Dogs wearing slices of bread, bandanas or baby clothes. Grainy snaps of soap operas and nineties television shows. Extreme close-ups of pornos with rough face swaps. Selfies with awkward backgrounds and protruding bellies. And, most notoriously, food in all manner of compromising positions. From bunches of flaccid coriander and genital-shaped strawberries to squid, peppers and boiled eggs intricately pierced and bejewelled, or models wearing holey cheese, brightly coloured fruit slices, and more…
Fashion designer Victor Barragán’s personal Instagram (@ytinifninfinity) and label (@barragannnn) feeds are both far cries from the traditional high-street couture window. Yet sourcing models, collaborating with fans and consumers, and making sales, all through social media, is exactly how the twenty-five-year-old designer from Mexico has created a sensation, including five collections shown at New York Fashion Week without even a fashion certificate to his name. While his production studio remains in Mexico, Victor currently lives in New York, and does fittings and briefings over Skype.
Behind the audaciously ballsy online avatar, however, I discovered a Victor who was coyly shy talking about himself rather than ‘the brand’, even though his eponymous Barragán label is based on his personal vision and experiences. Slipping between ‘I’, ‘we’, and ‘the brand’ – even sometimes in the same sentence – one really appreciates the authenticity of his politics, humour and intuitive artistry. Early on a chilly morning in New York, we encountered each other just as he arrived at his studio.
Nadine Botha: You’ve been living and working in Williamsburg, the global hipster capital, for a few years now. Do you find it as stimulating as Mexico City? How would you compare what you saw this morning walking to your studio with Mexico City?
Victor Barragán: I see a lot of graffiti here and I have been taking pictures of the ones that I like, for the story that I’m going to use in my next collection. In Mexico City, we don’t have as much graffiti as New York. Otherwise, honestly, I think there’s a really similar vibe in both cities. If you go to Chinatown here, you see amazing fashion looks. If you go to downtown Mexico City, there is also crazy stuff to see. Maybe Mexico City is messier outside, and it might even be more crowded than in New York. In general, I feel it’s more inspiring to just be outside. Some people find me scary, because of the way I look; I’m bold, tattooed and with the camera. I like to observe and take pictures of pedestrians when I’m on the streets. In New York, which is more touristy I guess, everybody is used to camera phones, but in Mexico City, people do not appreciate if you photograph them. Now I’m trying to be a little low-key.
Nadine: Viewing the world through your camera is a way to artistically frame reality; are there particular things you are obsessed with and focus your lens on?
Victor: I always have the camera on. I have an eye for things that others don’t see, different things … although, I guess everyone sees different things on the street. I think I’m looking the most at people from where I come from. If something reminds me of Mexico, even when I’m in New York, I find it truly inspiring. Like there’s the more Latin-influenced style of dress by which I can tell that we come from the same background. It’s not one thing in particular, and it’s always changing, but often it’s just a relaxed style with baggy, oversized clothes, and a certain type of make-up. Also airbrushed T-shirts, Nike Cortez sneakers or Dickies work uniform – the more affordable garments that we haven’t seen since the nineties. It’s more visible in California than New York, and I see it as the way in which people have adapted to a city. When I go to Mexico City, there’s a lot downtown and in the garment district; however, it might be a bit different. In my work, I like to incorporate elements such as the airbrushing or a way a woman styles herself and then incorporate those elements in an unexpected context. For instance, since the start of last season, I’ve been obsessed with trashy tattoos that I also photograph. When I was in Spain during summer, it was so warm, I could see a lot of skin and
noticed so many people with tribal tattoos. Also I love any ugly, homemade tattoos that I can find. When I started doing so, many people followed and sent me messages about it.
Nadine: Are you saying that the streets speak back to you through Instagram in a way? Besides being a print motif, the tribal tattoos appear under the form of earrings, and even manifest in the shape of the rimless shades throughout your Spring/Summer 2018 collection. The manner in which you pick up visual elements from daily life and then transform them inverts the typically top-down hierarchy of fashion.
Victor: Yes, we actually start creating mood boards based on the Instagram responses we get, even if we don’t always know where it will end up. So the followers do have an influence on what we design for the following collection.
Nadine: The tribal tattoo motif also plays into the awkward, ugly and even weird fashion trend that we’re seeing at the moment. First, we had normcore a few years ago, with everyone dressing like bland suburbanites. Then we started seeing things like Balenciaga Crocs and Gucci fannypacks. This year we’ve seen everything from unibrow and orthodontics to acne and double-bar glasses on the runway. What is the underlying sensuality behind the use of these commonly ungrateful symbols?
