In Bolivia’s capital city La Paz, indigenous women known as cholas have long been stigmatized for wearing their traditional clothes: bowler hats, handmade macramé shawls, tailored blouses, layered pollera skirts, and lots of elaborate jewelry.
But for the past 11 years, fashion designer Eliana Paco Paredes has been chipping away at that stigma with her line of chola clothing—which she debuted at New York City’s Fashion Week last week. That’s a big deal for a type of clothing that has historically been disparaged in Bolivia because it was worn by poor, indigenous women. For a long time, many indigenous women couldn’t wear chola clothing in certain professions.
Bringing indigenous designs to New York is a huge step for Paco Paredes, though not the first time her clothing has received international recognition. In 2012, she designed a shawl for Spain’s Queen Sofia.
But Paco Paredes’s Fashion Week show is also an important moment for indigenous cholas. Until recently, these women “could be refused entry to certain restaurants, taxis and even some public buses,” writes Paula Dear for BBC News. Such an international spotlight on Paco Paredes’s designs will hopefully increase the acceptance of indigenous women and their culture in Bolivia.
La Paz’s mayor, Luis Revilla, wrote in an email that his city’s response to Paco Paredes’s Fashion Week debut has been a feeling of pride. He hopes that “her designs, which reflect the identity of local woman from La Paz, generate a trend in the global fashion industry,” he says.
“I also hope that in time, people from different geographies of the planet begin to use some of the elements that make the dress of chola,” he says.
Fresh off her Fashion Week debut, Paco Paredes spoke with National Geographic about her clothing and how opportunities for cholas are changing.
What is your approach to your designs?
What we want to show on this runway is the outfits’ sophistication. But the thing I don’t want to lose, that I always want to preserve, is the fundamental essence of our clothing. Because what we want, in some way, is to show the world that these outfits are beautiful, that they can be worn in La Paz by a chola, but they can also be worn by you, by someone from Spain, by a woman from Asia; that these women can fall in love with the pollera, the hat, the macramé shawl combined with an evening gown. These are the outfits we want to launch.
Do you think it's important that you, as a chola, came to Fashion Week in New York?
Of course! I think that it's very important because to have a runway of this international magnitude, with designers of this caliber, with international models, with a completely professional atmosphere, fills me with pride. And it's very important because of the fact that people can see my culture.
Who buys your clothing?
I have a store in La Paz, a national store. Here in La Paz, in Bolivia, this clothing is doing very well, because it's what many women wear day to day.
At a national level I can tell you we have the pleasure to work with many regions: Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba. At an international level, we dress many people in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and some products we make go to Spain, Italy. So through this we want to open an international market with sophisticated outfits that are Eliana Paco designs.
We're getting people to learn about what this clothing is at another level, and many women outside of Bolivia can and want to wear these outfits. They've fallen in love with these designs that they can say come from La Paz, Bolivia.
How are opportunities changing for cholas in La Paz?
It's definitely a revolution that's been going on for about 10 years, because the cholas paceñas [cholas from La Paz] have made their way into different areas—social, business, economic, political. And look at this fashion event, where nobody could've imagined that suddenly so many chola designs are on the runway with some of the most famous designers, like Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada, where they have lines of different types of designs at an international level.
The chola paceña has been growing in all of these aspects. And for us, this is very important because now being chola comes from a lot of pride—a lot of pride and security and satisfaction.
The interview was translated by Rachel Brown. It has been edited and condensed.