Krystal Paniagua’s love for fashion was already evident when she was a teenager. At 16, she started making her own clothes, and since then, the sewing machine and the Puerto Rican designer have become inseparable. But her love for sewing hasn’t been the only thing that Paniagua has discovered over time. Chasing her dream made her move away from home and made her see things differently: “I began to appreciate Puerto Rico and miss it a whole lot”, she confesses. And this nostalgic feeling has been key to her designs. Krystal Paniagua shows in her clothes the reality of this Caribbean island, shaped by decay and imperfection, which “makes it unique”.
Krystal, first things first. How did this adventure in fashion start? When did you become interested in fashion and when did you realise it was what you wanted to do for a living?
Alright, let’s start. I began when I was around 15 years old. I tried different things such as dancing, acting, drawing – I was terrible at it. Then, I met a friend who was into fashion and introduced me to fashion publications and designers. This opened a new interest in me as I felt quite identified with the ways in which aesthetics and life can be combined. When I turned 16, I enrolled in sewing classes and started making clothes for myself. There came a point where I was between being a stylist or a fashion designer. I spoke to a friend about my interests and her response helped me decide: “if you are a fashion designer, you can style your own collections”, she told me.
By the age of 17, I began developing small collections and presented them at the school fashion show. People's feedback was positive, so it encouraged me to pursue an education in fashion design. I moved to New York City, enrolled at FIT, and the rest followed quite organically. I spent half of my BA in New York, then moved to Milan to finish the degree. I did my MA in London and now I'm here figuring out my professional life. Everything has been challenging but fun and worthwhile.
Has Puerto Rico influenced your designs as much as it seems?
Yes, definitely. Never really thought about the influence it had on my work until I moved to Milan in 2014. Being so far from home made me see things differently. I began to appreciate Puerto Rico and miss it a whole lot. I was feeling nostalgic, and through my work, I was able to show it.
And, on a personal level, what has growing up in the Caribbean island brought to you?
The Caribbean offers such a different experience compared to the other places I have lived. First of all, the weather is completely different – it gets so cold and grey in the UK, whereas Puerto Rico is summer all year-round. This definitely changes the mindset and the way people dress and express themselves. Latin culture overall is personable, loud and energetic. Growing up in the Caribbean allowed me to express myself freely. I think my upbringing in Puerto Rico made me fearless to new experiences – this attitude towards life plays a big role in my work.
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Through your clothes, you want to show the reality of the island, away from the glamorous image that many people have of this place. How is or how would you describe the Puerto Rico that you attempt to showcase with your designs? How do you translate that into clothes?
My desire to show a different kind of Puerto Rico came from seeing how Puerto Rican media presented the island. The beauty standards, the colonial mindset, the pretty streets… For me, it was weird to see the island represented as just a tourist attraction when, in reality, it holds so much more. I grew up in Trujillo Alto, which is a town about thirty minutes away from San Juan. The architecture and lifestyle were so different from the city – things were a bit humbler. I was drawn to a scenery that was mostly ignored by the people living on the island.
I remember showing to my family the pictures I took for my project and they were truly alarmed as I was taking pictures of areas that people weren’t proud of showing. However, it is the pure reality of the island, a reality which is shaped by decay. The imperfection of the surroundings is what makes it unique, it adds so much character to the island and its people. With that in mind, I began to explore ways I could translate the same feel into my textiles and clothing. I used literal approaches such as printing the images onto my knits or representing the imagery indirectly through knitting techniques that give a raw and organic feel.
With your garments, you’re celebrating Puerto Rico and your roots, wearing them on your sleeve. In a world that is increasingly globalised, do you think that the future of fashion can be about reconnecting with one’s origins and moving away from the most mainstream proposals?
My priorities are shaped by the people that surround me and my influences growing up. My personal experience with fashion, be it education or work, made me become disenchanted with its dynamic, yet I didn’t want to let go of it. I felt like I could offer an alternative approach. By incorporating my background as the foundation for my work, I was able to carry a message in which people responded positively too. The world is changing, and as you mentioned, becoming very globalised. I think that we need to consider the social needs of the moment and I believe this requires the acknowledgement of one's roots. We must use it as a tool to connect and exchange with others.
Several of your clothes are torn or ripped. How do you get this deconstructed appearance without compromising the quality of the garments? What are the main materials and techniques you use?
The particular design choices were based on my research. I wanted to make garments that represented irregularity and a feeling of decay. However, I considered ways of portraying a distressed look without compromising quality. I used embroidery as a method to keep the textile stable and the garments were shaped while knitted. I also developed a technique that keeps its shape and moulds gracefully to the body.
Puñeta! is the title of your graduate collection from the Royal College of Art. For those who are not familiar with this word, what is the meaning given to ‘puñeta’ in Puerto Rico? How does this meaning relate to the essence and the character of the collection?
‘Puñeta’ is a rather vulgar term in many countries (including Puerto Rico), but it is used a lot in the culture to express astonishment or as a form of expression – “Puñeta, I just hit myself on the head”, or “Puñeta, this is amazing”. Puñeta can be used in any context – there’s no right or wrong way of applying it.
“I think finding your voice is about having the guts to do whatever you want to do regardless of what people say.”
