Regina Barrios has a fearless streak that you can sense within five minutes of meeting her. A serial entrepreneur who smiles wide but speaks her mind, Barrios is fed up with ill-informed outsiders who underestimate her part of the world. “Actually, there’s tonnes of money here. Tonnes of it,” she says brusquely before turning on a dose of easy charm.
“Call me Gina,” she entreats. “OK, true, in Latin America we have extreme poverty on the one hand and extreme wealth on the other. Some of the money is coming from weird places too so inequality is a massive problem, especially here in Mexico. It’s all true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s serious purchasing power for fashion here now — and I mean, serious purchasing power.”
Barrios should know. After ten years on the international trade show circuit wholesaling her jewellery line Ishi at the likes of Tranoi in Paris, Barrios opened a multi-brand boutique back in Mexico City called Lago DF which attracts wealthy chilangos and cool-hunting tourists alike. Her confidence in the local Latin American market has grown so big, in fact, that she decided to launch her very own trade show in the Mexican capital last year.
“Caravana Americana showcases the best of Latin American design by focusing on the artisanal side of luxury,” Barrios asserts. “I’m obsessed with quality and rescuing techniques and pushing this special fusion design culture we have here. It’s not just clothing, jewellery and textiles but also objects and furniture.”
The latest edition, which was held in March, drew designers from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina. Retailers came from across the region and as far away as Australia to buy.
When high profile imports meet high quality exports
Trade shows across the Latin American region have been growing or upgrading their offering in recent years. Big events in Brazil and Argentina as well as Colombiamoda in Colombia’s Medellin and Intermoda in Mexico’s Guadalajara have all had to up their game to compete with smaller carefully curated new entrants.
“Well, there have been several similar events in Mexico City recently, but few really make a difference. You can definitely say Caravana Americana has become the top event of its kind,” says Raúl Alvarez, fashion editor of the Mexican edition of Elle magazine.
The growing dynamism of the region’s B2B fashion trade is the product of higher quality exports and higher profile imports. As exciting Latin American designers like Mexico’s Carla Fernandez, Colombia’s Johanna Ortiz and Peru’s Escudo by Chiara Macchiavello pushed forward to breakthrough into Europe and the US, a wave of global fashion brands entered the region.
Stella McCartney is the latest luxury player to put down roots in the region. Having opened a boutique in Saks Fifth Avenue in Mexico City’s Centro Santa Fe shopping centre, McCartney is one of several designers partnering with the US department store chain since it first expanded south of the border ten years ago.
This wave followed a bigger one a few years ago which saw Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, Burberry, Hermès, Chanel and many others expand through El Palacio de Hierro, a glittering department store chain with over a dozen locations across Mexico — most notably its Polanco flagship that reopened after a $300 million renovation.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s third major department store player, the upmarket Liverpool chain, just announced it would spend $320 million to add 11 more branches to its already bulging portfolio. If that weren’t enough, the local giant is now in the final stages of acquiring a majority stake in the Chilean department store group Ripley for a reported $1.2 billion, which has over 70 stores across Chile and Peru.
“Ripley has also expanded its sales pipelines by adding e-commerce, which is gaining territory in Chile and Peru to the point that Ripley.com now has more than 8 million visits per month,” says Francisco Irarrázaval, the managing director of Ripley’s online venture.
It is becoming easier for Ripley and competitors like Falabella, a retail group with hundreds of stores and dozens of shopping malls across the region, to attract international fashion brands to their growing e-platforms.
“Initially, some are sceptical about executing online sales in the region. However, after they realise how developed e-commerce already is in several countries in South America and see the special care brands receive… they end up wanting to work with us for their entire collection,” claims Ricardo Alonso, chief executive of e-commerce at Falabella Chile.
Further upmarket, online expansion is hitting fever pitch, suggests Karla Martinez, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Mexico and Latin America. “Delivery logistics have improved significantly in the region so brands are rushing to meet consumer demand,” she says, citing the increasing popularity of global e-tailers like Net-a-Porter, Farfetch, Luisa Via Roma and MatchesFashion.
Affordable brands like H&M, Mango and Forever 21 continue to aggressively expand their footprint across the region too and many new shopping malls are opening in Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia. But if international luxury brands are to continue their march into Latin America, even more physical retail expansion and infrastructure upgrades are necessary.