BOGOTA – Though for years they often walked stealthily and made their own uniforms in makeshift workshops in the dense Colombian jungle, 22 former guerrilla fighters never thought this would lead them into the glamorous world of the “PAZarela,” a mix between the Spanish words for “peace” and “fashion runway.”
After the signing of the 2016 peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), some fighters received the opportunity to create their first collection of clothing unlike the traditional camouflaged uniforms they used formerly.
On Wednesday, they showed off their innovative taste.
At the “De la Guerra a la PAZarela” (From War to Peace Runway) fashion show, the former fighters – based in the Territorial Space for Training and Reincorporation in Tolima, Colombia – showcased their creative proposals at the University of Los Andes, in Bogota.
Before the eager gaze of the audience – including students, professors, bloggers, journalists and influencers –, the former guerrillas, who are part of a local clothes-making cooperative, presented satin and acetate kimonos, dresses, vests, skirts and printed T-shirts.
Anglia Maria Herrera took part in the process to create the collection and, in spite of having studied political science, said she considered herself to have “fashion passion.”
“It has been gratifying work. I have demystified the prejudices that I had toward the demobilized population and now I think that weapons are irrelevant because the important thing has been their desire to fight against injustice and inequality,” the 24-year-old designer told EFE.
With her project “Manifiesta. Hecho en Colombia,” Herrera went to Tolima convinced that “the way to contribute to the construction of peace was by generating decent jobs for those who wielded a weapon.”
She helped the former combatants create the “Tejpaz” fashion brand, for which she and other volunteers have the purpose of “defending a process of laying down arms that many don’t believe in.”
At the reincorporation space, where 288 former guerrillas live, Jimmy Rodriguez is one of those in charge of operating the flat machines and the cutting machine.
During the 21 years he bore arms, his work included sewing uniforms. That’s how he knew he could continue doing the same during peacetime.
“In the mountains, we had workshops where we made uniforms, and since I had an idea about clothing, it was easy for me to move to making fashionable clothes,” Rodriguez said.
The ex-combatant, 43 and father of a 2-year-old girl, hopes the collection will be accepted and become his “livelihood.”
Gonzalo Beltran, manager of the clothes-making cooperative, said learning to sew was one of his “most difficult fights.”
But because during 50 years of armed conflict between the FARC and security forces, they learned that “those who know teach those who don’t,” they began training in design, cutting and sewing. They used the 12 sewing machines and a cutting machine to create items from their own resources.
This “mission” hasn’t been easy since according to Beltran “catching the machine’s rhythm is complicated.”
“The important thing is not to stop insisting and rehearsing,” he said.
With the sale of garments ranging in price from 25,000 to 78,000 Colombian pesos ($7-23), they said they wanted to bring visibility to the project to recover the investment of 600,000 pesos that each made.
Beltran, who spent 14 years in the jungles of the departments of Meta and Guaviare with the FARC, did not imagine venturing into fashion.
In spite of this, he clarified that since the beginning of the dialog in Havana, the combatants were “prepared to assume the challenge that was coming” because they knew that they were “going to pass from one form of struggle to another, more complex one.”
In addition, the 42-year-old former fighter said “it was always said that the idea was to seek a way out of the conflict through dialog and to that we added something fashionable to further embellish this peace.”