Nasheli Juliana: Moving fashion forward
Nasheli Juliana, Puerto Rican fashion designer and chair of the fashion department at Moore College of Art & Design, is working to change the lay of the land in the fashion world and beyond, centering design on sustainability, collective change, and power.
The runway is synonymous with style, elegance, and artistry — a showcase of the coolest looks, the most cutting edge trends. But for Puerto Rican fashion designer Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González, it goes far beyond what some people view as fashion’s more superficial side. For Ortiz-González, it is also the path to the future, a space for protest, and an arrow to the new direction.
Ortiz-González on her website has a quote from herself posted on the first page: “Fashion is a reflection of society.”
Her philosophy came about while working in a political activist movement in Puerto Rico. Ortiz-González said that her profession at first seemed a little incongruent among the sociologists, anthropologists, and politicians pushing for change.
“It was very funny to say I’m a fashion designer. Because it can be looked at as something very vain, but when I started studying fashion, and how fashion has empowered movements and how it can unite people to fight against injustice, I started saying, fashion is a reflection of society,” Ortiz-González said.
That sense of purpose and connection to what is happening in society was at the front and center of Ortiz-González’s last collection, called “Suora,” or sister in Italian, which made an appearance in the pages of Vogue, and won Ortiz-González an International Design Award for 2017 Emerging Fashion Designer. The concept of the startling and innovative outfits came out of an experience she had in the protests of Michael Brown’s shooting in the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, close to where she was teaching at the time at Lindenwood University.
While helping protesters at Ferguson, Ortiz-González met a group of nuns from the Loretto Sisters order who were also there in support of those gathered to protest police brutality. When Ortiz-González asked one of the nuns why they chose to be a nun, she said that it was because in her time, she had the choice of either marrying a man or marrying God — and she chose to marry God.
Ortiz-González said it was “a very feminist statement, and that is why I decided to do this collection. Because nuns are mothers of a whole community.”
“Every collection that I do is because it is something that is very personal and very part of my lifestyle and my daily life,” she stated.
Even Ortiz-González’s signature accessory that she has incorporated into her personal style — she has more than 30 pairs of prescription glasses — is as deeply symbolic as it is fun and expressive. Fashion, Ortiz-González believes, is not just about displaying things for the world to consume. It’s about seeing the world — your surroundings, the existing structures that define us — just a little more clearly, through one lens and then another, until all of the elements come into focus.
It’s this vision of the industry and desire to shake up the fashion establishment that has allowed Ortiz-González to redefine the fashion design department at Moore College of Art & Design, the only women’s visual arts college in the country, since she became its chair this year. After she started in August of 2017, Ortiz-González overhauled the curriculum, introducing more elements of cultural identity and heritage, social justice, and sustainability into class structure and content, and encouraging students to work in a more collaborative, open setting.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Ortiz-González is adamant about her ties to her homeland and her boricua identity, making it clear that she does not see herself as “American” despite the fact that the island of her childhood, of her family, her home, is a U.S. territory. While talking in the AL DÍA newsroom, Ortiz-González recounted how the first time she entered a London fashion show, they listed her nationality as “American,” and she had to call them to ask them to change it to read “Puerto Rican.”
“I moved to the U.S. six years ago, I’m born and raised in Puerto Rico. I moved from the island because of the political situation and the economic crisis that we are [in] right now,” said Ortiz-González. “I’m only part of the diaspora because of necessity. And as soon as I can go back, I will go back...Nothing, nothing can compare with my island.”
It is the experiences of her youth growing up in Caguas, Puerto Rico, that Ortiz-González credits with helping her develop the love and talent for fashion design which has become her full-time passion and career.
After suffering from meningitis as a child, Ortiz-González experienced developing and learning issues. Because of this, her mother wanted her to go to a vocational school, and so Ortiz-González attended a school where she learned all of the technical skills of the industry, including sewing, cutting fabric, and more.
As Ortiz-González moved up in the design world, the journey wasn’t easy.
“It’s been very difficult, I have a lot of disadvantage in my favor. Fashion can be very classist and very sexist, and Latinos don’t have a lot of representation in the field,” she said.
Ortiz-González left the island to get her master’s at Savannah College of Art & Design, and then teach at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, Missouri before landing in Philadelphia. But Puerto Rico has never left her.
“I think for now because all of this that happened for the past 8 months, there’s a lot of projects that are going on that I can help and I can be part of...I’m working on being more present in Puerto Rico and to help, and to make happen that I can go back,” Ortiz-González said.
When Ortiz-González refers to “all of this that happened,” most U.S. citizens on the mainland will know that she is referring to Hurricane Maria, which struck the island on Sept. 20, leaving a path of devastation in its wake that has yet to be addressed. But what many still do not understand is the context of the storm: the years of financial policies that forced the island into an economic crisis, the horrifying lack of response on the part of FEMA while Puerto Ricans continued living in the dark for months after Maria and died due to lack of electricity and power.
