Image Credit: Ayni
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Visit Latin America, and you will quickly notice its friendly people, upbeat music, and great food. It’s a region that is rich in hundreds of ethnicities and cultures, all of which heavily influence its fashion industry. With the region’s high-quality raw materials and textile traditions, Latin America’s fashion industry is deeply rooted in nature, culture, and local economies.
While the languages, customs, and aesthetics of Latin American communities are diverse, they do have some things in common that will make any conscious fashion shopper fall in love.
If you are a Latin American brand eager to learn how to break into the U.S. market, here’s the perfect course developed by EcoCult’s founder Alden Wicker.
What to look for in sustainable fashion from Latin America
Pima cotton is a massive industry in Peru. It’s a soft and fine material that is mainly harvested in the coastal valleys of the northern part of the country, which has ample rainwater and small farms and cooperatives.
Peru is also the leading world producer of alpaca, a natural fiber that comes from alpacas, which are cousins to the camel. The alpaca fiber is biodegradable, especially if left undyed and untreated with chemical finishes. Vicuña wool comes from vicuñas, alpaca’s luxury cousin, which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes mountains in Peru. This type of wool is considered “cloth of gold,” as it’s a luxurious fiber that is finer and more expensive than cashmere. It used to be a fabric that only Inca royalty was permitted to wear.
Many brands take pride in the region’s ancient techniques that have been passed down generationally between families. You will notice weaving, hand dyeing, and hand spinning as some of the preserved skills. These are art forms that are often the primary source of income for families, and many Latin American brands modernize these cultural traditions to give artisans access to more profitable global fashion markets.
These designs can often be high-ticket items due to their detailed, handmade craftsmanship. But their high quality design means they will last a long time and can be repaired, making them lifetime pieces.
Coloring textiles with natural dyes has a long history in Latin America. For example, Oaxaca, Mexico is famous for its small indigenous villages which use plant and insect dyes dating back to more than 1,000 years in the indigenous Zapotec tradition.
Many brands work hard to preserve these ancient techniques, as there have been concerns about synthetic dyes’ environmental and health risks since they can contain heavy metals and carcinogens.
You’ll find modern-day Latin American brands dyed using natural dyes derived from leaves and flowers, including turmeric and urucum, aka annatto, a shrub native to Mexico and South America. It’s a craftwork that adds value to textile production and end consumers.
Look for brands that favor FSC-certified paper over plastic, use natural, non-toxic dyes like soy instead of traditional petroleum-based ink, or offer backyard compostable packaging. You can even find Latin American fashion brands that use eucalyptus wood, cotton, and water-based dyes for their packaging.
Shopping for sustainable fashion items can be a challenging task. Therefore, we suggest you search for brands that carry certifications such as Fair Trade, USDA Organic, or GOTS, a standard that governs the entire process of growing and processing organic cotton into fabric. Also, we recommend you favor brands that work with ethical suppliers that conform to strict animal welfare standards. The global nonprofit Textile Exchange recently created The Responsible Alpaca Standard (RAS), a new certification that ensures alpaca welfare and land management.
Here are some of our favorite brands that are either owned by a Latin American designer or support traditional Latin American artisanship and are accessible to North American consumers.
Founded in 2012, VOZ is a B Corp-certified ethical fashion company that pays living wages for every textile and sewn garment. It uses sustainable fibers and processes to create its elegantly cut and free-spirited apparel and accessories collections. The company collaborates with politically and economically marginalized women to create fashion collections, and provide design leadership, training, and opportunity for indigenous women in the rural regions where they reside.
Gabriela Hearst launched her eponymous label, a luxury women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and accessories collection, in 2015. Each garment is constructed with conscientious materials, including silk, cashmere, linen, and wool from her family’s Uruguayan ranch. The brand uses biodegradable TIPA packaging and is committed to being plastic-free and investing in zero-waste stores.
This respected Chilean fashion designer has almost all of her collections manufactured in NYC with eco-friendly fabrics. Her designs are characterized by their timelessness, ease, and modern take on luxury. The company is owned and run by women, and the team continuously looks to develop special collaborations with women artisans around the world.
