The NYC based cultural clothing line CHULO invited Black Girl Nerds to their New York Fashion Week event ‘A New Day’. One of the hottest underwear shows of the week doubled as charity fundraiser and raised over $2500 for community based organizations.
I had the honor of sitting down with artist and founder Ricardo Muñiz to talk about the brand, the business, and the art. Here is what he had to say:
Lauren La Melle: What does it mean for CHULO to be culturally relevant?
Ricardo Muñiz: The idea to start CHULO was based on my decades of work with young people from marginalized communities of color both as a teacher and social worker. So many youths were spending money on fashion labels that contributed little or nothing to local economies. Here we were, though: hundreds of thousands of our young people walking around like billboards advertising somebody else’s name on our bodies, being pimped out by an industry that stole our ideas and then shamelessly sold them back to us, and we were willingly and blindly giving them the few remaining dollars we had left—all because we wanted to look cute.
The irony hurt. We were the inspiration; we were the models; we were the brand ambassadors; but, our little colored behinds were being exploited and taken and sold and traded, and despite the fact that we funded the building of their empires and their gilded castles surrounded by moats, none of us would be invited to their dinner parties unless we worked in the kitchen for the caterer.
A few entrepreneurs of color had already found a way to use fashion as an instrument for change. After working as a fashion photographer and behind the scenes on some major fashion shows, I learned from the struggles and successes of these businesspeople, and I was inspired to do something for the Latino/Hispanic diasporas and our indigenous family across the Americas and Caribbean. Hence, the CHULO brand was born.
I chose the name CHULO because it is a very common and catchy word used by many Spanish-speaking people, it has both negative and positive connotations, and because it’s a word easy to pronounce for non-Spanish speakers. Chulo (or chula) means someone very pretty and charming. It is also used to describe people who may not be very good-looking, but who are confident, who have swag, and/or who are good communicators. Derogatory uses include pimp, mama’s boy, f–got, freeloader, and arrogant. What better way to celebrate a people than to reclaim a word and focus on its positive qualities regardless of what others think of the term? That is our CHULO brand. We want to celebrate all that we are whether or not people consider it a negative or a positive. We are white; we are Black; we are Native; we are mixed; we are immigrants; we are colored; we are indigenous. We come from the mountains, the interior, the valleys, the cities, the country, the beaches, the islands, the hills, the prairies, the jungles, the forests, the woods, the fields, the suburbs and from the projects.
We are a people who have billions of reasons to be proud of our looks, our history and our contributions to society.
So, although the CHULO brand is only two years old, we are focused on making fashion fun AND socially-responsible. We make simple things that are easy to wear and regularly used by many young people: tees, boxer briefs, and hoodies. Our hope is to make fashion that is FUN and that helps us FUNdraise for our own communities, because we donate all profits to scholarship programs or we reinvest those funds by giving them to local CBOs that are doing a variety of work with the community. We want to inspire young people to care about themselves and their own communities in such a way that they spend their money on themselves AND FOR their communities.
This is also why we pay no adult staff as of yet. We want young people to know we are not taking their money to spend it on our own salaries.
Our designs and our art incorporate sayings, colors, artwork, historical tidbits, and inspirational quotes from people who represent pieces of the fabric that make up the whole Latino/Hispanic diasporas—from Africa to America, from Canada to the Caribbean, from Alaska to Argentina, from Puerto Rico to the Pacific Islands.
The CHULO brand does not define what culture is for its people: instead, CHULO asks its people to contribute art and sayings and ideas, so that we can make gear that represents our people regardless of color, creed, culture, orientation, age, size, ability, awareness, self-definition, political beliefs or gender.
We are too small of a company to be able to have a lot of products and a lot of answers, but we do have a lot of heart, and we do have a lot of hope that even small efforts, collectively, can move mountains.
Lauren: I know you are an overall artist; what is your creative process in designing the underwear? Is it different from your normal process?
Ricardo: I’ve always been involved in art even from an early age. I was commissioned as a youngster to paint murals in many elementary and junior high schools. However, as I grew older, I learned quickly that art didn’t really pay, so I wasn’t going to “waste” time studying art when I needed degrees to help me earn a living. I ended up getting a lot of degrees, but I never really took any art classes. The irony is that despite the professional jobs I’ve had, I still, somehow, find a way to bring art into my work. Just like your moms stays your moms even when you are grown, how a teacher continues to teach even after leaving the classroom, I guess an artist is always an artist.
