Walking through the main hall of Monumental Callao is a bit like strolling from the past into the future. The turn-of-the-20th-century shopping arcade in Lima’s Callao district recently opened after being restored to its former glory, complete with salmon-pink marble walls and soaring stained-glass archway. On my way to the rooftop terrace, I peer into the few storefronts yet to be filled, wondering what the rent would be in Manhattan for a perfectly patinaed space like this. But the neighbourhood artists and creatives who’ve already set up shop here don’t need to worry about price tags; the owner has invited many of them free of charge. In return, they’re helping to transform the busy seaport, considered unsafe by Limeños just a few years ago, into a thriving art and design destination. From the roof, I get a birds-eye view of sidewalk tamale sellers and a man swan-diving into the Pacific Ocean before asking passersby for a tip. It occurs to me that Callao is a microcosm of Lima: Leveraging this entrepreneurial spirit, the Peruvian capital is weaving a new future as a fashion design hub that may soon become as hot as the world-famous scene cooked up by the city’s chefs.
Whizzing along Lima’s Circuito de Playas, a ribbon of highway tracing the Pacific, I pass street after street of bright pink, yellow and blue apartment buildings that look like they’ve been plucked from a Mondrian masterpiece. I begin to see how the Wari, Inca predecessors whose strikingly abstract tapestries influenced Bauhaus and other design movements, were centuries ahead of their time. Long a textile destination for international brands from Armani to Ulla Johnson, Peru is home to some of the highest-quality materials, like baby alpaca and pima cotton, along with couture-level craftsmanship at prêt-à-porter prices. But only recently has a crop of talented Lima-based designers – many of them returning (or arriving) from abroad to launch their own lines – given a contemporary twist to this rich resource. They’re working closely with weavers, knitters, embroiderers and other artisans from around the country to create modern pieces with age-old techniques. On my way to the upscale Miraflores district, I pass a shopping centre with a clifftop view of the ocean. “After Machu Picchu, Larcomar is one of Peru’s most visited sites,” says my guide. But in my quest to find Lima’s innovative new fashion designers, I’ve had to dig deeper than the nearest mall. Most of them keep things small-scale, and few even have retail spaces or online shops, making a visit to their ateliers akin to looking through a porthole to the country’s ancient craft centres. The experience is anything but one size fits all.
In Miraflores, I find Alessandra Petersen’s shop tucked away on a residential street. Dark-haired and animated, she welcomes me into her whitewashed space, where velvet dresses in mustard and indigo hang alongside silk crochet necklaces and chunky alpaca-wool scarfs. “Every single person in the Andes knows how to knit; it’s a way of life,” says Petersen, who got her master’s degree in art direction from London’s Central Saint Martins and worked in Denmark and Norway before returning to Peru. Having seen the edgy designs coming out of Scandinavia and rediscovering her father’s collection of pre-Columbian knits, she started her own eponymous line. (Not long after that, New York designer Prabal Gurung asked her to help develop his knit- wear collection.)
Leading me through the store’s plant-filled courtyard, she takes me to her tiny studio in the back, where a knitter is finishing a sleeve in a geometric pattern. After Petersen designs the shape of a garment, she picks the yarn to match the desired volume. “Every knitter’s hand brings a different tension,” she says, draping a colourful Fraggle Rock-meets-Coco Chanel coat over my shoulders. It resembles a deconstructed bouclé. She scrunches up the fabric in her hands and gestures to me to do the same. “You have to learn the touch to know the real stuff,” she says. The cloud-soft baby-alpaca garment floats around my body. I’m hooked.