The collection has a very particular, concrete style. As you’ve just graduated, do you think you’re still finding your voice? How is the process of finding your style been like?
I am aware that the collection I presented holds a very concrete aesthetic, and I’ve been thinking of ways to continue with similar elements but into a direction that is more practical in terms of production and starting a brand. My time at school was about finding myself as a person – it was a time for me to understand who I was and what I wanted to do. I think finding your voice is about having the guts to do whatever you want to do regardless of what people say. The current stage in my life is about establishing myself as a designer and being mindful of what I do in this crazy, unpredictable world.
Have you ever had trouble believing in your proposals? How do you manage the people who don’t have trust in what you do?
Yes. Especially at school, where I was surrounded by so many voices and opinions. It would get rather confusing for me as I wasn’t sure if my ideas were strong enough. I think it’s quite natural for a creative person to think this way, especially as a practitioner trying to make a name for oneself. Doubts come into mind, but it's important to remember the reason why you started in the first place.
Everybody has an opinion, I can't and don't want to stop them from feeling a certain way about my work. I don't have the time or energy to manage people who don't believe in me, I only reciprocate constructive criticism and support. No time for negativity, really. If you don’t like it, you can easily just not be part of it.
And, beyond your designs, how is your personal style? Does what you wear on your day-to-day influence your creations? Or are your designs the ones that have an impact on the way you dress?
My personal style is true to my daily life. I am always on the move and I tend to use the same outfit from day to night, so I try to consider what I wear and how my look can be appropriate for any context/situation. Layering has played a big role in the way I dress. Also, I need to be comfortable, so I'm quite practical with my choices. I keep things simple – no makeup and big curly hair, which adds a lot of character.
The garments I make are meant for layering and hold the potential to be styled in different ways. For my next collection, I want to present a concrete idea of versatility. I will add garments that I would like to wear during my day-to-day. I think It’s time for me to use design as a tool to enhance the lifestyle of the wearer.
Nowadays, what is your conception of women’s fashion? And what do you expect your designs to bring to the industry? Will you consider making men’s clothing in the future or do you think your designs are already unisex?
Women’s fashion is whatever they decide to wear. I don't think I have the final say in that, but I do design for people that are comfortable in their own skin. The rest should be interpreted by the wearer. If I could describe my ideal conception of fashion, it would be comfort, sophistication, playfulness and versatility. I think the same about menswear, which I will definitely incorporate in my next collection. I hope my designs are reciprocated by people that share the same values as me. I hope that my proposals inspire people and encourage them to engage with my work and spread the message.
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Despite the esteem and affection you have for Puerto Rico, you moved to other cities to study fashion and now you are based in London. Do you think that, in some cases, it is necessary to leave your hometown in order to grow and develop as a creative?
In my case, it was necessary to leave Puerto Rico. I knew – and I still bear in mind – that there is so much to learn, so going away from my comfort zone was the right thing to do. I have so much to do before I establish myself in Puerto Rico. One of my goals is to support emerging talent on the island, but for this, I need to grow first as a practitioner.
In your case, how do you think your work would have evolved if you’d stayed? How do you see the fashion industry in Puerto Rico nowadays?
To be completely honest, I don't think I would have grown as much. For me, it was necessary to leave the island and see what other people are doing. In Puerto Rico, there’s not much of a fashion industry, really. Fashion in Puerto Rico is associated with custom-made prom dresses. However, there are a few practitioners on the island that are introducing new approaches in fashion, such as Amapolia, a fashion PR company founded by three Puerto Rican women whom I worked with. Also, there is a lot of DIY fashion that is being presented as art – there is something very unique about it. I think it's just a matter of time for practitioners on the island to begin shaping the industry and present new alternatives. It's time for action and independence.
Beyond your homeland, what else inspires your designs? Is there any designer that you look up to in particular?
Life is the first thing I consider. As I prepare to take my next steps in my career, I think about what surrounds me – people, places, ways of thinking. I think about the message I want to communicate through my clothing. So far, my research is a melting pot of different mediums. Some of them involve the work of Dana Lixenberg, Esiri Erheriene-Essi, Louise Bourgeois, Timm Rautert, amongst many others.
Some contemporary garment brands that I appreciate are Carl Jan Cruz, Super Yaya and Barragan. I truly believe in what they do and I love that they are celebrating their culture on a global scale; they are taking fashion to unconventional places.
Considering your achievements so far, how would you like to develop your career as a designer from now on? What plans do you have for the future?
I'm so grateful for every opportunity I have been given and for the support I have received so far. It inspires me to have people that believe in what I do. I am currently a resident at HQI and they have granted me a workspace to continue my practice. This has led me to establish my brand and create garments that can truly be part of people’s lifestyle. I want to be able to make garments that are wearable, distinct and above all, affordable. With that in mind, I am being meticulous about my design choices.
What would you say is the key to staying motivated and to continue creating?
What motivates me the most is shaping an honest lifestyle. To make things that carry meaning. It truly fills my heart to make my family, friends and my country proud. Also, it gives me great joy finding my customers and receiving positive feedback from them. I think I have a long way to go, but I am very ready to take on the challenge.
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