Young designers are storming Mexico's shoe industry, taking the country's reputation for quality leathers and handiwork to a new creative level. Loly in the Sky loafers sport handmade illustrations on natural fabrics –- eyelashes, bow ties, outbursts like "Oh. Oh." At least a dozen other young labels are bringing Mexican materials and tradition into a new era -- and putting Mexico on the radar of the world's arbiters of couture, appearing in Vogue Italia, Elle, and others.
"We take artisan traditions and apply them to modern fashion," said Alejandra Gamez, co-founder of the shoe brand MiTu Calzado. She and her business partner Angelica Ruiz learned their techniques from shoemakers in Mexico's Guanajuato state, the seat of the country's leather and shoe industries.
Inspired by classics of the 1940s and 1950s, MiTu also takes cues from Mexico's ranch tradition. A MiTu shoe called the Carlota sports a heel and a toe like a cowboy boot but with loafer lines and a leather bow.
Many of the upstarts are based in Leon, Guanajuato, or in neighboring Jalisco state in Guadalajara. Erandi Gutierrez got her start making dance shoes, and that influence is evident in her Guadalajara-based Golden Ponies flats and T-strap pumps.
"The industry has been around forever," Gutierrez said. "That young people are beginning to do shoes is something relatively new, since about 2005."
Mexico's shoe industry started facing tough competition once tariffs on shoes made in China dropped significantly in late 2011. But Mexico’s young shoe designers aren't yet competing on a wide-scale commercial level, where Chinese competition hits hardest.
Boutique sales in Mexico City and web sales abroad, especially to the U.S., drive their businesses. Several online catalogs like those of the brand Unmarked and Loly in the Sky appear in English. The price points target wealthier customers in the capital, Mexico's secondary cities such as Guadalajara or Monterrey, or buyers abroad.
A Leon-based brand, Feminine and Masculine, sells original designs for upward of $300 largely to the U.S. and Japan. Founder Francisco Rodriguez has won the admiration of his peers in Mexico and the broader fashion world with androgynous designs like that of his women's 1954x platform –- which he describes as "very masculine in the way they were made but with 10 centimeters of height."
While Mexican designers are attracting international attention, the home market remains a tough nut to crack.
"In Mexico, we have the materials, the quality, the handiwork, the talent and the creativity to have an international impact," said Gina Ortega, a Mexico City-based stylist and author of the bilingual blog High on Fashion. "People are doing incredible things but neither the magazines, nor the brands, nor investors are taking a look."
In the meantime, Loly in the Sky's loafers will be batting their printed-on lashes.
Photos courtesy Feminine and Masculine