A Conversation with Fashion Designer Vanessa Acosta

Vanessa Acosta is an LA-based, Bolivian-American fashion designer, photographer, and entrepreneur. After studying at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, she launched Paragon Desert, a multimedia design effort that utilizes fashion and the visual arts to explore her relationship with indigeneity and the land. With us, she describes her path to career independence, fashion, feminism, politics, and how they are all woven together. [Note: Acosta’s brand is called WASI now.]

A: My first question for you is very simple, how are you doing? I know you have so many different projects that you invest your all into, so in this moment how are you?

V: Pretty good. Just a mellow afternoon in my home in Los angeles.

A: …How has living in the desert informed your design process?

V: I came up with the name [Paragon Desert] a long time ago, a couple years actually. I started it with a friend and we were originally only selling vintage. As the project developed I ended up taking it over. We came up with the name because I live in California, an hour away from the desert and the mountains. It’s so beautiful. I guess when I design, people label it as having a, ‘desert vibe,’ and it does. Desert fashion, you have to wear things for the heat, shorts, cropped tops, but the desert doesn’t have a lot of color. People have to bring that to the desert, so it fits. But it’s definitely changing and evolving as time goes on.

A: There is certainly an emphasis on warmth and texture, from my perspective texture being a highlight of your work, knowing that your textiles are sourced from communities in South america that hand weave them.

V: Very warm color schemes really match my personal aesthetic; warmth, saturation. Everything is from South America, Bolivia, where my family is from. If I’m not sourcing it myself my family does for me. I only work with family, I never really bring any outsiders; it stays in the family. When I’m sourcing, it depends on what I’m feeling at the moment. But no matter what South American textiles are always very colorful. Very extravagant and bold. Just look at Bolivian or any South American culture, we’re very loud people. Very into our culture, and the textiles reflect that. We don’t buy them wholesale, we support the weavers and the artisans by paying them as much as they’d like.

A lot of companies that source in Latin America and South america like to barter and negotiate the cheapest way out into a deal and don’t give the indigenous weavers the compensation they deserve. Then they bring it back to the US and profit by upping the price 300% what they paid for it in South america. I pay full price, the price that they name. Mainly I source from Bolivia because it’s convenient as I have family there. The more the brand grows, I will start sourcing from Peru, Argentina, Brazil, maybe Guatemala.

A: The handweavers you mentioned, I’m assuming are women artisans. Is that true?

V: There are some men, but it’s a femme dominated craft in Bolivia.

A: I like that so much of your work emphasizes craft, because I think that in the eurocentric art world and art historical academia craft is not given the respect it deserves, probably because it’s associated with women and anything feminine is discarded as frivolous.

I buy new textiles and bring them here, completing the craft and making it my own, combining what the women made there and finishing them into garments. Indigeneity meets my personal aesthetic.

V: Yes. I try to stay away from buying already made fabrics from South America because I think that’s where the craft is lost. A lot of people buy the made products and up the price here in the States, the craftsmanship isn’t really appreciated. I buy new textiles and bring them here, completing the craft and making it my own, combining what the women made there and finishing them into garments. Indigeneity meets my personal aesthetic.

A: Yeah, you’re working within a history of traditional craft that you bring to a Los Angeles audience.

V: I consider what’s modern and trendy, so that’s important. I try to make it minimal so I don’t take away from it’s craft beauty.

A: Respecting Indigenous communities and honoring them is tied to your work. Recently your clothing was exhibited at an event for the Sioux tribe. Can you talk about that experience?

V: It was called Speaking Truth to Power, an inaugural event for the water protectors and Indigenous people of the US. It showcased filmmakers, musicians of color, all coming together for our water protectors. I was there with two other designers. What I realized with what I do and why I was picked… I asked myself why other designers weren’t showcased instead of me, I realized that I have to hold all the indigenous craft alive through my work. Times are moving so quickly, traditional cultures and languages becoming obscured. I support all indigenous people, not just from South America where I’m from, but Indigeneity around the world. Respecting and holding our ancestors and protecting what we have left, that’s what the event was about.

