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Seeing best of both worlds

Mexico-based NaCo. manufactures clothing with edgy and humorous Spanish and English slogans.

March 14, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The word is naco, and in the past it usually translated as "tacky," "vulgar" or "cluelessly unfashionable." Depending on who's saying it, naco sometimes can carry much uglier associations, as a furtive put-down of people with dark skin and second-grade educations who dwell in distant mountain villages and grim urban slums.

But in Mexico these days, naco (pronounced NAH-ko) is becoming chido ("cool"), thanks in no small part to NaCo., a T-shirt and accessories company that has become one of the country's hottest brand names by declaring that it's hip to be declasse. After all, as the company's directors point out, being naco isn't necessarily a matter of money, education or social position.

"You can be more middle class, poor or rich, and still be naco," says Fernando Garcia, 33, NaCo.'s operations director. "Putting neon lights around your license plate on your Mercedes is very naco."

What are other classic symptoms of naco behavior? Well, clapping at the end of airplane flights. Listening to Kiss, Quiet Riot and others of their ilk. Wearing sunglasses at night. Or, at the other end of the economic spectrum, "wearing all that Versace stuff with gold chains," says company co-founder Edoardo Chavarin, 31, who was born and raised in Tijuana and now shuttles between here and a home in Pasadena.

With annual sales topping $1 million and a new licensing agreement with the NBA, NaCo. hopes to open 30 stores in Mexico in the years ahead. Working out of a cavernous Art Deco building in this capital's decidedly non-naco Condesa district, NaCo. distributes in Mexico to about 200 boutiques and retailers such as Sears and as far away as the Northridge Fashion Center in the San Fernando Valley. An online website,, also caters to U.S. customers.

But the company, with about 25 employees, aspires to do more than sell T-shirts. By retaking possession of a common pejorative and tweaking its meaning, NaCo. is shaking up fundamental ideas about Mexican identity and self-perception. Fresas, as Mexico's upper- and middle-class guardians of bourgeois propriety are called, still may look down their noses at nacos as they saunter around in their Abercrombie & Fitch. But today, instead of meaning trashy or ignorant, as in the past, naco for many younger Mexicans has come to signify something closer to "kitschy, but proud."

Founded in 2001 by Chavarin and Robby Vient, who became friends while attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in the 1990s, the company has created more than 300 naco-themed designs. Most incorporate words and stylized, iconic imagery, and typically are packed with double or triple meanings in English, Spanish and/or Spanglish.

Chavarin credits his alma mater with giving him a good aesthetic training and the practical skills to help bring NaCo. into being. "Art Center is pretty straightforward, boot camp," he says. "That discipline is really good for the real world."

Many of NaCo.'s early designs used bluntly humorous slogans and relatively simple puns, such as "Ser Naco es Chido" (Being Naco is Cool) or "Estar Guars," an audiovisual wordplay on the way many Mexicans pronounce "Star Wars." (So far, the owners joke, George Lucas hasn't showed up to complain.)

At first, NaCo. seemed to target mainly Mexicans, primarily teens and twentysomethings in this swarming capital. But over time its sensibility has grown more bicultural, reflecting the background of its overseers, who hail from points along the borderland, Guadalajara and the northwestern Pacific coast state of Sinaloa and who all received at least part of their education in the United States.

This bicultural worldview is reflected in NaCo. slogans such as "Se habla espanol" (Spanish spoken), a phrase more commonly seen at Pacoima used-car lots than anywhere in Mexico City. Another declares "Mi Raza es Tu Raza" (My Race is Your Race), a twist on "Mi Casa Es Tu Casa" that underscores the shared Mexican American heritage on both sides of the border.

The company's humor straddles a line between playful and in-your-face. "Los Ricos Tambien Roban" (The Rich Also Rob) goes one slogan. Another graphic depicts a stick-figure swimmer paddling between the words "MEX" and "USA." Another new NaCo. series takes a "Sesame Street" approach to the fraught terminology of the immigration debate ("W is for Wetback," "G is for Greencard").

In iconographic terms, NaCo.'s designs have evolved from a visual shorthand of cool into a kind of wearable handbook of strategies for cross-border cultural assimilation (and stealthy resistance). Pop and conceptual art, punk, hip-hop and graffiti are a few of the most obvious influences on Chavarin, the company's design guru, who cites the urban interventions of the British artist Banksy as another inspiration.

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