Esteban Cortazar

When thinking about child prodigies, in fashion one could perhaps include Esteban Cortazar, the young Paris-based Colombian who has shot to the top of the industry, and who has been appointed chief designer at Emanuel Ungaro though only twenty-three. When Bogota-born Cortazar (1984) moved with his parents from Colombia to Miami in the 1990s, a creative awakening awaited him: “Coming to Miami was a culture shock because I was able to see designers, I saw fashionistas, I saw so many things,” he says. Though he was still just a boy, that’s what he had eyes for.

At twelve he was already decorating the shop window of vintage clothes shops in his neighbourhood, and at thirteen he showed his first collection of nine designs on the runway at a talent show at South Pointe elementary school, with classmates as models. Its theme – Little Red Riding Hood – has almost symbolic character in an industry teeming with “big bad wolves.” Yet Cortazar had right from the start a fine instinct for the good guys. As his father lived right above the News Café on Ocean Drive, Cortazar automatically became acquainted with VIPs, including Todd Oldham, who in 1997 opened his legendary boutique close by. Cortazar was only thirteen when he showed his sketchbook to Oldham, who promptly invited him to one of his fashion shows in New York. It proved a revelation.

From then on, Cortazar began not only to design clothes but also to develop a style that worked as a platform for a whole fashion line. To perfect his technical skills, he went to a high school in Miami that specialised in design and architecture. In between, he showed his pieces at fashion shows in nightclubs and hotels. In 1999, Cortazar, then fifteen, was the youngest designer at the Miami International Fashion Week. Events followed thick and fast: a self-confident Esteban introduced himself to Bloomingdale’s fashion chief Kalman Ruttenstein at a party given by Detail magazine in New York. When Esteban presented his first collection under the name Cortazar at the New York Fashion Week in 2002, Bloomingdale’s featured it in its display windows for a fortnight. Suzy Menkes of the Herald Tribune postponed a flight to be at his show, and in 2004 Cindy Crawford returned to the catwalk for the young Colombian.

Oldham attributes the appeal of Cortazar’s designs to Florida: “He grew up seeing bare breasts on the beach every day, so that’s a different perspective than most people. His perspective is sexy but in a refreshingly unforced way, it’s very breezy, and it’s easy and it’s young.” The colours he chooses reflect his adopted home, the Sunshine State. The very feminine clothes of chiffon and embroidered silk glow with the bright yellow of sunlight. Their colours are reminiscent of the blue of the ocean or the blushing skin of a peach. Among his fans are singer Beyonce, Kylie Minogue and costume designer Patricia Field, who used his clothes for Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada.

The most recent surprise success of the now adult child prodigy was his appointment as chief designer at Emanuel Ungaro in 2007 – he was then two years younger than Stella McCartney was when she took over Chloë from Karl Lagerfeld at the age of twenty-five. In his first collection for Emanuel Ungaro, he stuck to his personal style, with flowing silhouettes and colour highlights. Though Ungaro is famed above all for its prints, like Cortazar with his Latin chic it represents a feminine, sexy look. Emanuel Ungaro’s chairman and CEO Mounir Moufarrige sums it up: “Esteban knows what makes a chick tick.” Or, as Esteban himself puts it: “I want Ungaro to be cool, I want every girl to want to dress in Ungaro.”

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