Before Raul Lopez, founder and creative director of Luar (yes, word nerds, that reads as an emordnilap of his first name), put his brand on hiatus in 2020, he likened his work life to that of a hamster on a wheel, running himself into burnout for the sake of keeping up with the often exhausting expectations of the industry, the output expected from designers somehow correlated to their relevance.
"They expect you to just keep going and going and going, but then, they’re not funding you," he says. "We're like the jesters of fashion: They need us to come and perform for them, and I was like 'Girl, I'm good.'"
Once the pandemic hit, many creatives had no choice but to slow down; some, including Lopez, chose to completely abandon the traditional schedule, instead choosing to operate at their own pace.
"I didn't take a break from 2005 up until two years ago," he says. "I feel like we need to learn how to pause, disconnect from our art and just be."
Lopez grew up part of a Dominican family in New York City, in the pre-gentrified neighborhood of Los Sures, or Williamsburg's southside. It was a much grittier time — nothing like the Williamsburg of today — but he reminisces of the bachata and merengue music that echoed throughout his youth, and how that informs the way he creates today: "Growing up as a proud gay boy of color, I've always kind of made it my job to bring awareness to my heritage and my upbringing in Brooklyn."
He descends from a lineage of seamstresses, his grandmother and mother both teaching him the way around a sewing machine. At the time, a lot of the women — including his own mother — came over to the United States from the Dominican Republic and found work in factories across the city. In addition to her work, she would often take on sewing projects around the house, making pillowcases, curtains and the occasional look for her children. Naturally, that had a big impact on Lopez.
"I think my initial love of fashion came from seeing my grandmother and all of the elders making and creating looks for church on Sunday," he says. "My dad worked in construction and he was always trying to make me go with him, but I would always say that I had a stomach ache so I could stay at home and watch them sew."
After much hesitation, Lopez's mother finally taught a young Raul to sew. His first-ever design was a white T-shirt with sleeves made out of a pair of Girbaud jeans. After that, there was no turning back. By the time he got to high school, Lopez had been making custom looks for himself and was tapping into an early entrepreneurial spirit by charging his classmates for his creations. With no formal fashion school training, it wasn't until he started venturing downtown and brushing shoulders with other like-minded creatives that he would formally step into the fashion (with a capital F) scene.
Lopez came up in the same creative class as Telfar Clemens and Shayne Oliver, the latter with whom he started his first design venture with: Hood By Air, a pioneering streetwear brand that spoke to the counterculture and sat at the intersection of queerness, Blackness, luxury and much more.
"We were just trying to shake things up in the industry," he says of his time at HBA. "Trying to figure out a way to fit in, but at the same time, trying to get people to start a conversation and be like, 'What the fuck?' I think it was a great moment for both of us because we were both trying to have a voice in these communities, and that was our story together."
There's no doubt that HBA put Lopez on a path to Luar. He and Oliver created something so beloved within the industry, breaking barriers for creatives of color pursuing fashion, gaining and maintaining an unprecedented amount of visibility by telling their own stories. But by 2011, it was time for Lopez to extricate himself from a double narrative and create in his own lane. Both designers had different visions for their futures, and Lopez seized the opportunity to pursue his solo. "I wanna say what I wanna say, not what 'we' are gonna say," Lopez says of his exit. (The two remain friends and are fierce supporters of one another.)
Lopez's biography is inextricably linked to Luar — and that's part of the brand's appeal on the market. "It's inspired by Raul's Dominican heritage as a New Yorker, and it authentically serves and embodies that intersection," Federico Barassi, vice president of menswear buying for SSENSE (one of Luar's stockists), says. "From his use of belts across coats and shirts to his curved lines and asymmetrical construction, Raul introduces the SSENSE customer to another point of view and does a great job of bringing us into his world and sharing Luar's New York, through his lens. It's interesting while remaining approachable." The brand has also been picked up by Nordstrom, Moda Operandi, Dover Street Market and Luisa Via Roma.
