What do New York Fashion Week, social justice, Netflix, and the amplification of Puerto Rican heritage have in common? They’re all central to the dynamic career of designer, educator, and nonprofit leader Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González, who joined Haverford last week as the featured speaker for the first iteration of THRIVE Thursdays.
The new series of events envisioned and implemented by the college’s Institutional and Student Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) team is the evolution of the annual THRIVE Conference. It pairs college community members with compelling speakers from a wide range of backgrounds in the Multicultural Center (MCC) for conversation and a quick bite. The shift in programming from a day-long conference, says Director of the Marilou Allen Office for Service and Community Collaboration Emily Johnson, helps make it more accessible for those who may only have an hour to spare.
“As often as we can, we try to align the speaker with the cultural and heritage theme for the month. Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month,” says Johnson. “We also look for speakers who are dynamic, interesting, and can address topics of truth, healing, resiliency, inclusion, and equity — that’s what THRIVE stands for — and Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González was a perfect fit to be our first speaker.”
Ortiz-González, who was born and raised in Caguas, Puerto Rico, is a celebrated fashion designer whose work is included in the collections of luminaries like Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Countless models clad in her designs have strode catwalks in New York, Paris, and London, and she was even a contestant on the first season of Netflix’s hit Next in Fashion.
With an intimate crowd gathered in the MCC on Sept. 21, Ortiz-González discussed the genesis of her career, which followed a battle with meningitis at age 2 that left her in a coma for a month. While doctors insisted she would never walk or talk again, her mother enrolled her in painting, music, and dance classes to help develop her delayed motor skills. She would later study, despite some initial resistance, sewing through a local vocational program.
“I think that was the biggest gift my mom gave me. It was the first time in my life that I understood something,” Ortiz-González says. She recalled creating a pair of shorts with “ugly, very ugly” fabric but quickly falling in love with working in three dimensions.
Another significant illness, this time her mother’s, again changed the trajectory of Ortiz-González’s life at age 13. While in the foster care system, she lived with a politically active family who offered a clearer picture of Puerto Rico’s economic and social contexts and sparked within her a keen interest in activism. Following her arrest after protesting the U.S. military’s presence on Vieques, a small island just off Puerto Rico’s east coast, she was encouraged to continue pursuing fashion by an anthropologist who was jailed as a political prisoner.
“She said, ‘You don’t understand the power of fashion,’” Ortiz-González recalls. “That’s when I learned how politics and fashion are aligned and how many movements have used fashion to communicate thought and create freedom for many.”
All of those experiences have coalesced in Ortiz-González’s high-fashion collections. As stylish as they are avant-garde, her designs are rooted in critical social investigation. They’re often tied to the generational trauma that has reverberated throughout the history of Puerto Rico and the island’s colonization and subsequent diaspora. A prime example is her Stranded collection, in which she used digitized images from the island’s struggles to create hypnotic fabrics. The full reality of the pieces, which were unveiled during Paris’ 2018 fashion week, is only revealed when viewed with 3D glasses.
“When you think of Puerto Rico, you think of a piña colada, no? Or you think about paradise, because it is,” Ortiz-González says. “But when you put your glasses on and look deeper you can see what struggles have happened there.”
Ortiz-González’s work is also available to consumers through her NJ line, which offers very limited runs of items that are tailored to a buyer’s specific size. The smaller number of pieces available is intentional, she says, since the fashion industry is a disproportionate contributor to pollution and climate change.
Parallel to her fashion career, Ortiz-González serves as executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño, the largest arts organization focused on Puerto Rican and Latinx art in Pennsylvania. From its North Philadelphia headquarters, Taller, which translates to workshop in Spanish, has offered community-based arts programming since the mid-1970s and has educated renowned Latinx artists like ceramicist Roberto Lugo. Earlier in September, Lugo was named a recipient of a Heinz Award for the Arts, one of the largest awards for individual artistic achievement in the world.
Taller is also active in Philadelphia’s public schools, pairing artists with schools that no longer have arts programs, and has informed the work of the city’s venerated Mural Arts program.
“We have a lot of studies, but we also have a lot of celebrations of our heritage and how to create community,” Ortiz-González says of Taller, which is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024. “We do a little of everything.”
Up next: THRIVE Thursdays will welcome Celena Morrison-McLean on Oct. 26. Morrison-McLean became the first openly transgender person to lead a City of Philadelphia Office when she became the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs in 2020.