One sunny day I went to a Mercadito Pop [a fair] and discovered an amazing electric blue felted hat I just had to have to protect me from the harsh sun we get here at the high altitude of La Paz. The lady designing and selling these unique hats was Maria. I noticed straight away she was a woman caring about design. You know those sort of people, right? They look effortless. They always have something ever so slightly different hanging from their ears or neck, but never too over-the-top or in-your-face. This is Maria – comfortable, unique, creative and warm. She’s the sort of person who wears what she likes and relishes in sorting through second hand clothes in El Alto to find a bargain. She follows international fashion trends but never through complete imitation like I have seen of so many people during my time living in London. She adapts a colour that’s in season to her style or a shape that’s popular but never everything all at once. Whenever I meet people like Maria I always wish I had their style!
When you visit Maria’s shop, called Unique, you can see she has created a business that reflects her style and personality beautifully – alpaca jumpers and dresses in simple, minimalist shapes accessorised by aguayo [Bolivian, colourful, striped, traditional textile] clutches, felted hats with pompoms hanging from their brims and chic jewellery that combines contemporary silver shapes with traditional fibers. Everything is presented in gorgeous antique suitcases and objects.
As we became friends I was always surprised by her energy, generosity and warmth… and how many people she knows here!! But, as you get to know her it’s hardly surprising at all. Maria is down to earth, friendly and supportive. She has many years of experience behind her from living a full, creative and entrepreneurial life… as you will read in this interview…
How and why did you start your clothing store, Unique?
Seven years ago I decided to give myself an opportunity to do something else in my working life. I had already enjoyed a career in gastronomy that had been very important to me but I felt like I had to do something else that I enjoyed as well. I enjoy the creative life, working with the hands to have a more handcrafted world. I thought that in Bolivia there are many people who are very skilled in things like knitting but perhaps I could direct them in areas of quality and contemporary style. That was why I started Unique. I wanted to have somewhere to sell products that I thought were different from the usual things in the other stores.
When I decided to do this I started taking some courses because I needed to know more about design. There aren’t so many courses in La Paz on these topics so I went to Buenos Aires and Lima to take some short courses they offered. They gave me an idea of what to look for and use. From this I realised I had to use alpaca, the felt for the hats and some cotton. I realised that what was being made and sold in the main tourist area had too many patterns. Through my store and having contact with people I learnt that people actually prefer plain things – they go more for quality of the natural fibers that they can wear for years and years rather than having a beautiful pattern that they will get sick of or go out of style quickly. I think it was much easier to find some knitters who would follow my ideas of simplicity in design.
I feel familiar with what I am designing to sell because that’s the way I dress and style myself. I am not just making clothes for other people, I’m also doing it for myself. If I feel comfortable I can imagine other people feeling comfortable too.
At a point in my entrepreneurship I realised I could also start making a bit of jewellery. At first I was making textile jewellery from the scraps of the bags I was making. After making fabric necklaces I realised they needed some earrings to match. That is when I got in touch with a jewellery maker and he does the earrings for Unique. He doesn’t only work with silver, but also with other metals. This means there are some cheaper items because not everyone wants to spend a lot on silver… also, these are accessories you can wear every day.
Who mostly buys your pieces? I know selling around the tourist area has been tough in recent years…
The first years were really encouraging because I was selling a lot. In fact I had no time to restock the store! Now I feel like tourism has gone down. But there are other stores that have more designed pieces now as well. The good thing is that I have many clients who come to my store who are not tourists – they are either Bolivians or people who live in La Paz, like you, expats. At the moment these are my loyal clients. I have also had good relationships with people who like my things and want to sell abroad. So, I sell to Italy, Denmark, and to the United States. I sell mostly alpaca accessories to them because they are easy to resell. They order before the winter time in their countries which keep the artisans busy. This is a socially minded shop, where artisans can work out of their homes, using domestic machines by hand.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I mostly use the internet to see what’s on trend. I always look for the colours that are in season but my inspiration also comes from my culture. Sometimes I mix colours that Europeans wouldn’t use but they are found in the textiles here, in the aguayos, like red and orange. It’s only recently that you see these sorts of clashing colours in main stream fashion but before it wasn’t seen as very stylish or classic – it seemed crazy. My eyes are very fixed on the textiles of my culture. I really feel Bolivian! The music, the colours, everything fills me. I love going to the markets to pick my vegetables, to smell them. I think it’s also because of my age. When I was young my values were more European, perhaps because I lived there for so many years and I thought they were the ‘real’ values but as I got older I understood the values here. When people talk about quality of life they are really talking about infrastructure but this isn’t the real quality of life for me.
