Designer Kika Vargas on the Power of Her Latine Identity and Crafting a Brand With Community

·12 min read

As a young girl in Bogotá, Colombia, Kika Vargas had a dream of one day becoming a fashion designer. Fast-forward to today, the designer is now an industry veteran who cut her teeth at Missoni before launching her women’s ready-to-wear label in 2010.

After taking a break to focus on family, the designer relaunched her brand in May 2019 with Gogoluxe (an agency that helps fashion companies with creative direction and retail strategy) and now splits her time between her hometown, New York and Madrid. The brand sits at the emerging designer price-point and counts Bergdorf Goodman, Harrods, Nordstrom, Shopbop, Browns, Ssense, Matchesfashion and more as retail partners.

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Her latest Colombian-made collections are chock full of voluminous silhouettes with large puff sleeves, girly ruffles and playful prints (a nod to the continually popular prairie and cottage core trends). While the brand initially started with a focus on sharp, architectural shapes, it now emphasizes volume through softer, easier styles. During COVID-19, the Kika Vargas brand also made the change to source materials locally, and more sustainably, in Colombia.

Vargas’ April nomination as finalist for the 2021 LVMH Prize was a testament to her brand’s reinvigorated DNA and craftsmanship. Being selected as one of the nine global finalists itself was a huge honor, according to the designer, but its meaning was even deeper for Vargas and her community, as she was the first selected finalist from Colombia.

Vargas’ label continually delivers optimism, joy and unabashed femininity, all of which she attributes to her strong Latin heritage. Her resort and spring 2022 collections, which she presented for the prize, are nothing short of colorful, voluminous and fun; they, too, stand for Vargas’ messages of hard work, family, community, the influences of art, teamwork, perseverance, an optimistic outlook, and always remembering your roots.

Here, Vargas chats with WWD about her Latine identity, the power of knowing your roots and where Latin designers are taking fashion.

WWD: Tell me about your career in fashion design; where and when did your journey begin?

Kika Vargas: Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamt of being a fashion designer. My mother would share stories about me during our travels in Italy at just 6 years old saying all I wanted to do was to make clothes for women when I was older. My parents are great art enthusiasts, collectors and gallery owners so I always grew up around art, architecture and sculpture. They have been my biggest mentors throughout my career, constantly setting an example of how to mix creativity and entrepreneurship, so I was very fortunate to always have the right motivation and inspiration around me to build my own business one day.

Because of my upbringing, I always thought I had an artist’s heart at the core. Starting out, it was really important for me to study art (as I have always considered myself as an artist first) so I studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and then later moved to Milan to study fashion design at Istituto Marangoni. Just after graduation, I had the honor to work for Missoni and it was such an incredible experience, learning about prints and seeing the makings of incredible craftsmanship from such a brilliant and respectable fashion house. But after a couple years at Missoni, I knew it was always my dream to be able to create my own universe one day so I moved back home to Bogotá to be closer to my roots and start my own label.

WWD: How would you describe your brand aesthetic?

K.V.: In terms of aesthetics, I would say romantic silhouettes, striking patterns, hand-drawn prints, and textured fabrics define our poetic vision. Growing up around art, architecture and sculpture really shaped who I am as a person, as a creative, and as a designer, so a lot of this influence transcends into my creations – in my shapes, volumes, silhouettes, and the techniques used throughout each collection. We play around a lot with architectural forms, eccentric proportions and lively volumes and although each piece is a statement on its own, my garments are designed with everyday wearability in mind. So despite the complexity to some pieces, we always try to create an ease to the brand as well. It is a cultured brand celebrating individuality, high-end quality, and excellence is of utmost importance in everything we do.

Generally as a brand, we believe Kika Vargas is about creating beauty, creating something we cherish, something that protects us, makes us feel stronger, and gives us confidence. We believe that clothes are a way of empowering yourself, so this is what guides us in our creations and what we strive to achieve when we make each collection. Our brand is for the dreamer, the girl who wants to feel and look special, different, polished and sophisticated. She is a strong woman, she is interesting, self-confident and intellectual. We want to make you feel unique and special throughout your day, wherever you are.

WWD: When it comes to Latina vs. Latinx vs. Latine vs. Hispanic — how do you identify? How do you unpack what each term means and how should companies be thinking about how to address the communities in these categories?

K.V.: Being Latin for me encompasses every category — the a, the x, the e and the Hispanic. I understand and embrace each category and I believe in and relate to every category because I don’t think I am one or the other. Instead, I am Latin, which for me is all. I am a proud Colombian who speaks Spanish and loves Latin America dearly. Colombia has given me the opportunity to appreciate and relate to every country in South America and value each and every one of them as a whole community. I am grateful and proud for my Spanish-speaking community, for my Latin community, for my country, and for my continent.

WWD: What does being Latin/a/x/e mean to you?

K.V.: We are dreamers! Being Latin means being hardworking and working tirelessly and relentlessly. We are fighters and never-ending believers. I also believe a big part of being Latin is cherishing family, whether that be with the family I grew up in, the family I have chosen, the family I have built through my brand, or the family of our entire Latin community. Everything stems from a strong family core and it is what is valued most.

