Seamstress Ligia Nieves works on a dress at the Amelia Toro factory in Bogota,… (Chris Kraul, For The Times )
Reporting from Bogota, Colombia — The creations of Colombian fashion designers Pepa Pombo, Silvia Tcherassi, Esteban Cortazar and others have lighted up fashion shows around the world in recent years and raised the country's profile in the world of haute couture.
But the high-fashion clothes of Amelia Toro, a Bogota-based designer, are perhaps the most uniquely Colombian. She incorporates handicrafts made by indigenous communities, including the Wayuu, Kuna and Putumayo tribes, into dresses and coats that retail for $4,000 or more.
Her style reflects her pride in Colombia's heritage, and a conscious effort to help preserve it. By paying her indigenous suppliers a good wage for their products, she hopes to slow the effect of encroaching modernity that is causing handcrafts dating back centuries to slowly disappear.
"My purpose is in mixing these cultures in a sophisticated and elegant way, so that these crafts continue and heritage is not lost," Toro, 50, said during an interview early this month at her atelier in north Bogota. The indigenous look is essential to her style. "There are 100,000 designers out there, so you better have something different to say."
Toro's designs, two-thirds of which she sells to foreign clients, were showcased at an Americas fashion show recently at the United Nations, with Spain's Queen Sofia and Colombian singer Shakira present. Her pieces have been modeled on runways from Milan and Los Angeles to Mexico City and Tokyo. Clients include Katie Couric, Marisa Tomei and Kim Basinger.
She was the main attraction at last year's Portland Fashion Week, which bills itself as the nation's only "green" high-fashion show dedicated exclusively to fair trade and the use of sustainable, eco-friendly fabrics.
"Amelia is on a different level from other designers," Lynn Frank, a consultant to Portland Fashion Week, said by telephone from his office in Salem, Ore. "Her commitment to the story behind the fashions brings forward the culture of indigenous tribes and gives them a reason for retaining it."
By encouraging indigenous artisanship, Toro says, she has taken a page from the strategy of Bernard Arnault, chairman of the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. The parent firm of Louis Vuitton strives to keep French craftsmanship alive by creating markets for those skills.
At times, Toro departs from her focus on ethnic-influenced styles. Last year, Walt Disney Co. designated Toro as its Latin America collaborator in a line she created called Alice by Amelia, inspired by Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" characters. Toro thus joined a select company of Disney high-fashion partners that includes Stella McCartney and Dolce & Gabbana.
In addition to using ethnic fabrics, Toro has a policy of hiring single women who are heads of households, and paying them a good wage with health and pension benefits, unlike many firms in an industry notorious for paying workers on a piecework basis.
Instead of an assembly line, most of her 40 full-time employees have learned enough to make clothing on their own, assuring them a livelihood if or when they leave the firm.
"I've learned so much here about fitting, fabrics, what quality stitching is all about," said Marleny Realpe, an 11-year employee who is a single mother of three.
"She has a special vision, one that we all share," Elicia Poveda, a nine-year employee, said of her boss. "At most apparel companies, you work at a gallop. High fashion is different. The emphasis is on being above the common."
Educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Parsons in New York, Toro got on-the-job training at apparel companies in Italy, India and New York before starting her fashion house in 1990.
Like many owners of high-end export businesses, Toro suffered with the global financial crisis and has had to lay off half of her 100 employees since 2008. But sales have rebounded, and she said she expects to rehire all of her staff by June and to open stores in Los Angeles and New York.
Much of her optimism stems from the new U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement, which will give her exemption from 30% customs duty on the items she sells at the new U.S. stores. She also has plans to expand her line to include fashions made with indigenous fabrics from Mexico and Central America.
Success will depend on the economy, but also patience and adapting to the "indigenous sense of time."
"For them," she said, "tomorrow can mean three months from now."
Kraul is a special correspondent.