The history of Mexican fashion runs deep within the capital's walls. Nearly as deep as the country's turbulent relationship with politics, music or indigenous culture. Almost every major tenet of Mexico's rich history can be described by a garment – the ornate silver-lined buckles on mariachi jackets, the embossed leather boots worn on agave fields cultivated to distill tequila in Jalisco, the lavish, gaudy lazo rosaries Mexican brides will wear on their wedding day.
In a rapidly changing fashion industry, one where arbitrary border lines on maps drawn by men in power millenia ago pale in comparison to Instagram follows, it is no wonder new-age Mexican designers' work is captivating the hearts and minds of style lovers everywhere regardless of background.
The mission to transport homegrown, exclusive designers onto the stages of fashion's gatekeepers is one César Alvarez always championed, leading the stylist and editor to birth Tótem Magazine, a multidisciplinary platform for his country's young generation – one that throws out outdated beliefs that queer, brown, femme-presenting creatives are not meant to be in fashion. Who don't deserve a seat at the table.
Tótem is Mexico City-born and Los Angeles-raised, often a reflection of the artistic Latinx community found in Southern California. Alvarez has his roots in CDMX — the Spanish acronym for the country's capital — but will always have a special love for the city of angels.
The exploration between these two worlds has led the media mogul to create his own pop-up boutique, Tótem Tienda, in order to bring rising Mexican designers to the United States. Nestled in the heart of Los Angeles, Tótem Tienda is a carefully curated showcase of garments and accessories meant for everyone and every body. It's a deliberate act of recolonizing spaces and aesthetics so often deemed inaccessible or gender-defying.
In celebration of a special photoshoot with internet personality Princess Gollum, PAPER caught up with Alvarez to discuss all things Tótem, Mexican fashion and celebrating an inclusive space not often found in Latin American culture.
Walk me a bit through the creation of Tótem and its inception — from the initial stages, to the magazine, and then elevating that platform into a physical space.
Tótem began with the objective to show a side of fashion in Mexico that was rarely seen, a side where everyone was included: all bodies, all genders, and everyone who wanted to express themselves primarily through photography and fashion. Between friends we began to create online editorials as Tótem Magazine to expose our tastes and show our creativity through our own brands. Along the way we were including other young designers in these editorials and we began to make pop ups in houses, patios and venues so that we could sell our pieces. After moving to LA, the next step was to open an actual store. We had already built this community in Mexico City, and this was the perfect opportunity to tell their story and sell their pieces to a new audience.
Was this the first physical event Tótem has produced in the United States since the pandemic?
It is. Actually the opening of Tótem Tienda was just a couple months before the pandemic started and it was very special. A lot of Latinx and non-Latinx community came out for it, and people were really surprised by all the talent and work of all the designers.
Why Los Angeles for the Tótem Pop-up rather than another large city like Miami, New York, or Chicago?
I decided to move to LA after spending a while exploring different fashion and design opportunities in México. I had been to LA many times growing up to visit family in the summer and I've always liked the California vibe, although I am forever a person from the city. In terms of fashion, I think that Mexico City has a very special touch, and I don't think there is a place in Los Angeles that really captures it.
What is the Mexico City fashion scene like for someone who has never been there? What's different about the environment in comparison to other fashion hubs that most people recognize?
The local fashion industry in Mexico City has grown a lot in recent years. The scene is very glamorous, even aspirational, but definitely with a unique touch. Due to our history and our geographical location we consume European and American trends but we make it our own and give it a Mexican twist. In México there are a lot of parties, cultural events, and in general many places to go out and have fun. You can use public transport to get around the city, you can walk from one neighborhood to another in a matter of minutes and I think that a lot of the inspiration to create clothes is out there on the street. Wearing clothing as a way of expression is important to connect with the city and the rhythm of life.
Walk me through the designers featured in the store. How did you meet some of them, and why did you bring them on for this project?
Many of them I met when we were younger and coming up in the scene, creating our brands and the local industry in México like Paloma Lira, and Baby Angel . Now I see a lot of that same energy in the younger designers we carry and it makes me nostalgic. I'm inspired by their vision and it is rewarding to be able to give visibility to their incredible projects. Banzo, Grosera, Ondear and Sabrina Ol to name a few.
In Latin American culture, there's always a notion that fashion and design is a feminine thing. For men and queer creatives, the cultural upbringing of machismo can often overshadow the passions they have out of fear of violence. What is your take on this?
Definitely. Machismo and misogyny is something that is still deeply ingrained in our culture, but I am glad to see that little by little those stereotypes are changing. That is why I think it is so important to express ourselves and create community, stress the importance of feminism, and keep the struggle of the LGBTQ+ community in the conversation as a way to break down these cultural barriers that divide us. This couldn't be more important in respect to the trans community. The transphobia that exists in México, and everywhere, needs to be addressed, especially in the fashion, art, and music communities that have embraced other parts of the queer community but continue to ignore our trans community. Every time I go to México I am very happy to see graffiti on the street in favor of women and of the queer community, because it gives visibility. I feel that at least in Mexico City, the idea that being different or femme is wrong is starting to change. The same thing happens with clothes, more and more I see people daring to dress differently and go out on the street and empower themselves through their clothes with confidence, and I see more respect coming from the hetero community. This visibility is empowering the next generation.
Tótem Tienda feels like a rainbow-filled, urban exploration of art and authentic passion. What are the feelings you want to express when someone walks into the store?
That they are welcome, that they feel included, that anything goes, and that it is a safe place to experiment. It happens often that they come to try on clothes that are out of their comfort zone and leave without buying. Soon they will come back after giving it some thought and buy what they didn't dare to wear before. We encourage people who come in to try on things that they wouldn't wear in another context. Many times they buy tops, skirts or accessories that they never would have imagined would feel so comfortable and sexy.
What was it like shooting with Princess Gollum? How did that partnership come about, and what does she represent to Tótem?
Through the wonderful world of the internet. Princess Gollum has an incredibly unconventional style, and she is also part of a minority like us and despite that her style and personality has helped her to stand out. That's why I loved the idea of her wearing these clothes for PAPER readers. The message we want to deliver is that Mexican art and design can be relevant globally. Now we are friends and she has become a fan of the pieces that we have in the store. I love her particular vision that allows her to appreciate the unusual and that is what we have in Tótem.
What do you think US customers take away from being in such a rich and luxurious environment made for and by Mexican creators?
They love it! I think we offer them a very particular and interesting vision of what México is, especially CDMX. We also have pieces from designers from Tijuana, Hermosillo, and also from Chicano artists who express their connection with México through clothing.
What does the future look like for Tótem?
We want to do many collaborations, workshops, and pop-ups with designers so that Angelenos can meet them and experience their process first-hand. We even want to do art exhibitions and get involved with larger projects that allow us to project Mexican and Latin American talent. Through Tótem Tienda, we can show more people that Mexican fashion and design is global, and we can make our contribution against the stereotypes of yesteryear.
Any exciting plans coming you can spill the tea on for the PAPER audience?
We do! We have been working hard to grow our audience so that the talent of our designers reach more people in our community and we are able to grow the visibility of Mexican talent in fashion. On September 10th through 12th we have a pop-up at Canal Street Market in Manhattan around NYFW and we are very excited about that. Also in NYC, we are producing a fashion show featuring our designers in collaboration with Vans and Channel 66 as a part of Latinx Heritage Month. We hope the NY community welcomes us with open arms.
Photography: Angella Choe
Creative and Styling: César Alvarez
Makeup: Caitlin Wronski
Coordination: Zaira Galindo
Flowers: Brittany Asch
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