So I realised that we don’t have to copy anybody because we have our own culture and values. In saying that I learnt a lot when I lived in Europe and I always keep an eye on what is happening in the design world and tendencies set there but nowadays fashion comes from around the world and people look for comfort as well.
I also use earthy colours though, especially in the shawls and throws. I prefer to keep them like this so that they can be combined easily with people’s current dresses and clothes. The neutral colours bring out the bright colours of their pieces. However, if someone wants something in a new colour I am open to doing that too!
I use the kantuta flowers in different textures – in felt on my bags, in a pin/brooch, in alpaca. I like using pom poms and the accessories of the cholita [indigenous woman] hats I use on my bags too.
What I like to do is to add a bit of ethnicity into my designs but it doesn’t have to be ‘ethnic’… just a bit!
Speaking of your culture, I know you are passionate about dancing which is very strong in Bolivian culture… can you tell me about this…
Years before I started dancing I was passionate about the mountains and when I realised that trekking wasn’t enough, I started doing mountaineering. That’s when I really deeply understood what it means to be close to Pachamama. I started climbing mountains that were up to 4500m with friends and then, when I wanted to do harder ones, I realised the only way to do it was to get a trainer and a guide. So now I have climbed a few mountains all the way to the top! I love this but it’s not something you can do all the time – it takes a lot of preparation, then you hike and at some point you realise you can’t get to a higher level. But you realise how much importance patience gives to your life and that’s when I thought that something else that could fill my heart is dancing.
So, in my early 50s I looked for a dance group to join. I did this by looking for the groups who did the dances I enjoyed, like the kullawada, morenada and the tinku. I joined a morenada group (there are tons of them actually) but they said after 5 practices that I danced like a gringa [Westerner]! They said I couldn’t go to an entrada [dance procession] and I felt so stupid. I felt that it wasn’t important to them that you liked to dance, but it was more of a competition. When I went to a class of the tinku dance I realised there was so much jumping that I wasn’t fit enough! Then, a friend of mine brought me to one of the kullawada groups in La Paz and on the very first evening they added me to their list for the next entrada at the Oruro Carnival. For them it wasn’t important how you danced but it was important I wanted to belong with them, so they took my measurements for the costumes. I felt so much empathy with this group and now I am friends with most of them. It doesn’t matter that we are all from different activities or professions in life – dancing is something you enjoy in life!
I take part in two entradas each year. We start practicing twice a week for 2 months beforehand to get fit. We dance for 4 to 5 hours at each entrada – the distance isn’t so long but we stop and start often. When people are really enjoying our dancing we stop and dance for them in that place. The crowd takes part, singing, clapping and sometimes they join us… so that’s why it takes so long.
What I like, that I didn’t know before, is that when you are dancing in the entrada it is like a catharsis – you get into dancing, you don’t think about anything else and the movement brings you somewhere else. It’s almost spiritual for me.
Something I have gotten to know about because of the dancing is about the prestes. The preste is the person who is responsible for the costs of all the drinks, music, food and hiring the venue for the party after an entrada. Everyone in the community wants to be a preste at some point to be considered a person of high prestige and respect. Each year they compete to outdo their predecessor and they can easily spend the savings of a year or several years, circulating their capital within the community. Challa is also important – in gratitude to Pachamama [Mother Earth] for all her fruits they make offerings and spill alcohol on the floor for her.
The preste is chosen by the dance group. Actually, prestar means to borrow. When you go to the fiesta, you give the preste money or you buy a box of beer to pay him back and he resells the beer. So he gets the money back and the party doesn’t turn out costing him as much as he spent beforehand! Mostly they end up even but sometimes they even make some money! These parties look like another world. It’s a world I didn’t know before. They don’t just invite the dance group but everyone they know!
