The fashion industry often uses an insider term to describe fashion weeks,"the big four," which refers to the seasonal runway shows that take place in New York, London, Milan and Paris. While the majority of the media may focus its attention on these trendsetting capitals, it's quite literally always fashion week somewhere. In March alone, a travel blogger-worthy spate of fashion weeks took place around the globe, spanning from Vancouver to Istanbul to Indonesia. And in Puerto Rico, there was San Juan Moda, which has celebrated local designers and their well-dressed patrons for five years and ten seasons running. Seven months after Hurricane Maria left 3.5 million people without power and resulted in an estimated $95 billion in damages, the Puerto Rican government invited a group of American journalists and influencers to the island to see the Fall 2018 collections — despite its still-unstable conditions.
This season wasn't the first post-Maria Moda: In December 2017, Founder and President Carlos Bermúdez booked a new venue to replace the temporarily shuttered El San Juan Hotel and marched models down the catwalk. "We only made changes for Spring 2017, when, because of the hurricanes, we had to move the date and present fewer catwalks," explained Bermúdez. "This season, we were in full bloom."
Over six days this April, San Juan Moda was back to business as usual. Moda first launched in 2013, when Bermúdez realized that Puerto Rico "lacked a cohesive and complete platform [for designers] to present their collections." The event follows a traditional fashion calendar, with twice-yearly shows to present spring/summer and fall/winter collections. Bermúdez has evolved San Juan Moda from an intimate local fiesta to an international fashion event with bloggers, buyers and press filling out the front rows.
For Fall 2018, twelve designers — ten from Puerto Rico, plus two from the Dominican Republic — presented in the regal Antiguo Casino in Old San Juan. If the San Juan shows were half as polished as New York, they were also twice as fun. The seats were packed with friends and clients of each designer, many of whom wore the designer's clothes for the occasion and caught air kisses during final bows. More rowdily, the trendy, well-contoured friends of the runway models were also given seats. (It took me a few shows to realize that spontaneous cheers from the audience were for beloved models, not favorite outfits.) One model stopped mid-walk to greet her young daughter in the front row; another paused on the runway to lift her boyfriend from his seat for a beso. Would this impulsive behavior fly at one of the meticulously timed and produced shows in New York or Paris? No way. But did it make for a much more interesting experience? Absolutely. The image of that teen's smug face after his model girlfriend sashayed away will be burned in my brain long after I've forgotten Raf Simons's popcorn runway.
"It was my first experience modeling at all," said 16-year-old Adriana Cevedo, who walked in eight shows. "It was amazing — the rush, adrenaline before walking, the photos, the atmosphere."
Many of the local designers involved have participated in all ten seasons, raising their own profiles as Moda grows. "Fashion is about trying to do better than the last collection," said Marcos Carrazana. With the runway deadline looming, Carrazana turned to his favorite TV show "Game of Thrones" for inspiration. "Winter is coming" is, when you think about it, the theme for any fall/winter fashion show, but even for someone who's never seen a single episode, I recognized the homage in fur capes, heavy fabrics and muted, royal colors. The collection was just as much about supportive patrons as it was prestige television: "People show up to your show on a Thursday night, they have to work tomorrow, they have to drive an hour — for me, that's the most important thing," Carrazana said.
Lisa Cappalli, who has an atelier in San Juan and has shown in Paris, describes Moda as "a little bit different, more intimate ... it's a Puerto Rican thing." After the hurricane, Cappalli closed her studio for four months. "When this happens, you step back," she explained. "You have to reinvent. When calamities like this happen, you become a little leaner, meaner and more honest." She named her collection "Me, Myself and I" after the unique perspective she hopes each of her customers brings to fashion: think lace, florals, maxi dresses and the types of clothes that would work for a tropical winter in Puerto Rico. Cappalli's beauty look was also a personal favorite, with exaggerated contour and rainbow smokey eyes that she described as "Studio 54 meets the tropics."
Local designer Miriam Budet had just returned from showing 22 pieces in Paris this season. At home in Puerto Rico, she was able to show her complete line of 40 ready-to-wear pieces that included fringed jackets and hoodies, embellished trench coats and patterned two-pieces. Perhaps on account of her international appeal, Budet was the only designer to explicitly reference Hurricane Maria in her collection. "I wanted to show that even though we had the [storm], we can fly," she said. She chose fringe and mixed textures to conceptualize Puerto Rico's movement forward.
Locals — albeit the ones who could afford to spend the time and energy to get glam and attend a runway show — weren't interested in dwelling on Maria and its continued effect on the island. Even designers who'd been forced to close their San Juan ateliers for months seemed to shrug off the hardships. "On the economic side, [the hurricane has] affected us," noted blogger Marilina Flores of Kouture Kulture. "On the inspiration side, Eddie Guerrero's show after the hurricane was one of the best shows I've ever seen. Remember the hurricane was named Maria? He was inspired by the Virgin Mary. It was religious themed, and it was one of his best." As one model told me from the makeup chair: "It's just nice to think about something else."
For Valeria Vazquez, a model who walked in four shows during the event, the adrenaline of Moda had nothing to do with hurricane recovery. "It's been more than six months already, so I think we are pretty much in the same mindset: happy to be back to normal. A bunch of models, designers and fashion lovers that love runway shows ready to get back to it," she said.
Some of those waving clients from the front row, already looking ahead to Fall 2018, bought clothes directly off the runway. "Women in Puerto Rico are amazing in the way they dress, the way they use makeup, the way they project themselves," said Carrazana. "We have to remember what happened, but we also have to look forward to going back to normal."
Disclosure: The Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government agency, provided travel and accommodations to cover the event.