In the aughts-era heyday of fashion, The Devil Wears Prada stood as the fingerprint of the fashion industry for the world. The film depicted an image of an industry wrought with backstabbing, ruthless survivalism, hierarchical structures akin to 10th century feudalism, and, of course, aspirational (read: unattainable) standards of living. In many ways, the fashion industry still operates very much within this paradigm, although it has made efforts towards more inclusivity and democratization in the past decade.
But in 2022, it’s possible that an even more inclusive and democratized fashion dynamic is emerging. One that rings the opposite of what was portrayed in the 2006 film classic. And if there is such a thing of supportive, collaborative and engaged individuals in fashion moving together towards a common fashion welfare, Estefania Lacayo and Samantha Tams have built it with their Latin American Fashion Summit (LAFS).
These two women—Tams from Mexico and Lacayo from Nicaragua—have, over the past 4 years, curated, cultivated and ultimately activated their vision for a unified Latin American fashion system that convenes in support, sharing of information, education, and good old-fashioned Latin American-style fun. What they have assembled in the process, whether by intention or as a byproduct, is an engaged army of loyal devotees that has now extended to include participants from outside the Latin American region and it’s without a doubt this mighty audience stands to be the summit’s most powerful asset.
As experienced during the last summit held a few weeks back in Miami, LAFS attendees are one of the strongest, most unified group of dynamic people looking to advance fashion business goals this journalist has personally ever experienced in her 15 years covering fashion. It’s because of this legion of motivated of followers, along with LAFS’s mission to include and deeply educate rather than focus on the superficial aspects of fashion, that this summit is positioned to be force to be reckoned with on the global fashion scene.
Summit participants meet once per year to connect, converge, and converse from all over the region including Chile, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and every other Latin American nation. This year, however, the American Hispanic population was drawn into the mix due to the summit’s Miami location (in prior years LAFS was held in Mexico and Cartagena, Colombia) and speakers included people from highly-international backgrounds such as ShopParty founder Anna Vladymyrska, who originally hails from Ukraine.
“There was such a dynamic group of attendees. From young entrepreneurs, to established fashion designers and other creatives solely seeking community and inspiration,” says Aerin Lauder, founder of AERIN and descendent of the famed cosmetics company founder, Estée Lauder.
This seeking of which Lauder speaks is palpable at LAFS. Attendees exchanged business cards and Instagram accounts. They gathered enthusiastically at networking events and genuinely connected with others with the warmth for which Latin American culture is known. LAFS ambassadors–who were typically influencers or notables–took their roles seriously, being kind and helpful to attendees. Most importantly, the majority of LAFS attendees were women. Indeed, according to Lacayo the summit is roughly 90% female. The potential of this type of pure, collaborative human–and female–passion and drive seems limitless in an industry that is ripe for these types of connections.
But for all its merit and strength, this community did not come easily for LAFS.
“From a professional standpoint, as Latin Americans we tend to hoard information,” explains Tams. “It was even difficult for Estefania and I when we started the summit to find the information we needed to bring LAFS together. People did not want to share their expertise and contacts, so it very quickly became our mission to encourage our members to empower and help each other within their communities.”
“It has been one of the biggest struggles for us educating the community on the power of sharing contacts without expecting anything in return,” adds Lacayo. “The community was used to not collaborating with each other and it hasn’t been an easy road because a unified platform for them did not exist prior to LAFS.”
Yet, after 4 years of building the LAFS community has embraced the message Tams and Lacayo have been proselytize which has not only created this engaged and authentic group of participants, but also driven home the mission they have had from the start which is to create a unified Latin American fashion system.
“We have made the operations of brands and companies in Latin America so much easier. Imagine a large company like Estée Lauder who used to have to activate separately in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries. They can now target all the important players from each of the relevant countries through a dinner activation during LAFS,” says Lacayo.
Interestingly, what these founders have accomplished has been done without nary a fashion show. LAFS, instead, is a business proposition. It’s designed to gather fashion industry professionals across the spectrum from designers to buyers to merchants and engage them with the panels and conversations filled with wisdom from high-profile names like Pharrell Williams and Aerin Lauder. These panels, talks, and workshops are ones where the speakers aren’t simply talking at their audience–they are engaging directly with them and including them.
Williams, who took to the stage with his partner and CEO in the Black Ambition prize Felicia Hatcher, were there to invite the LAFS community to participate in their mission of closing the wealth and opportunity gap of marginalized groups, specifically the Black and Latinx communities.