Victor: From a personal perspective, I get bored seeing a similar style all the time. Young people have the same feeling, and I think other emerging designers try to show something different to stand out. Fashion has been doing the same thing for twenty years now. It’s difficult to keep things fresh when working with fashion buyers, who want to see the same silhouette every season. There is little challenge when I need to produce the same thing, or include a particular colour, for a retail portfolio.
The easier accessibility to information blurs the possibilities to be bored and creates new desires
Nadine: I’ve been wondering if we are pushing our sexual comfort zones out of boredom. I mean, when John Waters made A Dirty Shame in 2004 he avoided getting R-rated because the censors didn’t know what any of the sexual terminology even meant. Just a few months ago, I read a New York Times op-ed about pegging. Do you think that pop culture gets boring by repeating itself and that we are resorting to sex to spice things up?
Victor: It sounds silly to say, but repeating ourselves sells a lot! For me, though, I can always find something new in popular culture. This is also why I apply pop or cheesy elements in my fashion to change the context. Using a sense of humour is a way to make it accessible or relatable. Because fashion is constantly moving and changing, I’ve started investigating more explicit subjects to get ideas, so the collection isn’t outdated too quickly.
Definitely we’re seeing stuff about sex and drugs on television and the internet that I never saw when I was a kid, and similarly, things we were never confronted with in politics are coming to the surface. I’m not sure how open we will be in the future, but right now we are far more candid about topics we never spoke about before. The easier accessibility to information blurs the possibilities to be bored and creates new desires, the eagerness to constantly gain more knowledge.
Nadine: So rather than boredom as a hard-to-impress disengagement, we encounter boredom as an insatiable curiosity and creative restlessness?
Victor: Yes; we have for instance worked a lot with food, which has generated a large number of reactions and feedback. However, I think it’s kind of over for me – it’s not that I don’t like food anymore, but I’ve exhausted it creatively for now.
Nadine: Your distinctive styling of food has become such an essential ingredient of your trajectory as a fashion designer – your bok choy handbag has become a Tumblr meme. The relationship between fruit and sex dates back further than Eve eating the apple, and up until the 1990s censorship was lifted, Hindi films would signify kissing by having the couple bite from the same fruit. In fashion, food and fruit has often been used in an exotifying way. However, when you customize it, there is nothing coy about it.
Victor: Oh yeah, the food is so sexual. By showing food as a body part, there was a straight intention to look very erotic. Like raw salmon or chicken styled like a vagina, or boiled eggs with cock piercings. We just changed the context of the food and added elements evoking the human body. We still have the same vibe. Maybe now it’s food, but we aspire to be as open sexually as possible.
Nadine: Is there more to your interest in pushing food porn to its NSFW (Not Safe For Work) extreme? It seems to also relate to the inconsistent censorship applied by Facebook and Instagram, while also showing a mirror to the way the media fetishizes things – now
we have poverty porn, and even floor porn. Your T-shirts, for instance the one with ‘Lesbian’ written in the Friends logo, also appear to have a more cynical undertone.
Victor: The slogans we post and the statement T-shirts are about sexuality, being gay, being lesbian, and about many things we see around the media. When dealing with a serious topic, we try to make a joke about it without losing the gravity. We like to incorporate elements of Mexican or Latino cultures. What happens in our intimate lives matters a lot in deciding what to focus on. This is also why, when starting to work on a new idea, we have a huge – I guess – discussion with people on Instagram.
Our casting is, for instance, really open. We want to show that there are so many different people, subjectivities, and ways of being a person. Not only gender diversity, but also ethnicity, age, looks … As we encounter these issues in our daily lives, it very much influences how we feel and perceive the world. For that reason, it goes beyond the political. Our friends come from several countries, and it’s inspiring to find ourselves at the same time in New York City, where the many cultures are the true inspirations of the city. This has made me think about how to incorporate immigration issues in the designs and the fashion world. In this way, it’s both political and personal.
Nadine: There’s been a lot of badmouthing of Mexico in the United States, and in an attempt to counter this, you shot your Spring/Summer 2018 campaign in Xochimilco, where you were born and where your mother still lives. It’s such an evocative shoot, with the models really exuding defiance, and depicting the daily life context that just goes on in Mexico. Do you think that America can still be considered the land of the free?
Victor: New York’s great, it’s like a bubble. But when I go outside New York, I don’t feel entirely comfortable anymore. New York is pretty safe, I guess. A lot of transgender people are here because the city welcomes them. In Mexico, people would be rougher and less tolerant about those kind of inclusion issues. Coming out in Mexico is still a big deal. One side of my family is from a small town and the other side comes from the metropolis, and sometimes being too open can be risky if you are outside the city. Mexico City can be really safe; however, the macho culture makes it pretty oppressive, still. Some of my friends there are really open and some are not. For me, it was really interesting when I moved to New York and realized how people are so free here – so many of their parents are really accepting. Because of the Catholic culture and presence of religion in Mexico, it is much harder to come across parents who are entirely okay with it.
