When people think high fashion, Tijuana isn’t a city that comes to mind. For most of its existence, Tijuana has been dismissed as a border town of painted burros, drunken Americans, gun-slinging drug lords and polyester Quinceañera dresses.
But in the last few years, some young entrepreneurial Project Runway wannabes are changing all that. The growing movement has bred a new crop of future Mondo Guerras and Jesús Estradas – up-and-coming Latino designers who’ve appeared on Project Runway.
Much has been talked about Tijuana’s burgeoning art scene and its popular new nightlife. Now the violence-scarred city is experiencing a sort of fashion renaissance, with designers flocking to a now hip and trendy Tijuana to try and put the city on the fashion map.
Derrick Chin, founder of the tour company, Turista Libre (Rad Tijuana Tours), offers tours that regularly take Americans and Europeans (usually the under 30 set), on trips around the city to visit the underground gems dotting the city. From the Tijuana Holiday Shop Hop to soccer games or Lucha Libre events, Chin is committed to bringing tourism back to Tijuana, one hipster at a time.
If I were to describe the current flavor of TJ fashion, I would say it was post-apocalyptic Baroque—industrial, romantic, hopeful, and very self-aware. Here in TJ, we’re expecting the ups and downs. We live in a calm chaos.
Yet, with all its potential, Tijuana has to overcome the negative stigma associated with being a border town: stubborn violence that for decades has kept many tourists away.
Artists say rather than let the violence keep them down, they are using it to their advantage.
Cathy Alberich, a stylist who works with many of the local Tijuana artists, like Madame Ur Y Sus Hombres, says it’s the violence that’s triggered so much creativity.
“TJ designers are expressing themselves through their work. They want to participate in the emerging scene,” Alberich said. “Like the buildings—you’ll see a poor house next to a luxury high-rise. But the merging of border commerce and the desire to be able to afford what’s across the border has huge draw. The mentality of shopping locally and supporting local designers isn’t part of the culture. It’s at the crux of everything.”
Despite the lack of local financial support, designers like Jorge Sánchez continue to grow. RETRO boutique, the store he’s owned for 12 years, recently began selling his line exclusively. Located on the infamous Avenida Revolución, Sánchez’s store sells his classically designed all cotton dresses for $30-$60, and custom gowns for $250.
He’s known for offering the maxi-dress before they were the must-have pieces last year, and his signature 80s high-shoulder silhouettes are staples of Tijuana fashionista.
“My pieces are one-of-a-kind, but they’re priced well so that all women can afford them,” says Sánchez, who was self-taught.
Much has changed in Tijuana since the days rival drug gangs had day time shootings and corpses hung from expressways. This year alone there is a 40 percent drop in crime.
While tourists are slowly trickling back, it’s a younger, braver crowd. And the new Tijuana has gotten cooler and more hip to accommodate. Trendy nightclubs are popping up everywhere, and the city’s flourishing food scene has gained international attention.
Young designer Richard Hernández moved from LA to Tijuana with his parents in 2003. Even though he’s a fashion student in the local Instituto Yaneem, Hernández says he’s picky about to whom he sells his “Jaguar” line.
Known by some as the next Alexander McQueen, the young designer creates leather and vinyl pieces he says “expresses his voice”. Hernández believes Tijuana is becoming one of the main cities in Mexico for indie designers.
“With the influence of both Mexico City and the San Diego border, we’re creating something completely unique here,” Hernández says.
Olga Cecelia Sánchez is a clothing designer, stylist, and flamenco dancer. Her Fuego Rosa line launched in 2008, and is inspired by the 1960s and 1970s cuts and fabrics. She is influenced by Mexico’s bold colors and textures, French vintage, and Spain’s Andalucía region.
“It’s difficult to convince customers to buy from local designers versus crossing the border to San Diego to shop,” Sánchez said. “Designers here, not me, like to copy each other without remorse. So, the specialness of wearing unique pieces is lost on people -- especially when they crave the European and American aesthetic.”
She said she’s unsure about the future of the city’s fashion scene.
“If I were to describe the current flavor of TJ fashion, I would say it was post-apocalyptic Baroque—industrial, romantic, hopeful, and very self-aware,” Alberich said. “Here in TJ, we’re expecting the ups and downs. We live in a calm chaos.”
Rebekah Sager is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.