MEXICO CITY—Flowers blossom in brilliantly colored thread on textiles set into earth-toned leather: the mark of a new young brand, Maka Mexico.
Three city women–industrial and graphic designers—and three women from rural Chiapas state—including an expert maker of embroidered textiles and her two daughters—have paired their respective talents to create a line of distinctive handbags aiming to elevate Mexican folk art to high fashion.
Inspired by the colors and forms of southern Mexico's textile tradition, Mexico City designers Daniela Ustaran, Karla Urruchua and Stefania Stenger—ages 26, 25 and 26—began designing handbags whose distinguishing feature would be the embroidered flowers they had seen on trips to Chiapas and Guatemala.
"We stumbled on a traditional technique that is important for the world's fashion industry to hold on to," said Urruchua, sitting on a high stool in a storage room-sized studio outfitted with a shared desk, a couch stacked with rolls of material, a coffee table, and shelves lined with handbags.
The trio contacted Marca Chiapas, a government agency that certifies the state's most accomplished artisans, and made contact in 2010 with Juana Estela Perez Arias, her mother and sister.
Embroidered with panels of colorful flowers drawn and sewn in Chiapas, affixed to leather bags designed and manufactured in Mexico City, Maka Mexico sells a range of products from $77 wallets to $305 oversized purses in high-end stores in Mexico City and boutiques in Brazil, Australia, Switzerland and the U.S.
"We want the world to know about this work—show off the artistry of Mexico, show that in Mexico it's possible to make things of very high quality," said Urruchua.
Maka Mexico is just one example of a rising tide in Mexico’s design world generally: drawing on local traditions to create world-class products. Among others pairing contemporary and artisan design is dressmaker Carmen Rion, whose 2012 spring-summer collection is also inspired by Chiapas traditions and textiles.
Perez Arias, her mother and sister weave textiles and draw and sew their flower patterns in the town of Nachig in the Zincantan region of Chiapas, a tzotzil-speaking community outside the state capital of San Cristobal. Nachig means "land of sheep"; many women wear black woolen skirts and blouses embroidered with the same flowers used by Maka Mexico.
"We do better with Maka," Perez Arias said in a telephone interview from Nachig, comparing work for the label with market sales in the cities of San Cristobal and Tuxtla Gutierrez.
The staticky cell signal picked up the crow of a rooster.
"They've helped us earn a lot more," she said. "We hope people like our work. The bags are very beautiful."
The Maka designers see the foreign market, including tourists in Mexico, as its primary outlet. In Mexico, the bags show up at places like the shop of the renowned Museum of Anthropology (where Michelle Obama made a stop on her 2010 visit to the capital), the Cultural Center of Spain in the historic center, and boutiques in neighborhoods popular with foreigners such as the trendy Roma and Condesa areas.
"Everything is so globalized that nothing has personality any more," Ustaran said. "This isn't just a bag and nothing more."
Urruchua completed the thought: "It has an important social context."
Photos courtesy Maka Mexico