A: That’s so important. Living in Los angeles, Coachella has dominated so much of the mainstream culture there, ‘Coachella fashion,’ etc. I know that in the last half decade or so they banned the appropriation of, ‘Native headdresses,’ white people parading them around. So much cultural property theft, it’s so important that there are designers like you creating from a place of authenticity.

White people can wear my designs. But they are not costumes. It’s not a joke. And if you’re wanting to be an ally? Come to me, come to the brown person. Don’t go support a white company stealing indigenous textiles.

V: It gets tricky with appropriation. It’s good that white folk are being called out for their theft and cultural insensitivity. But it’s another thing when…White people can wear my designs. But they are not costumes. It’s not a joke. And if you’re wanting to be an ally? Come to me, come to the brown person. Don’t go support a white company stealing indigenous textiles. Don’t go buy an Aguayo knock off, Aguayo being a Bolivian textile. Don’t go to a white owned company like Madewell and buy an $200 shirt that is a replica of a shirt made by a woman in Guatemala only selling it for $10. Yes you can wear our clothing, but support our business. Don’t help white industry colonize us and profit off our culture.

A: It’s a matter of putting your money where your mouth is. I hear a lot of talk, and sometimes it can feel so daunting. How can we resist all the issues in our society? The complex web of problems that exist? In so many ways it boils down to capitalism, and being selective about who you give your money to can really make a difference.

V: Yes.

A: On the subject of resistance, it’s amazing to me that fashion was part of this idea of resistance. I asked my last interviewee this question and I want to ask you as well: Where does, or does, fashion exist in resisting today?

V: It can fit in in a lot of ways. You can be obvious and blatant, making a dress with a printed “F U C K Trump” message on it. Or you can do it my way. I’m a brown latina with immigrant parents. My work in itself supports the brown/black poc community. Being bold and doing what I do already is an act of resistance. In the US there are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of seeing things that might trigger them into thinking… You see indigenous textiles being worn by brown girls, when I dress my girls I shoot, this is how we look. To a lot of people, they see it and their racism makes them angry.

My work sparks anger, even if I’m not trying to. But I will take my fashion in that direction if I need to because I have a voice, a stance, and immigration and refugee rights are very important to me. It’s important to be vocal, brands today I think have to take a stand and be vocal.

Vanessa Acosta blouse
Image courtesy of Vanessa Acosta.

A: Something a lot of people with the most influence are afraid to do. And the girls you shoot with, you have really taken photography and made it a career into it’s own. On your website you began with travel photography. How do you marry portraiture, landscape, and fashion all together with your camera?

V: It’s very weird that it developed this way. I was traveling a lot two years ago and took photos on my own. I didn’t have a nice camera, but in India my iphone took really great photos. [laughs] But I thought it would be time to take it to the next level. I started to see I had a knack for it. I never intended to have it develop into a career. I started designing a lot more, and with my camera, I went from travel photos to photographing my own designs on the internet and social media, shooting femmes in my designs. It was a domino effect. So I quit my job and started doing photography, portraiture, alongside and separate from my designing. It was very quick. I shoot women and femmes only.

A: You took a big risk leaving your corporate comforts.

V: Everyday’s a hustle, being self-accountable. I’m the only one to blame if things don’t work out.

A: Speaking of femmes, I want to ask you about your muses. I’ve seen those miss Frida Kahlo popping up in prints you designed and they are flying off the shelves. Why Frida?

V: You know, the Frida thing started with me just making a halter for myself. But she is an icon to literally everyone. Her art extends to every corner of the world. I started making more because people were asking for more. I look up to her because she was a woman who suffered a lot but was never apologetic about herself. She did her own thing. We don’t come across people like her often, it’s very hard to be like her, and people see that. Also, I wanted to be an art major when I was younger, so her art, surrealism inspired me a lot aesthetically. And now people see my designs and know that I do the frida stuff [laughs]. It sells well and it’ll be something I continue doing, but that’s just one aspect of my design. I want to start creating my own prints and textiles.

A: Well I’m looking forward to seeing those.

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