“We want to give marginalized groups of people access to funding, mentorship and capital in order to succeed and have ownership in spaces they may not originally have had the opportunity to be present in,” says Williams. “We wanted to speak with the community and make sure we encouraged this great group of thinkers and entrepreneurs to apply for the Black Ambition Prize and bring their dreams to life with this once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Although for all its intention and mission, it’s highly evident LAFS has become what it is today solely because of the values and personalities of its two founders. As it’s loosely understood in business management, the tone of any organization is set from the top and the tone from Lacayo and Tams are of poise, grace, inclusivity and a deep commitment to accomplishment. Even on the toughest of days of the summit–such as when the power went out at the main tent or when the Editor-in-Chief of VOGUE Latin American pulled out at the last minute due to a logistical complication–the founders continued forward with patience, style, and calm.
When dealing with Lacayo and Tams (full disclosure–I am friendly with the two and moderated twice at this year’s summit) they are ever-present at LAFS and even tranquil through the maelstrom of activity. With all of the moving parts that entail presenting a world-class summit, these founders are connected to every detail and ready to help create connections, facilitate sponsorships, guide content, settle disputes, and just about anything else. And if they can’t handle it their team of driven and passionate employees push things forward with the same level of clarity, calm and professionalism as the founders.
And they must. The LAFS team have an airtight brand promise of excellence to protect and there is no room for compromise in this respect. LAFS has always strived to be a best-in-class affair and they succeed at this–production is top-notch, events are of the highest-caliber, locations and stage design are exemplary, and speakers and sponsors are reflective of these standards. Lauren Santo Domingo, De Beers, Audemars-Piguet, Augustinus Bader, and the aforementioned Pharrell Williams and Aerin Lauder were some of the boldface names participating in or sponsoring this year’s summit.
It’s because of these incredibly lofty standard that participants, attendees, brands and sponsors know that whatever is presented at LAFS has been vetted to the highest degree.
“We’ve done our homework all year and we’ve created a space where everyone in attendance is there to discover the best of Latin American fashion in one place; offerings which have been curated by us,” explains Tams. “The brands and designers we present are 100 percent ready to enter the global market–their product is ready, their economy is ready, their production is ready. Our vetting sends the message to an Intermix or Moda Operandi that it’s not a risk picking up this brand because we know they will deliver.”
Lauder agrees. “Since launching AERIN, I have always looked to showcase new designers and inspiring young talent. This is one of the many reasons why I was so excited to participate in LAFS. They have an incredible network of emerging designers and creative personalities,” she says.
“As for buyers, who in addition to attending the major fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, are also invited to fashion weeks in Mexico, Argentina, Medellin and so on, it becomes impossible for them to attend all these shows and have a life and a family,” she adds. “So they can see the best of Latin America in one place which benefits the community because we have been able to capture their attention.”
What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is the change that Lacayo and Tams are creating can be much more impactful than the summit itself.
For Adriana Cisneros, CEO of one of the largest privately held media entertainment organizations in the world, Grupo Cisneros and a presenter at LAFS 2022, she stands by the belief that what these founders are doing is even bigger than they realize. Indeed, Cisneros believes they are impacting the very structure of Latin American society as a whole.
“Samantha and Estefania are using fashion as a platform to be a force of nature that is changing the entire fabric of Latin America,” Cisneros says. “They’re onto something that is very transformative especially since what they are doing is with mostly women, and this is going to change the role of women in society in Latin America.”
“It’s very difficult for female entrepreneurs in Latin America to be independent or keep independent during the business,” Cisneros adds. “They [Latin American women] find a partner that is usually a man who gives them the money and who usually have majority share of the business, and because many women in Latin American cultures do not have financial literacy but are desperate to have a business tend to agree to unfair terms. LAFS gives these entrepreneurs work tools they understand and that will give them a path towards business independence. It will change the way women operate independently in Latin American society.”
One some level the LAFS founders understand this.
“I want people to see we’re not just a summit anymore. Yes, of course, there is the summit, but there is also the virtual summit, our educational courses, Tribu our online database and networking platform, and our ambassador program. There’s so much. “We’re opening different lines of businesses every single day from a consulting agency to influencer matching,” says Tams.
“There is an entire universe that’s been created and one that everyone could be a part of, and we’re empowering people every step of the way.”
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