"Raul has deep ties with this New York community of young POC creatives that travels back years," says stylist Mel Reneé Leamon. "His runway shows are like a family reunion and we support him as a designer and brand. I think that's important for anyone wanting to make an impact through fashion."
Luar is a result of finding that community beyond Los Sures, of discovering different cultures and genres, of Lopez mimicking his surroundings, all of which eventually gave him the tools to hone in on and carve out his own aesthetic. "Luar is for people who are confident enough to be comfortable in their own skin," says Lopez. "I feel like you can dissect the collection and there could be pieces that are for someone who's older, someone who's younger… It could be for someone who's into art or someone from the hood."
One of the brand's strongest and most defining design elements is the way it embraces duality, marrying textiles that sit on different ends of the spectrum. This design practice could seem completely out of sync at face value, but Lopez's vision and execution makes it harmonious. (In conversation with the designer, I link this back to his first bout with garment construction, unifying the plain white tee with sleeves made from Girbaud jeans. "I never even put that together!," he says in response.)
A Luar garment is always going to be more than meets the eye. Lopez enlists a Trojan horse approach to design that forces the viewer to interact with the clothes in order to fully comprehend the level of detail that goes into its construction. "If you're that girl and you really get it and you really see it, Luar is a highly detailed brand where you need to actually come, sit down, look at it and dissect it," he says. Detailing, according to Lopez, is his greatest strength as a designer and has been instilled in him since the beginning: "I love garments that are full of details, but look like they have nothing."
Leamon calls out the contrast between business and off-duty fun as a highlight of Luar's most recent runway collection: "It speaks to the New York professional but creative person. We work hard during the day and head straight to the party after work. That felt like the conversation that was being had, work hard and play harder."
It all once again ties back to Lopez's family, according to the designer. "A lot of the inspo comes from my dad in the construction world, and seeing how he could break apart and build all these space," he says. "I always found beauty in it, but I was never interested in it. I was into the aspect of deconstructing of a space to create a new one. I love the roughness, which you can see through the denim and the leather… I think the softness comes from my mom — she's super femme. It's so inspired by my family. They inspire me with a lot of the things that I do."
With Luar, Lopez has also had to embrace balance beyond aesthetic purposes, hyper-aware of the commercial aspect of selling clothes. In doing this, he's been able to maintain artistic autonomy and have niche, recognizable Luar codes while still moving product and building his business. "As an artist, you really have to think about that because if not, you're not gonna survive. You're not gonna be a sustainable brand," he says.
Enter the Ana bag, a sturdy, compact carry-all named after the most important women in his life, first released in 2021. It's also a salute to those women and their strength: Lopez loves a "power bitch," a woman in charge, a boss. The Ana bag was his avenue to commemorate such a woman.
"The handle is kind of a nod to the fifties and sixties, like mod era," Lopez says. "And then the body of the bag was kind of a nod to my mom, with the briefcase era. It was a way to give back to them and to tell them thank you for paving the way for me and teaching me everything that I know and keeping me grounded. It's beautiful that people can carry my story around, which is kind of what I want."
Lopez had always been adamant about launching a successful handbag. He'd been sitting on the design for the Ana for a while, so for it to debut as an instant hit after the brand had been on pause put him right back into the game. It's also gotten a slew of celebrity endorsements (without seeding), seen on Dua Lipa, Solange and Patti LaBelle.
Lopez's own notions of luxury came into account when he was pricing the bag, which currently sits at an attainable $235. He and his design peers (like Telfar, most notably) come from the school of thought that luxury doesn't always equate to something gaudily expensive. It's what we make it, and it's where we find it — a state of mind that can come from how we carry ourselves, and can be linked to the personal things and practices that bring us joy in life.
"I wanted to have it at a price point where everyone could have it," he says. "You can save up your little coins and you can get it. I also wanted to make sure that it was well crafted and made from really good materials."
While tight-lipped about what's on the horizon for himself and Luar, he did hint to a collaboration in the works, as well as some new bag styles.
"I'm gonna tell you like Diddy says: The sky's the limit."
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