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Fashion as Resistance with Qarla Quispe

(Interview has been edited for clarity and content.)

Qarla Quispe is among the young artists in Lima, Peru working to reclaim indigenous roots by placing Quechua traditions at the center of contemporary, urban identity. She designs polleras, the full gathered skirts of the highlands, for women to wear in celebration of their Quechuan identity. Her work is as much about cultural expression as it is about education & self-empowerment.

Qarla Quispe was among the Latin Fashion Designers at the 2019 Latin Fashion Week Colorado. Her skirts are now part of the LCAC collection courtesy of The Abarca Family Collection.

“How am I going to understand my country if my education doesn’t allow me to?” – Qarla Quispe

How important is travel to the work you are creating?

My soul told me to go outside, my spirit told me to travel and my grandma told me to pray. I taught myself the history of Indigenous culture and textiles of Perú. This is because there is little to no documentation of native textiles throughout the regions. Unfortunately, there continues to be discrimination against the Indigenous peoples. I left Lima and traveled to several regions throughout Perú like Arequipa, Huancayo, Cusco y Chiclayo. I was able to find contacts online and stayed with women in villages to learn from their techniques and their way of life.

“Draw what your heart tells you and the needles will be your pencil.” – Qarla Quispe

Can you talk about the Pollera (the traditional indigenous skirt) and why it is important to the message you want to send out to the world?

I was walking in the street one day in Lima and met the only woman that mastered all the different techniques found in the different Peruvian regions, so I asked her to share her knowledge. The colors within my collections reference the natural dyes and techniques used by the many regions across Perú. I was able to learn about my roots, which it made it possible for me to create a second skin for myself out of my drawings and skirts.

Polleras are important because it is now seen as a symbol of resistance. It’s a cultural artifact that is still essential and practical to use on a daily basis. I use the skirts to communicate the historical issues in my county that are oppressing women and their indigeneity. When women leave their small towns and come into Lima, the capitol, they lose a part of themselves because they are forced to assimilate. The skirt is a way for us to hold on to our culture, so we don’t have to absorb completely into the society that rejects us.

What is the beauty behind the “Chola” and why is she is important to Peruvian culture and fashion?

“Chola” was used as a derogatory term to refer to indigenous peoples as dogs, or dirty and disposable. Now we use it to reclaim our pride and resistance. You will often see phrases like “Soy Una Chola Brava”, “Chola Mala”, or “Chola Migracion”. It signals the importance of my roots as a proud indigenous migrant woman. This social movement developed by the young women in Lima are making a conscious decision to reclaim their indigeneity as Peruvians to honor their mother’s and grandmother’s legacy.

In college, I designed my first collection, “Casa Mi Aja” an installation of floating polleras screen printed with folkloric designs. My professors had expressed that popular art wasn’t worthy to be considered as fine art and they had second guessed whether I should be awarded my degree. After much negotiation, my project was approved for the thesis and I graduated from Bellas Artes. I later sold the entire collection to an Argentinian fashion designer. This experience encouraged me to continue pushing boundaries between contemporary and popular art forms. Now more and more Peruvian women are proud to wear the skirts as an expression of cultural pride.

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