Escalante. 

The project was personal to her as someone from Mexico, and a long time coming: “Twenty years ago, I came to grad school at FIT, and when I started doing research on Latin American fashion, I discovered that there was so little that was written anywhere [on the subject]. It became kind of my mission — to write more, to do more, to study more Latin American fashion.”

The art section of ¡Moda Hoy! features pieces from Jorge Duque, Rick Owens, Francisco Costa, Rodarte, Maria Cornejo and Isabel Toledo.

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of FIT

All the text in “¡Moda Hoy!” is available in both English and Spanish. The exhibit highlights both the diversity and distinctiveness that exists within such a broad category and the common threads that can connect vastly different visions and creative projects. 

It’s organized around eight themes — art, craftsmanship, elegance, gender, Indigenous heritage, politics, popular culture and sustainability — that feature a mix of familiar names (Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Narciso Rodriguez) with the rising generation (Elena Velez, PatBo, Jonathan Cohen). They’re a loose framework through which to contextualize their work to an audience. 

“We came up with a thematic approach because it allowed us to highlight the diversity of talent, but also what designers have in common — the ways that they’re different but also connected,” says Marra-Alvarez. “We started with a very broad view, looking at the work of various designers and noticing different themes that popped up.” 

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane’s “Mamado” suit, along with her “Casa del macho sentimental” bag, plus a “Latinx” T-shirt by Ricardo Seco in the gender section of “¡Moda Hoy!”

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT

“In a sense, we let the work of the designers organize itself,” adds Melendez-Escalante. “What you will find is that designers in Latin America, they have a lot of layers in their work — we arbitrarily, almost, put certain garments in certain sections, but they could be in others, because many of the themes are interconnected. We have a section on craftsmanship and the beauty and the importance of the handmade object, but that obviously connects with sustainability and also with Indigenous heritage, because it’s all handmade work, just from different perspectives. Indigenous heritage is also strongly connected with politics and matters of identity… That’s what we’ve seen in the exhibition, that the themes have all these threads that connect them.”

Highlights of the exhibit include a “Mamado” suit by Mexican designer Bárbara Sánchez-Kane in the section on gender, that reimagines a bodybuilder’s boxy physique through a more feminine lens, via baby-pink leather embossed with “talavera” pottery motifs; and an Anne Klein dress by Isabel Toledo that was hand-painted by husband Ruben in the art section. There’s also a touch table in the sustainability section with rubber materials sourced from the Amazon, intended for design, that visitors can feel as they learn about the work brands like Gabriela Hearst and Escvdo do to utilize natural resources and to uplift craft practices from the region.

In the sustainability section, from left to right: looks by Gabriela Hearst, Escvdo and Nous Etudions.

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT

Much like the behind-the-scenes goal of inducting more Latinx designers into FIT’s permanent collection, “¡Moda Hoy!”‘s greatest achievement might be what it achieves in the long-term. There will be more representation in future exhibits at the Museum at FIT, as long as these pieces are in its archives. There will be more awareness about designers, their work and their heritage from visitors that might stroll in and learn about someone or something new. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I, a Puerto Rican fashion editor and longtime industry fan, didn’t know that Rick Owens’ mother is from Puebla.) Then, there’s the camaraderie that comes from connecting people and their work.

“Many of [the designers] are coming from different countries in Latin America for the opening, and they’re so excited to see their work alongside their peers,” says Melendez-Escalante. “Many of them have known each other on social media or have collaborated, and this is an opportunity for them to be together. Building community, it feels so wonderful.”

“¡Moda Hoy! Latin American and Latinx Fashion Design Today” will be on view at the Museum at FIT (which is free!) in New York City through Nov. 12, 2023.

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