…to sexualize religious symbols is not quite forbidden, although it’s considered to be bad. It’s still not easy to joke about it…
Nadine: The sexualization of religious symbols has also appeared in your work. The oversized rosaries that evoke anal beads, and the crucified Christ whose feet become a dildo, especially caught my attention.
Victor: We enjoy that because when you go back to all these church institutions in Mexico, it’s really crazy, but there’s a lot of paedophilia, and sexual harassment by the people of the church. For us this is a comment about how people hide their homosexuality by going to church. People in New York don’t understand this because they didn’t grow up in a Catholic house; to sexualize religious symbols is not quite forbidden, although it’s considered to be bad. It’s still not easy to joke about it.
Nadine: In your Spring/Summer 2017 and Autumn/Winter 2017, an element of Mexican folklore is present through the ruffles and corsets. What strategies did you use to reveal the erotic tension often overlooked in traditional fashion?
Victor: We’ve taken the idea of the ruffled traditional Mexican clothes and introduced a subtle twist. We didn’t choose the same colours or patterns, and we used it to show off different parts of the body – the parts that are usually hidden by the ruffles. We like to play with the provocative with our clothes and to make a more exposable body.
Nadine: Yes, instead of the conventionally innocent Lolita-like eroticism associated with frills, or even trend forecaster Li Edelkoort’s explanation of gathers in fashion and decor design as bringing together and socializing, the way you have integrated the ruffles evokes human orifices, like a puckered mouth or anus. Used in the hoods to frame the face, it becomes extremely provocative.
Victor: In the latest collection, Spring/Summer 2018, we decided to avoid ruffles on purpose. Even though we aimed to be even more subtle, people got more offended – I don’t know how. It was a complex collection because it was the first time we did something more serious in a big way. Then we weren’t allowed to do a proper presentation, like we usually do with music and performance, only a runway. It wasn’t that exciting in the end – working on a show for months and then everything is over in eight minutes.
Nadine: Deprived of the ruffles, the clothes start taking the shape of latex fetish wear – like gimp hoods and isolation cat suits with arm restrictions. The skirts that close with corset hooks make such a beautiful quotation of fetish wear.
Victor: Yeah, yeah, actually that started with the leather gloves in the Spring/Summer 2016 collection – they have a pinkie open and then a full-arm glove until the armpit – that people loved. We’ve also made a lot of jewellery that looks like sex toys – for instance the golden chokers that look like G-spot dildos.
Nadine: Bringing the fetish wear into daily life and fashion seems to destigmatize these items as shameful objects, and you do so without losing the sexy touch. How do you feel about this?
Victor: Personally, I feel free about it because it remains one of the aesthetics I relate to. As I grew up in a Catholic house, sex has always been a taboo. Incorporating sexual connotations in my work is a way to release the flow of unsaid erotic thoughts. By putting the sensuous out there, I try to alter the stereotypical idea that being sexual is deprecated or looked-down upon. It is a way to shift cultural perceptions, and portray a changing context in order to have regenerating perspectives on people and sexual behaviours. We have initiated discussions about it. Some people consume the brand as customers, as others consume the brand with their eyes – they enjoy the brand, maybe not the clothes, but they like how we present ideas and the ways in which topics are dealt with, which is an important part of the success of the brand.
Nadine: For me the way you sexualize seemingly bland domestic things like food, vegetables, religious icons, and kids’ toys is so interesting. It harks back to Georges Bataille and the subconscious sexual symbolism that the surrealists explored in daily life. At the same time, you desexualize the contested female nipple; that becomes completely innocent and asexual in your works. This really challenges the way people perceive things. For instance, the sultry and bold depiction of food in your creations has completely renewed the way I look at food now. It’s almost like you’re subverting these kinds of associations. Do you think this is the role of fashion?
Victor: I guess at the beginning, when I started the brand, I didn’t have a clue as I actually didn’t study fashion: I have a background in industrial design, and after one semester I decided not to finish. Then I began designing T-shirts, and it was really, like, ‘Oh, I want to do more different things, I want to do… more complicated things.’ I was lucky to have a presentation in New York. At that time, in my eyes, the brand was still a project. Somehow, I don’t even know how, the brand got really serious because it spread out when people wanted it for shoots and stores. So we started with one idea and product, and it became an acknowledged brand, and with each collection, we try to form more of a brand. Now we’re trying to be more dedicated to this, because when you get a business, at the end of the day, we need to make some money to have greater shows, better representation, improved materials, more ideas, new collaborations. It is a play between an art performance and a brand.