What I take so much pride in is how this has influenced the Kika Vargas brand. We really value our team and the essence of teamwork. Our team is our family and we are driven to support their families as well. It has been an honor to be able to help and empower our local community and country through our brand as our team is made up of wonderfully strong women who are head of family within our local communities. We absolutely love to support and empower the Colombian community through education, by creating job opportunities, and by elevating their skill sets and providing them access to resources to build on old skills. And there is so much incredible talent here that we want to share for others to see and appreciate. Ultimately, we believe in fairness and equality, and we want to bring forward the power and beauty behind the wonderful women who help make our brand a dream come true.

WWD: Do you find that your Colombian heritage influences your design process? If so, how do you celebrate that through fashion?

K.V.: There is a lot of my Colombian heritage involved and inspired in my work. As people, we are vibrant, we are joyful and we are friendly. These are all things I carry in my DNA, in my approach to life, in my work and in my family so that is why we are a colorful and vibrant brand with a global spirit.

Additionally, Latins have impeccable attention to detail and appearance. I’ve always thought dressing up was so crucial and it was so important to always feel empowered in what you wear. It’s like a form of protection that gives you courage to be confident and bold, so it was always important for me to create pieces that channel this.

I also believe music plays a key role in my design process as well and a lot of my influence is directly rooted to my heritage and the music of this country. As Latins, we understand each other through dance, through the fluidity of music, and the overall need of celebration. These are all key components that I think are directly tied to my heritage.

WWD: You recently were selected as a finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize. How was your experience as both a designer and first finalist from Colombia?

K.V.: Being part of the prize was life-changing in every way possible. As a creative, as a brand and as a business. One of the most beautiful experiences I have ever lived was seeing the response I got from my country when we were announced as one of the semifinalists, let alone a finalist. It was an overwhelming outreach of support and love from what felt like every corner of Colombia. It felt like every Colombian took this nomination and made it their own and that was such a beautiful experience. And people from all around Latin America reached out to support us on this incredible journey with LVMH. I think as a Latin community we are always so proud for whoever makes strides in what can sometimes feel like the outside world. I have always felt incredibly proud of every Latin fighter and dreamer who has made a mark on an international scale so when we had all that love, pride and an overwhelming amount of support for our work, I couldn’t help but just cry. And I have been crying ever since. Joyful and proud tears to fight the good fight hand in hand with my community and family.

And as a fashion brand, based in Bogotá, Colombia, [it] can sometimes feel like we are so far from the industry’s core like I touched on before. We might not have the same resources as other leading and much more advanced capitals of the world, but we do have a different abundance of resources that make us unique, different and appealing to the rest of the world. There are times when we have to be more creative and resourceful in finding different solutions to even have a chance to compete on an international scale and these are some of the challenges I feel we all share as Latins. So by being a finalist within the LVMH Prize there was such an immense exposure to our brand, to our creativity and to our country, of course. These kinds of opportunities have helped bridge that distance and allowed us to learn from and absorb all and any guidance of the industry’s best. We are a young brand always open for feedback, eager to further evolve our mission, and looking to support and contribute to the industry’s initiatives as well, so this kind of exposure and support from the industry was life-changing.

WWD: Have you experienced any unique challenges, or faced discrimination, in your career because of your ethnicity? Over the last decade, do you think things have, or have not, changed for Latin designers?

K.V.: I think we have all in some form or another been faced with challenges. For me personally, I have had previous opportunities shut down simply because of where I come from and other occasions where I’ve been made fun of because of my nationality. My nationality is Latin, and I am so proud of who I am and where I came from. But despite some of these incidents, each has made me much more thick-skinned and more confident to use my voice. And it has fueled my purpose to advocate for our community more than ever. So the silver lining is that it’s made me so much stronger and smarter in navigating the industry and it’s allowed me to cross paths with so many other like-minded individuals and creatives, which I am so honored and humbled by.

I do think we are moving in the right direction and believe every day is a better day for Latins. We shine brighter and brighter for each day that goes by where we are getting noticed. There are so many talented and wonderful creatives that have paved the path for younger generations like me, and I think this new wave of creatives coming up have so much more to offer. Overall it’s been very heartwarming to see how we are being noticed and acknowledged.

WWD: What should brands, designers and media be doing to enact change when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

K.V.: Never forget your roots. Speak your truth and be proud. Tell your story. In a world where everything revolves around storytelling, don’t be afraid of yours and don’t be afraid to share it. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. Be honest with yourself and embrace your ethnicity, your beliefs and what makes you different. Being different for me has always been an attribute. I have always seen my ethnicity as something to be proud of and I embrace my culture and defend it wherever I go and with whatever I do.

WWD: What is your biggest piece of advice for young Latin designers and fashion entrepreneurs?

K.V: Perseverance. Believe in yourself, and believe in your dream. It is not easy and you will have many battles to fight but have a clear purpose, and work toward your purpose, and stay true to who you are and what you believe in.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in the industry and what has been a key strategy for our success is that there is no one right way of doing things. Be open to thinking differently, being receptive to change, and collaborating with other creatives and people smarter and more experienced than you to allow you to pave your own path.

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