Two blocks in from Playa Makaha, a beach where novice surfers like to get their toes wet, I knock on the door of Mozhdeh Matin. The designer, in red knit pants and running shoes, is busy prepping her summer 2017 collection. Her sparse living room is adorned with vintage robes in bright patterns and embroidered velvets from Peru, Turkey and Iran (where her parents are from). It’s like entering a walk-in archive. “Anywhere you go in Peru there is a community of makers,” Matin explains as she lists an array of techniques by region: ikat, open and closed handloom, crochet, hand-knitting. She shows me a seed purse from the jungle in northern Peru. While she has a deep respect for tradition and indigenous handiwork, her line, Mozh Mozh, is firmly planted in the future. “I’m interested in what artisans are creating now. I like to see what they’re playing with, and I choose the textiles for my collection based on that,” she says, pulling a sleeveless red-and-blue striped overcoat off the rack. “This pattern was designed by a 70-year-old man as a placemat, but I made a vest out of it.”
It’s midday when I leave, and as I walk through the lush Parque Kennedy, businessmen are sitting down for lunch. (Come dusk, tango dancers will take over the small on-site amphitheatre.) On the opposite side of the park is the newly launched shop Unø. Like Mozh Mozh, it’s already building a reputation for pushing people’s expectations. The metal shutter has just gone up, and co-owner Kina Andersen Stahl ducks out from behind it, wearing a yellow silk duster coat, fringed moccasins and a crop of bright blond hair. “People ask if they can come in,” she says with an exasperated smile, pointing to the polished concrete floors. “They think it’s still under construction.” The space does have a gritty vibe. Behind the counter, “Wild at heart” is scrawled in pink neon on a jungle-plant print. Opening Unø in May with her sister, Lele, who studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design, Kina says the idea of a concept shop is still new for Lima.
After I make a mental checklist of items to stock up on – black-and-white pillows with tangerine tassels, framed silkscreen prints by Copy Cat, an oxblood felt hat and alpaca knits from local outfit Ayni – we head across the street. The headquarters of Siblings Army, an accessories line the sisters (originally from the Canary Islands) launched a few years ago, is stocked with leather bags and denim jackets emblazoned with vintage textiles sourced from around Peru, most notably aguayo, the woven cloth used by Andeans to secure babies or small items to their backs. The weavers thread whole stories using symbols, each adding a personal touch. Pulling pieces from a tree branch repurposed as a clothing rack, Kina decodes some of the motifs: Stripes can signify a river or rain; a row of red potato flowers represents the harvest. “The artisans create what strikes their fancy,” Kina says. Similarly, the sunlit Siblings Army studio is a lab for experimenting with designs, materials and patterns. My eye is drawn to a visor in tooled chestnut leather and a bag with a thick rope strap from a saddle maker who uses old horse reins. A prototype for a slip-on sandal from Cusco is made from old tires. “It’s hard to make quality pieces,” says Kina, “so we really try to support good work and local designers.”
Valery Bolliger is one such designer. Sporting short platinum hair and a black gauzy shift knotted at the hips (her own design), she invites me to her apartment/atelier in Miraflores. Fabric swatches, watercolour illustrations and photos cover one wall. Bolliger pours me a cup of coffee from beans grown on her family’s farm, Finca Rosenheim, 350 kilometres east of Lima, near a biosphere reserve. “The flavour of that region is pretty acidic,” she warns me. But the tangy brew tastes like a delicious espresso with lemon peel, Roman-style. Before moving back to Lima last year, Bolliger lived in Qatar and collaborated with the Qatar Foundation, co-founded by style maker Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, allowing her to visit luxury fashion houses and clothing factories in Italy, France and India. “I always knew we had the same level of craftsmanship in Peru,” she says. “The real questions were, what is the future here? How do we not only protect our craft but help it to evolve?”
Her line, Garua, is named after the Spanish word for the sea mist that settles over Lima from June to November. (During my visit, the sky remains a milky white that makes all the city’s colours pop even more.) The visual suits her romantic yet minimalist pieces, such as a woven pima cotton shirt with hand-frayed edges as delicate as eyelashes and a burgundy silk dress with gold stitching dotting the hem. Bolliger lights up when talking about her latest research into alternative materials and her discovery of pineapple leather, derived from the plant’s fibrous leaves. “The texture is amazing,” she says, passing me a sketch for a clutch on which she’ll test the quality of the new material. With designers here so quickly advancing their trade, baby alpaca wool is almost starting to sound old.