Nadine: This comes through especially in your Instagram account, with the particular persona that you put yourself across, as well as the Instagram stories that often make sly pokes at the sexism and racism in the fashion and news worlds. It would seem that Instagram is in fact a burgeoning medium for revival of the feminist and political art and performance of the 1970s. Both Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman have joined Instagram in the past year, directing their satirical lenses on mass media and identity in our hyperreal times. Have you, like the 1970s artists, found another outlet besides social media for the brand’s taste for performance art?
Victor: My first experience was a collaboration with a play in Mexico, and for quite a while, I’ve been making costumes for various performers. Recently I worked with Mathias Ringgenberg, an artist from Rio de Janeiro who is based in Switzerland. His fictional persona, PRICE, performs in art galleries and clubs. Mathias was excited about my clothes and came with the idea to work together on a project.
Nadine: There are a lot of striking similarities between Barragán and PRICE. In the same way that your fashion is informed by a mash-up of internet culture, Ringgenberg has created a character exploring the emotional disorientation of a generation having grown up with mass culture, neoliberalism and the omnipresence of the Internet. Both of you also create hybrid presentations in unusual venues – PRICE has been performed in nightclubs, art galleries and theatres. Before your most recent New York Fashion Week show, which was your first formal runway show, your previous four shows were much more experimental and experiential with full set designs and soundtracks, all in alternative venues. Did you find the collaboration with Ringgenberg fruitful?
Victor: I really enjoyed working with Mathias. Unlike in the fashion industry it felt more free, I had fewer restrictions, which is crucial for creative and artistic work. When I am designing a collection, there are a lot of things to consider that can make me feel more restricted. This has led me to do a lot more collaborations, including my participation in an art exhibition at a new off-space called BIKINI in Basel, Switzerland. It’s become not only about the brand, but about how the brand can have different impacts depending on the context in which it is presented. I’m very much inspired by art and try to pursue a similar intention with the collections.
Nadine: In the Autumn/Winter 2016 show, models showed off to a physical audience in a club setting, before walking into a bedroom setting where they did a striptease in front of a laptop broadcasting live to the sex webcam site, Cam4. On Instagram you’re also posting extreme close-ups from the BiLatinMen website. Would you ever go the whole way and make a porno?
Victor: Oh, I would love that! We have actually been talking about it, with some people. We work a lot with material from the BiLatinMen website. It is a fetish website by a bunch of Latin people in Los Angeles. We are truly inspired by it, and trying to incorporate it in our work. It’s kind of hard. I mean, if you go back to the beginning, the first videos published were appealing and interesting; now it has become more commercial. I would love to do something like that, but I don’t know how people would react. Maybe then the fashion buyers will say ‘Uh oh!’
Nadine: Uh oh! Or, you’ll have a whole new market.
Victor: I think I will do it and give it my name, but perhaps I will have to create another label, trying not to scare people out of their minds.
Nadine: The Alessi kettle version launched for the home Décore AW18 is a true punked version of boiling water, covered with graffiti prints. This hints at new directions; I’m curious, what is next, then?
Victor: I just want to chill. I was showing in Tokyo, Paris, Mexico twice, and New-York… I think I want to do a quiet and chill presentation, and then prepare a big show. I have a bunch of ideas in my head! When studying industrial design, I was doing so many kitchen appliances that I simultaneously discovered my love of working with objects. This is why we have so many different earrings, because designing only garments can be slightly boring for me. I try to include objects, like we made the G-spot choker and other sex toys in Ghana with old-school metal casters who make the moulds in the ground. The result is beautiful, and all handmade and polished. People don’t expect sex toys to be handmade, and we were really blown away when they showed us how they do it. Now I want to work with lava stone, which is a popular material in Mexico and remains sculpted by hand, especially to make sets of kitchen and sex toys.
Nadine: Wonderful how it not only subverts our expectations about sex toys not coming from Ghana and Mexico, but that you’re not using this information to promote the products or brag about diversity. It’s just made there because it’s the best place to make it.
Victor: Exactly, I really like changing the context of so many things. Like how I change pop culture references or folkloric Mexican ruffles, but also the material like the tartan from Mexican school uniforms that I used to make jeans, and the production methods and origins. It’s actually done quite a lot in Mexican contemporary art – to take a famous artwork and just change the subject or some detail to something Mexican. People get very excited about this sort of thing, because when people have been oppressed for so long in a colony, it’s amazing to see something from their everyday environment in a completely different and contemporary way. I’m trying to create more such freedom, and to be excited not only by fashion but different things that I encounter. Otherwise I get bored.
Nadine: We all need more of your fertile boredom!