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Krystal Paniagua: Exposing the hidden charm of Puerto Rico’s decay

Words Mahoro Seward

Puñeta! Unless you’re intimately familiar with Puerto Rican Spanish slang, the chances are that you’ll have little clue as to what this means. The initial results of a quick Google search are admittedly rather vulgar, but in Puerto Rico, the word has a culturally specific ubiquity: “It’s a word used in absolutely any situation, whether it’s good or bad,” explains Krystal Paniagua, the Royal College of Art MA Womenswear graduate. It also happens to be one of the words she uses most, so much so that it can be found in the handle of one her Instagram accounts. It’s also the name of her graduate collection, bucking the tendency towards monastically serious titles that can sometimes outweigh the substance of the clothes on show. “I wanted to avoid that, and bring a sense of humour and lightness to the table, something that triggers curiosity in viewers to want to enter and learn more about my world.”

Videography AMAPOLIA

“When people think of Puerto Rico, it’s often of the touristy areas with the colonial buildings and pretty streets. I’m not interested in that, I want to depict the energy that’s found in a reality framed by decay. Some might find that alarming, but there’s a real beauty to it.”

Though our introduction to Krystal’s world may be framed by an alluring ease of spirit, the collection behind the playful verbal punchline is no less arresting for it. Looking at the purposefully dishevelled knit garments, sublimation-printed with images documenting the Puerto Rican every day, you’re drawn into the visual rhythms and textures of life on the island: a red-wattled cockerel here, a palm frond there. “I’ve used my own photography as a referencing medium for some time now, making images of what surrounds me at home: my house, living with my grandmother, scenes from the streets.” While much of the subject matter is recognisable to a degree, just as much is tricky to discern. You might not immediately clock, for example, that the polychrome patchworks of ochre, turquoise and teal—each hue photographic in its clarity—are in fact representations of flaking painted walls. “When people think of Puerto Rico, it’s often of the touristy areas with the colonial buildings and pretty streets. I’m not interested in that, I want to depict the energy that’s found in a reality framed by decay. Some might find that alarming, but there’s a real beauty to it.”

Krystal making process is similarly dedicated to exposing the unexpected beauty to be found in supposed imperfection, blending traditional and experimental—to some, controversial—techniques across this body of work. “I’ve included many different layers of technique in my collection. Yes, there are traditional, fully-fashioned garments, but I also to break away from that style of making,” she says. Some of the most technically intriguing pieces are loose-knit white pieces, through which underlying garments can be seen. Knitted from non-stretchy yarn, elasticated at high tension, the elastic is then severed to yield a seemingly threadbare fabric whose folds flirt with opacity. 

Then there are the raw-edged cut-outs at the bust, waist and crotch, something the designer states “you’re absolutely not meant to do in knitwear! It’s really frowned upon!” With their trailing threads, suggest similar decaying forces to those eating away at the walls printed on the garments, they serve as the collection’s keystone motif, giving way to garments beneath, or bare flesh. “Just as with the paint flaking off the walls in the images, the cut-outs allow you see different colours and layers; and that’s how Puerto Rican culture is, different layers of history and culture coming together under conditions that aren’t necessarily perfect.”

“I really wanted to lead with that beauty, to say a warm ‘Hello and welcome to Puerto Rico’ with my work, and allow people to come and see what the reality of life on the island is. What exactly they choose to see once they’re here is up to them.”

Rough-hewn as the finished results of her labour may appear, a closer look at the finishing reveals a certain precision. Edges are finely embroidered, preventing unravelling. “I really wanted to make sure that even though it felt like it was falling apart, it wouldn’t and the quality was still high. I don’t want to just bring an aesthetic to my work, but I want to be sure that  the pieces are practical, that people can wear them for a long time.”

“There may still be many situations where things aren’t working, or are in fact in decline, but this decaying effect is now part of the local aesthetic: people work around it and turn it into something beautiful.”

In many respects, Krystal’s work bears much in common with that of artist-cum-designer Susan Cianciolo, with whom she collaborated on the casting for the opening of her recent show at South London Gallery. Though fragile, even crafty, at first glance, the technical composition of Cianciolo’s garments is of the highest calibre, provoking reflections on our relationship to, and understandings of, what makes for ‘high fashion’. Much of the same could be said of Krystal’s work, but there’s also a deeper sense of a responsibility to represent the communities she comes from that lends it depth. While we often hear of Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane recovery efforts and, this summer, the large-scale protests in San Juan calling for the governor’s resignation, dispatches sent out by the English-language media fail to pay due attention to the vibrant creativity and warmth of spirit native to the island. Faced with significant challenges in recent times, the resilience and adaptability of that spirit are only amplified.

“The creative talent there needs representation, it needs help from outside,” states Krystal in a decidedly matter of fact tone. “Sure, there may still be many situations where things aren’t working, or are in fact in decline, but this decaying effect is now part of the local aesthetic: people work around it and turn it into something beautiful. I really wanted to lead with that beauty, to say a warm ‘Hello and welcome to Puerto Rico’ with my work, and allow people to come and see what the reality of life on the island is. What exactly they choose to see once they’re here is up to them.” 

Images courtesy of Krystal Paniagua