So, I may have started the CHULO brand for social work and educational reasons, but I found it easy to use my art skills (photography and design) to help shape the products we created.
I’m not independently wealthy and the brand does not have billionaire investors, so we don’t really spend a lot of time creating “perfect” designs which we then mass produce. Instead, we make a bunch of samples, we do a lot of shows, we take a lot of photos, and then we listen to the feedback we get from the community. The designs that our partner CBOs like and/or the designs that our customers like and/or the designs that our young people like are the ones we end up producing. In short, we don’t get permission from professional retail buyers to mass-produce generic designs; instead, we go to the community and they tell us what is hot and what is not. It seems to work pretty well for us despite some bumps in the beginning. As the brand grows, we hope to bring more artists in to work as a true collective.
Lauren: Looking at your body paintings I noticed the art is stylized in a way that conveys a story. Does this storytelling focus spill into your design process?
Ricardo: This is a great question, and very perceptive of you. I am at heart a storyteller. My work has to say something; it has to have some meaning, some worth. All cultures, in fact, keep their history alive by telling their stories. These stories are usually told orally, but today’s young people utilize other methods like social media, tattoos, fashion, and video to tell their stories. CHULO hopes to tell our stories of some amazing people who just happen to be black or brown or red or white or yellow or rainbow or mixed. We hope to make simple products that can tell profound stories in very simple yet easy-to-understand designs. So, yes, storytelling is part of our design process. We look at each item and decide if it is telling a story that is positive, uplifting and culturally respectful. Many people contribute to this decision-making—not just I.
Lauren: Where do you find inspiration for the designs?
Ricardo: Many of the ideas are drawn from my years working with marginalized people of all ages as an educator, social worker, and most recently, artist. I try to find ways to help people tell their own stories their own ways. This helps guide the designs we make. Whether the idea is in-house or from a community contributor, whether it’s from a young, 17-year-old transgender female artist or a 25-year-old strapping Dominican boxer or a sassy, 88-year-old grandmother, we try to make designs and artwork that help us celebrate who we are—however it is we may define ourselves as a community of color.
Lauren: I noticed some of the models were sporting lounge wear down the runway. Is CHULO thinking about expanding the line outside of underwear?
Ricardo: We already have expanded into tees and calendars. We also sell limited items like hand-painted hoodies when we do cultural festivals. Because this was technically a NYFW show, the idea is to showcase a range of products that demonstrate what the CHULO brand is making and what options we are also exploring. Depending on the feedback we get or whether buyers make actual orders, this determines how many of the actual items seen on the runway will actually make it into production and then to a showroom, a retail store or on our online catalog. So, yes, the CHULO brand explores different avenues at each show, but, no, we do not have a specific plan right now to expand into loungewear.
Lauren: Does your background in social work and teaching influence your views on fashion?
Ricardo: Yes. It is the reason why the brand pays it forward, and why the brand focuses on culture, heritage and pride.
Lauren: I know one of the goals of CHULO is to give back to the community, which CHULO continues to achieve and push further. Are there any other goals or dreams you have for the company outside its political foundations?
Ricardo: Yes, the brand hopes to inspire others to create their own paying-it-forward brands that are more successful and that reach even more people. We CAN do it, and we can do it OURselves.
Lauren: Is there anything else about CHULO you would like to say that you feel like has not been said?
Ricardo: CHULO hopes to help, and CHULO hopes to inspire. We are a small company, and even if we do an event and only make a $5 profit, that money still means a lot. It can help pay for a young person’s ride to a drop-in center or to school or to a job interview or to a neighborhood community center. It can buy a sandwich. It can buy milk for a child. It can buy socks for the 15-year-old boxer who beats the bag at the center instead of his head against a wall. Every little bit helps. It’s not the amount of money we make that defines who we are, but how much love we put into making that money, and how much love we can share.
Thank you for coming to our little fundraiser, and thanks for sharing our story with your readers.