I first came across Susana Colina on Instagram, as one does these days, and I was astounded by the understated elegance and clean lines of her designs, plus the fact that she uses sustainable fabrics like hemp, organic cotton, soy, and silk. Then, I found out she was Venezuelan, and you can imagine my delight. (My fiancé is Venezuelan.) I emailed her and asked if I could visit her in her live-work Brooklyn studio, and she graciously agreed to let me see what she is working on. Some fun facts about Venezuela: 1. Venezuelan women are beautiful, pretty much as a rule. Colina is too, of course. (See Exhibit a. to the right.) 2. Venezuela has a famous fashion designer: Carolina Herrera. Colina follows in this tradition, with her elegant evening wear, but her items have a more youthful and sharp feel. 3. Venezuelan culture puts a lot of emphasis on obtaining prestigious degrees, to the exclusion of following your passion or creativity. Just take my fiancé, who got a master's degree from Colombia in architecture, but would give up that career in a moment if he found a way to fully support himself with DJing. "Most of my friends are musicians," Colina says. She herself used to be in a band, and dated another Venezuelan DJ for some time. "They are either engineers or architects. They have that title, and then they go and do whatever they want to do. Which is crazy. It would be easier if you were encouraged from earlier on. You would be way better and faster! I studied graphic design because in Venezuela fashion design was not accepted as a career, and my family comes from a very academic background," she told me. "So it was not happening, especially since my older sister was like, 'I love fashion, I want to go into fashion design,' and my mom was like, 'Nooooo!'"
But Colina doesn't regret her graphic design training. (When people say, "You can do anything with that degree," they really should be talking about graphic design instead of law.) "I love that I have that in my background because it gives me some profile in graphics and art," she says. "So I fell in love with it. But in the back of my head, all the time was like, I want to do this, I want to do this. As much as I could, I did. I bought weird fabrics and jeans and I cut them and pulled them apart again. I did whatever I could to express myself that way. My mom used to give me all her vintage clothing. I pretty much reconstructed every vintage dress she had. She was like, 'OK, go ahead and do your thing.' When I was playing in a band for a couple years, everything I wore on stage was my mom’s vintage dress remade by me."
Colina first traveled to NYC in 1997, when her sister was living here, visiting for six months or a year at a time. She lived in Europe for a couple years, in London and Barcelona, before moving back to NYC. She started designing seriously six years ago and formalized her label a little over three years ago, starting out with conventional fabrics, but that soon changed.
"Because I was vegetarian, I was starting to look at the world in a different way," she says. "How are people making this, from vegetables, to cars to fabrics ... I started to question everything. I came across these [sustainable] fabrics and I felt totally connected to it. That’s pretty much the way I live my life, so I thought this was such a nice thing to create a concept around this."
If you're puzzled by the use of hemp in luxury design, well, you have a right to be. "It’s challenging for sure," Colina says. "The fabric has evolved in the last five years. But at the beginning, this was a fabric that was only used for furniture and things around the house. You could not iron that fabric. Once it was wrinkled, it was wrinkled forever, it was so raw. But now it evolved really well, and you have blends of organic, silk, so it’s easier."
Colina tries to straddle the luxury and sustainable design worlds, as I do. "That’s been one of the challenges I’ll say. I feel like different people have embraced this. It’s either a modern woman who loves the futuristic clean look, and also people who are very aware of what is going on. Usually people that are very aware of and take action, working toward something better on the environment, they’re not usually into this type of clothing. They’re on the hippy side, the relaxed side, casual side. On the other side, there are people who want luxury, want this to be beautiful and, eh, it’s cool if it helps the environment. And in the middle are people who care about the environment, and they care about the design. I love to be in that middle. Love, love, love."