Carmen Rion, Mexican Designs with Heart & Tradition
*The Culture Trip, Aug 2015
Mexican designer Carmen Rion is renowned for her work with the indigenous artisans to create some of the country's best haute couture designs. Her work highlights both the traditions of the indigenous women plus their strengths as artists in their own right.
Can you tell me about your black and white collection in 2014?
In 2011, I had an exhibition at Franz Mayer Museum called Paisaje Mocheval, which means landscape and rebozo (or shawl) in Tzotzil language. The looks are the capes and rebozo that the artisans use in the area of Chiapas called Zinacantan. The morning after the exhibit, my partner, Guillermo Scully, died. After he died, I went into a depression.
The black and white prints was the kind of work we did together. He would paint for me, and I would put it on the fabric. The first one he ever did was on linen. We always talked about making this project but never got around to it. But when he died, the only way I found to heal a little bit of the pain was working on this project. It took me slow years to do the collection — that was a big change for me. I used to only create in color. Always. Then last year it was only black and white. And the name changed to 'Es Cool y es Rion' ("It's Cool, It's Rion") because of the sounds of our surnames: Scully and Rion.
Are you venturing more into color this year?
So the new collection for 2015 is called 'Renacer' (Reborn). It's in color but still has black and white in the underlinings — little bit with black and white and Guillermo's work. I think we're going to stay with that always because it helped me take a big weight off my shoulder.
When did you start the company Carmen Rion?
In 1997, more or less. My background was in graphic design then textile design. I was in textile design for a long time.
You are well known in Mexico for working with the indigenous artisan women of Chiapas. When did you start working with them?
I always had this passion. I always wanted to go work with them and learn from them. I was always saying we have beautiful textile designs in Mexico, and why is everybody copying from outside? That was an issue for me when I graduated school. I started working with artisans about 12 years ago with a group of 40 women based in Chiapas.
What did you train them to do?
We worked on helping them learn how to work more from a designers perspective so that their work can find a sellable market and pay them well. To look at nature through drawing and painting has been one of the exercises for 'Paisaje Mocheval' project. They just know how to do it naturally and to weave. I know they inherited some symbols from the mountains, the gods and the stars, but they don't have a specific process like us. They have their own knowledge process instilled in their blood — they just work naturally. I teach them a design process so they can connect the dots. We began thinking about colors and sizes, and how certain fabrics could be a cushion, a bag, and a shawl. After all these years, I've learned a lot from them, but I still don't have their knowledge.
There is a lot of criticism of designers who exploit artisans and their work for their own benefit. How were you able to ensure the public knew that you were collaborating with the artisans and not exploiting them?
Since we worked for FONART (the National Fund for the Development of Artisans) for two years, it was very interesting because we were very clear that we weren't using the artisans to make 'maquila' (an assembly line), where you make pocket after pocket. It's not a question of me going to them and saying you're making me 10 of that. It was an integration of design and technique and everything. It was a collaboration.
How do you work with the artisans?
We want to help rescue their own techniques and give them different ways to create and make a living. Since we started, we would conduct cost exercises with the artisans to help them know how to charge for their designs. I bring the threads to them, they create the fabric and they sell the fabric to me. They are the owner of the threads.
What do you think of the Westerners who appropriate these traditional designs from Mexico?
I think it's a very dangerous thing. They cannot do that. The group of artisans should get their work copyrighted. They are the owners of the designs they create — not me, not the fashion designers. Who's paying the artisans for their designs? It's a tradition of years. That's the issue. Because it's part of the whole community, how can they register their design?
Why do you think there are not many designers in Mexico working with artisans?
Actually, there are many now! It's a very new thing. No one looked at the poor people before. We have a country that's not very cultural in that sense. The real designers are the artisans. The poor people of our country are the artists in the textile arena.
What's next for you?
I think we're ready to grow. Our label is already very well known, and our collections are more solid. We're going to open two more places in Mexico: one in DF and one in Chiapas. Then we might go overseas and sell online.
What do you think makes a successful brand?
Work and passion and belief. Just that. That's what I've done. I don't know if I'm successful, but that's what I've done.
Do you have a message to others about your work?
We have to take care of our environment, absolutely. We cannot go on making things out of plastic and polyester. We really have to respect artisans because they are artists. We have to pay them well, and we have to recover all the handmade work. We don't need those factories making thousands of clothes. Let's go back to the basics.
Why do you do what you do?
I love it. I think going back to the basics is important — back to handmade clothes and the way our grandmothers used to do things.