Ortiz-González wanted to help in any way she could, despite the fact that she felt powerless to help her family and fellow Puerto Ricans beyond sending supplies and meeting the needs of those displaced by Maria who arrived in Philadelphia.
And her efforts turned out to make all the difference for one design student from the island who was displaced by the storm.
For Ashleen Castillo, the promise of continuing her degree studies in fashion design at Moore College were the light at the end of the tunnel after the long, dark days post-Maria, when every day presented a new challenge — where to find water? Is there signal nearby? — and was followed by the emotional turmoil of watching people lose everything and leaving most of her family behind to move to Florida to start to work and recover from the effects of the storm.
Castillo had been brought by her father to the U.S. from her home in Cayey, in the mountains of Puerto Rico, just weeks after the storm ravaged the island. She was living in Florida with her family, working several jobs to save money, for what she wasn’t sure yet — until she saw a posting on Facebook that would quite literally change the course of her life.
After Maria, Ortiz-González posted on Facebook inviting any Puerto Rican woman design students who were interested in continuing their studies to apply to transfer to Moore College mid-semester with her assistance. Castillo was the only one of the several students who contacted Ortiz-González who followed through, and moved to a frigid Philadelphia in January to renew her studies in fashion as a junior.
Adjusting to a new environment and more intense course load has not been easy, but Castillo said her journey since Maria has deepened her work and helped her grow.
“I’m not the same person six months ago, or even three months ago. I had to grow up very fast, but I feel great and the work that I’m doing now is another level. Not in an ego way but for myself, I feel like I have learned so much and here they have such good professors,” said Castillo.
“This was a big blessing and I’m very grateful that Nasheli gave me that push,” she added.
Much like her mentor, Castillo roots her designs in the challenges and events of her own life.
“Every time I do work, every project reflects something that I’m working on in myself. So it tells a story,” Castillo said, describing the collection that she presented at Moore College’s fashion show, which took place May 11 at the Barnes Foundation. For her pieces, Castillo included symbols such as an eye of the hurricane on the back of a jacket, and an outfit with threading up to the neck to represent the economic challenges Puerto Rico has suffered since the 2015 financial crisis.
And like Ortiz-González, Castillo is set on focusing her work on her homeland.
“When I do a piece, I want to be able to incorporate a visual element, that you know is from Puerto Rico, that is not necessarily seen as a typical outfit, but it’s something that you understand comes from someone who is boricua. Or someone who wants to tell a story of Puerto Rican culture,” she concluded.
For both Ortiz-González and Castillo, fashion’s true power in its particular relationship to Puerto Rico lies in its potential to transform the consumerist and exploitative mentality that reigns supreme in the U.S. and beyond.
“I think design needs to be to the service of humans. And if design is damaging humans, it’s not doing the base of the field...We need to rethink and we need to go a little back in terms of design and fashion, because we cannot eat clothes, and we cannot eat money,” said Ortiz-González, adding that it is essential for us to “[go] again to the basis of fashion that is something amazing, that has good construction, that has a message, that has power.”
She said this is all the more important given that fashion is now the second-most contaminated industry in the world after petroleum.
“I remember when I was growing up, everyone had a machine in their house and everybody knew how to put a button, and everyone knew how to fix a zipper, or do hems. Now, you throw it away. And you go out and buy what you want because it’s cheaper and it’s easier. And so all the clothes at the end end up in developing countries, contaminating their fields. It’s a very sad way of seeing the field, but it’s something that we need to discuss everyday,” Ortiz-González said.
For the designer, the connection to sustainability has always been present in her process.
“I do not have the wealth that is related to this field, so even in school I always needed to do my projects with reused materials,” she noted. “But at the end it was amazing because I was doing sustainability before it was a trend.”
“The sad thing is that Latinoamerica has very close ties with weave and textile use so we have amazing designers that the world doesn’t know,” Ortiz-González continued, explaining that she has had the experience of working with indigenous women textile weavers in Guatemala to establish copyright for their works, a subject that has been a major issue in the past.
Maria and its aftermath has also made an indelible mark on Castillo’s work as a designer and her goals to ensure its contribution to society.
“I see life so differently,” said Castillo. “When you experience that you think, ‘I’m so blessed to be alive.’ A lot of people died. A lot of people lost everything. So everything changed, even the way you think about design. Now it’s like, you think about what people really need, and how can I help those people in need, and how can a consumer get to know your product and what’s your narrative in your work.”
Ortiz-González and the pair are joining forces with many other designers and artists from Puerto Rico to transform the island’s present reality, and future — one design and one runway at a time.