Founded in 2016, Selva Negra is an ethical size-inclusive apparel owned by Kristen Gonzalez, a Mexican and Filipino American. Its contemporary shapes and multi-use silhouettes are fully produced in Downtown Los Angeles, and it is committed to ethically sourced materials, production transparency, and zero-waste packaging. Selva Negra sources its fabrics locally in Los Angeles, CA, and some from Japan and Turkey. All its trims are sourced from Los Angeles or Japan.
Osklen is a Brazilian contemporary apparel and accessories brand committed to an ‘As Sustainable As Possible, As Soon As Possible’ philosophy. It means that the brand is constantly finding ways to enhance its sustainability scope. The brand has experimented with natural dyes, such as turmeric, urucum. It also uses Pirarucu leather, a type of leather made from Brazilian fish skin that is a byproduct of tribal fisheries to create beautiful bags. Osklen is also supported by Instituto-e, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable development. Its U.S. packaging is made from 100% recycled content and is also fully recyclable.
Carolina K is a lifestyle brand created by Argentinian designer Carolina Kleinman. Known for unique prints and inspired by a desire to preserve the artisanal traditions of indigenous peoples, her pieces are handmade by artisans in remote areas of Mexico, Peru, and India. Carolina K bathing suits are made from ECONYL, which is 100% recycled nylon.
Based in Mexico, Armando Takeda is an artisanal clothing brand that collaborates with artisans to create desirable and sellable high fashion pieces. The brand looks for communities in need that use techniques that it can work with, and then it learns about their ancient technique, meanings, materials, usage of color, and designs. And with their permission, the brand innovates the community’s artifacts and merges them with the highest quality fabrics around the world in its atelier in Mexico City.
Ayni is a Peruvian-Danish brand that combines minimalist modernism with artisanal production in Peru, using the native textiles of alpaca and Pima cotton. Along with its production, all of its primary materials are sourced with the help and support from small workshops and groups of artisans located both in the city and the highlands of Peru. Through its work, it aims to cultivate and honor ancient techniques and cultural heritage while empowering female artisans.
Female-founded Calmo is an Uruguayan apparel, accessories, and home goods brand that works closely with local artisans to preserve traditional craftsmanship. It works with local artisans who specialize in different areas such as natural dyeing, wool felting, hand printing, and carpentry. The brand’s capsule collections are both timeless and modern and are made using natural materials such as fine Merino wool, pure silk, and linen. It also uses natural dyes derived from leaves and flowers. Calmo’s packaging is made out of materials like Uruguayan eucalyptus wood, cotton, and water-based dyes. And its fabric bags and wooden boxes are designed to be reused at home.
Based in Mexico, Collectiva Concepcion is a socially conscious, accessible luxury brand that creates feminine apparel rooted in Mexican design. The brand supports women-led micro-economies in Mexico and donates a percentage of its sales to them.
Based in Peru, Escvdo is a contemporary, ethical luxury fashion brand inspired by and dedicated to its Peruvian heritage. The brand prides itself on using ancestral weaving techniques to create its modern and elegant designs. Escvdo employs skilled artisans in both the sourcing of materials and the creation of its handmade pieces. It works with a predominantly female artisan staff and is dedicated to recruiting and promoting women artisans. Escvdo’s organic Pima cotton comes from the coastal region of Pisco, Peru, and adheres to the highest fair-trade standards. And its Alpaca wool is sourced from the Peruvian Andes, where it partners with local craftspeople to preserve traditional sheering and hand spinning techniques.
Based in New York, Recreo San Miguel is a contemporary lifestyle brand handmade by skilled artisans in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is committed to craftsmanship, sustainability, and positive social change while paying homage to the Serape region’s iconic ancestral garment. The brand is known for incorporating timeless and versatile elements into all of its styles.
American-owned MZ is a fair trade brand that designs bags and accessories that perpetuate the beautiful artistry of the designers and artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico. Its products are hand-dyed and handwoven using a process used by the Zapotecs for centuries. The brand’s goal is to make weaving a more viable livelihood for the artisans and connect Zapotec textiles with socially conscious consumers around the globe.
Founded in 2013, Entreaguas is a Colombian socially-conscious swimwear brand that incorporates artisan techniques such as macrame and hand-dyeing to create what they call “wearable” (and very sexy) art. Its designs are crafted in Colombia by the hands of artisans who are single mothers.