What’s interesting is that most of these parties are made in the saloons of buildings in El Alto that are designed with new architectural tendencies in a style called nueva architectura Andina. These buildings are huge. The saloons have very colourful frescos painted inside with forms and animals from the Tiwanaku culture, like the Andean cross. Of course the culture didn’t use colours back then. They also have huge chandeliers which are sometimes brought from Czechoslovakia. These places are in El Alto – it’s unbelievable!!! Actually, a book about this has just been released by an architectural historian, in Spanish and English. The buildings with the saloons are between 5 and 8 levels, with the saloon downstairs. The other levels are filled with commercial galleries, meeting rooms, apartments or shops and at the very top, situated on the roof, is a full house for the owner. Some have glass, some are unusual facades. Their economic growth can be seen inside the buildings or houses with the painted frescos and glass. The facades have bright colours, with an interesting kitsch. It’s interesting culturally and it’s their own identity. It’s another world there, even for me as a Bolivian. This trend is recent, starting around 2005.
The costumes for the dances are pretty crazy and based upon ‘cholita fashion’… how is this viewed in society and also since you aren’t a cholita?
I think the cholita outfit is very elegant because they really appreciate colours and pay attention to everything from their shoes to their hat. When they put everything together, everything goes! They even think about what kind of jewellery goes with the outfit – gold or silver. Even if they don’t have the money to wear gold, they’ll wear something gold plated to ensure it fits with their colours. They are so conscious about fashion that every year they change something in their outfits. For instance, a few years ago, the fashion for their bowler hat was to have them very high but now they are very short. If they have money right now they won’t wear high hats. It’s also to maintain status.
In their skirts they have bastas/tablas [layers] – this year fashionable cholitas are wearing skirts with narrower layers and they have 8 of these instead of 4 wide ones. Some business women travel to China to order the fabric by the roll to ensure they match the latest colours from Paris catwalks.
I really admire the cholitas wearing these outfits daily because they are so heavy on the hips. I wonder if they don’t have problems when they are older. The skirts have 2 layers underneath! Maybe they are used to it from childhood.
In recent years there are more and more women wearing the cholita outfits in everyday life. Before, they were wearing more and more western clothing but now it’s going the other way – more people are wearing cholita clothes. What you didn’t see before that you often see now is some even wear makeup! I think the change of government has made them proud of their identity and so they are more willing to express it than before.
The costumes for the dances are made by each group. They are modelled on the idea of the cholita outfits but because they are made as a costume they are more elaborate, more exaggerated, always with more glitter, etc. The costumes change every year which is also a status symbol, since you don’t want to be seen dancing in the same outfit every year.
I think it’s already normal that I wear this outfit for dancing even though I’m not a cholita – they know I’m just doing it for the dance so they don’t pay much attention to me wearing it.I know that you used to own a very successful restaurant and separately, you are a bit unusual here as a vegetarian and kombucha lover… can you tell us about this part of your life?
When I came back after I had lived in Europe and Canada with my family we wanted to have a restaurant with a different cuisine and with a different ambience. So, we opened a restaurant that made homemade pasta. At the time, when I opened in 1988, there were no Italian restaurants here. We had to bring almost everything from abroad because at the time you couldn’t get good plates, tiles, cutlery or anything here… and I laugh because now you are buying these things here to take to Australia!! Things have changed a lot!
At the very beginning my husband and I designed and made the food. There were no cooking schools then! We were also training Bolivians to make Italian food. I was lucky also that my sister in law, married to my brother, was living here. She was a very good dessert maker and she did the desserts.
What we realised is that the restaurant could also be more than a restaurant. It was very modern and so we also used it to show art. I had Bolivian artists always changing and showing there – that’s why I have so much art at home. I have always been interested in all things creative – there are things in life you don’t learn, it’s just how you are as a human being, and creativity is like that for me!
Working with food meant I naturally realised what is good for you and not. I have manipulated it with my hands and this allowed me to see what is healthy – eating healthy is important to me. I think it’s not from the outside that you do something for yourself, it’s from the inside and what you give your body.
I think you always need to feel in touch with something. When you physically touch food, or an object, it gives you strength. It’s about connection. Connection is something magical that you feel is around you. In all aspects of life it’s about becoming more in tune with what’s around me. I have my own garden in my head and I try not to keep what I don’t want there because otherwise it takes all my soul, my energy and it depletes me as a person…
What are your dreams for the future?
I would love to see parts of the world that I cannot feel in pictures. I would love to be there, to feel how different they are. I want to be in nature, where it’s different. I’ve travelled a lot but there are many places I haven’t felt, or seen, even in Bolivia. To be in touch with nature – nothing gives you more than that – listening to the birds, the ocean, watching a water fall, seeing a sunset… These mean more than anything else and I’d like to spend more time like this. I’d also love to visit you on your farm in Australia one day.