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Lia Samantha: Using Fashion to Counter Racism in Colombia

By Vivian Hendriksz

Sep 1, 2015

Fashion |INTERVIEW

When looking at fashion emerging from Latin-America today, traditional African prints, with vivid reds, magentas, emeralds and blue may not spring to mind straight away. But it is these contrasting and bold colours that are at the center of Lia Samantha Lozano Rendón collections, a rising singer/designer whose designs are increasingly in demand and worn by women ranging from Miss Universe 2014, Paulina Vega, to tv presenters and office workers.

When asked why her designs revolve around Africa colours and patterns, the answer is more complex than previously thought: "I created my own fashion label to better understand myself, my cultural roots and my own heritage, I am not just Colombian, I have roots in Africa as well and see fashion as a medium to better learn about the richness of my history." Born and raised in Bogota, Lia Samantha identifies herself and her designs as Afro-Colombian, which is a statement in itself as she hails from a country where the lines between ethnicity and race tend to be blurred.

Lia Samantha: 'I see fashion as a medium to better learn about the richness of my history'

According to the most recent national census, 85.9 percent of the Colombian population identify as "without ethnicity", 10.6 percent as Afro-Colombian and only 3.4 percent as indigenous, suggesting that the majority of Colombians do not identify with concepts such as race and ethnicity, but merely apply it to others. Growing up in a city where the predominant population is white, Lia experience racismfrom a young age onwards. "Up until recently, you could turn on a television in Colombia and not see a single person of colour present - not even in the soap opera's, or in the news or the daily shows - they were simply not present. So I thought to myself, okay I am Colombian but I feel completely ignored by the media and telecommunications, people of colour are simply not visible."

It was father, who hails from Chocó, a region known for its large, mixed population, who gave her tools she needed to express herself and connect with her roots. "It is thanks to my father that I grew up listening to a lot of 'black' music, which led to my discovery of our heritage and roots. Music has been the tool which led to the discovery of other artistic experiments, such as fashion design." Studying Fashion Design at the National United Corporation of Higher Education in Colombia, she launched her independent label in 2010, spreading her time between designing, presenting and touring with her band Voodoo SoulJah. "In fact, the first time I came into contact with African fabrics was when I was in Toronto, Canada, travelling with my band," she explains. "It was incredible, I found this African-Canadian community, with local stands and I bought all of these fabrics, it was so drawn to them."

Lia's designs: 'a reinterpretation of African dress, with a modern twist'

"I am greatly inspired by the more traditional style of African dress, how tribal women dress and adorn themselves. I would say my designs are a reinterpretation of these traditions, but with a modern twist. I take these traditional fabrics and use them to create contemporary and modern garments for all." A fan of designers such as Stella Jean, Ozwald Boateng and Mimi Plange, she aims to take her designs to the next level as they have. "What's funny though, is that before I began designing I knew nothing about Mimi Plange, or Stella Jean. But unconsciously I have been doing something similar, in my own way, from Colombia. I was simply inspired by African culture from a young age and when I discovered these other designers, it was like wow, there are other African-descended designers who have the same feelings and thoughts as I do."

Her desire to keep the dialogue between her African roots and fashion today whilst trying to initiate change in her home country is also evident in her choice of models. Whilst the majority of fashion designers tend to favour skinny, pale-skinned models, Lia Samantha prefers to promote inclusion. "When I went to ColombiaModa last year, (where she debuted her second collection to standing ovation) I was looking for black girls, with natural afros as well as blondes with blue eyes and latina girls with indigenous features."

'As racism is rife in Colombia, I believe that I can use my fashion to start a change'

"As racism is rife in Colombia, I believe that I can use my fashion to start a change. I refuse to exclude anyone, especially as someone who is from Afro-Colombian descent and uses African fabrics, I refuse to dictate who wears and does not wear my designs or sell my clothes solely to African women. I want my designs to be available to everyone. I have witnessed myself that all women look beautiful in my designs, from Miss Universe 2014, to the every day woman. I don't care if they are white, black, blue, purple, green, blue all of them look like queens in African fabrics."

However, there are more reasons why Samantha embraces vibrant colours and patterns in her designs apart from cultural significance. "Another reason I love using color is that our ancestors did seek out elegance by wearing black," she points out. "There is nothing elegant about hiding yourself under a black mantel - for indigenous and African tribes a true sense of elegance is found in the wearing of colors, showing your own colours and seducing those around you with colours, just like the natural world around us. To me, there is nothing more elegant than the male peacock showing off his tail feathers of color in all his glory. Nothing more, elegant that a flower blossoming in the morning sun, presenting the full array of its colored beauty. In short, I am trying to change the fixed concept we have of fashion now, which has been the same for a long time."