Undocumented and Unafraid

(Edited by Caroline Miller. A version of this is published in the Observer. All photos were taken by the writer.)

Francisco Donoso brought his students (also of immigrant background) Parsons School of Design to help out with the show.

There was little time left before the show, and the dress didn’t fit the model. This would have been a logistical nightmare for any Fashion Week designer. But this wasn’t fashion week, Maria de los Angeles wasn’t your typical fashion designer and this was no ordinary fashion show. “I’ll cut it,” de los Angeles said without a moment of hesitation. A pair of scissors cut through painted canvass and paper, and a piece of canvass was sown in to accommodate Jose Flores’ full figure.

On February 14, 2017 at 6:00 PM, non-profit art institution and gallery WhiteBox presented a special Valentine’s event to the public called, “Illegal Fashion Runway.” Curated by de los Angeles and WhiteBox art director Juan Puntes, the show featured the works of eight artists and designers of immigrant background.

Puntes, an immigrant from Spain himself, said that the idea of the show came about as an instant reaction to President Trump’s travel ban. “With Fashion Week coming along, Maria and I thought, ‘Why not put something together?’,” he says. “I looked at the calendar and saw it was Valentine’s day. This is perfect! Bring your date to something significant.”

And dozens of people did choose to spend Valentine’s in the small space in the Lower East Side. The metal folding chairs in the middle of the room were filled almost immediately as the audience packed in — some informed of the event, some wandering in out of curiosity. The lights were dimmed, with the exception of colored spotlights aimed at the gallery’s white walls. The models, many of whom also identify with the artists’ cause, were greeted by applause as they made their way to the runway.

De los Angeles’ “art-fashion” pieces were dresses of varying lengths, made out of canvas and paper with colorful painted detail. One of her more iconic pieces was a strapless rosy red dress of tea length, adorned with a few small yellow flowers, with a poem hand-printed over the trimming. “My models are wearing paintings,” she says. “They have to do with identity, legality, what does it mean to wear stereotype and your culture on your body.”

Maria de los Angeles wears a Frida Kahlo-esque flower crown, adorned with mini-figure guns.

As a Mexican immigrant who is vocal about her undocumented status, de los Angeles wanted to show that people who share similar background with her cannot be stereotyped as criminals. She, for example, illegally entered the US with her parents when she was 11. But despite this, she was able to get a bachelors degree in painting at the Pratt Institute, and eventually earned her masters of fine arts degree from Yale University.

Maria wants to emphasize that many immigrants like her also contribute to the “cultural metropolis” that is New York. “We are such a part of it at every level,” she says “ — whether you’re a studio assistant, designer at Fashion Week, or a seamstress somewhere — to the point where illegal immigrants like myself contribute to the art and design world in great amounts.”

For the event itself, WhiteBox and the featured artists enlisted young volunteers of immigrant background to help set up and assist in preparations for the runway show. De los Angeles had the volunteers help her finish her painting, as she had a lot on her plate that evening — co-directing the show and dressing over a dozen male and female models, child as well as adult, including herself.

People of all genders, colors, shapes and sizes modeled for “Illegal Fashion Runway.”

Volunteer Francisco Donoso was sporting a black statement shirt with bold white print that read: “Undocumented Unafraid Unapologetic.” An Ecuadorian artist, and youth advocate for the Parsons Scholars Program, Donoso has been backstage for the longest time helping Maria make final touches on her creations.

Donoso brought along with him some of his Parsons students — also of immigrant background — to help in production. This seemed like a practical way to show what he would like for these tenth graders to take away from their weekend classes and workshops. “It’s really about giving students access to the art world, trying to redefine what it is an artist does and the role artists play in the world, and help students envision themselves as artists.”

An audience member writes on one of artist Quinza Najm’s models.

Pakistani artist Qinza Najm went the performance art route, with her models — including a mother and child — walking in nude bodysuits and hijabs, holding signs that represented the seven banned Muslim-majority countries. After the show, the models allowed audience members to write messages regarding the ban on their bodies with fabric markers.

Other designers paraded wearable clothes that showed off their skill, represented who they are as artists and gave a glimpse of their cultural roots. Aspiring Latina fashion designer Taliah Leslie showcased a collection of structured purple garments with interesting shapes and silhouettes — from a dark strait jacket-like coat to a geometric flared trousers. Meanwhile, artist Ernesto Ortiz Leyva came out with simple printed shirts that read “Juarez El Paso” in reference to the Mexican border and his bicultural identity. As de los Angeles puts it, “Every day we dress, we make a statement about who we are.”