The body is my canvas

Andres Pelaez recently graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts with a BA degree in fashion. He moved from Guatemala to Iceland in 2012 and says that the past three years have been quite a journey.

Being from Guatemala, where earthquakes are very common, Andrés Peláez wasn‘t alarmed when the earth shook under his feet on the day he arrived in Iceland to live and study, on August 30th 2012. „I just thought it was the country saying hi to me,“ he says smiling.

And the country has welcomed him so warmly that he has no intension of moving away after his graduation next month, where he‘ll be awarded a BA degree in Fashion Design from the Iceland Academy of the Arts (i. LHÍ).

But how did he end up in Iceland, studying fashion design?

“My ambition is to get an internship at some of the big fashion houses that I love, either in London or Paris.” - Andres Pelaez.
“My ambition is to get an internship at some of the big fashion houses that I love, either in London or Paris.” – Andres Pelaez.

“In 2011, I was going on a vacation to Iceland but as I was researching for my trip, I started looking into the Fashion Design bachelor’s programme at the Academy so I brought my portfolio with me. I even skipped the Blue Lagoon on that trip to go for an interview at the Academy.”

Andrés’ application was accepted so he was able to begin his studies the following year.

He laughs, knowing it sounds just a tad crazy. “My parents were a little bit shocked about the place I chose, and that I didn’t want to go to one of the fashion capitals in the world but when I showed them the programme, they understood. And then they visited Iceland and loved it, even though it was February!”

He says he liked the programme at the Academy. “Because it’s very competitive, considering what‘s on offer out there, and very up to date. Some of the courses there I haven‘t seen in other programmes so LHÍ has a lot to offer. But the most important thing for me was that it‘s more artistic than influenced by international trends, more creative than commercial.”

Our interview is interrupted by a courier delivering documents that Andrés and his boyfriend have been waiting for. “Ah, yes. Today, we’re registering for cohabitation,” Andrés says, beaming. A big step so now, I want to know more about this boyfriend, Siggi.

“His full name is Sigurður Júlíus Guðmundsson,” Andrés says almost flawlessly. “And he works in IT, but he’s also very much an activist and is actually former vice president of Samtökin ’78 (e. The National Queer Organization).”

In fact, the two of them met at one of the Samtökin’s organized events shortly after Andrés moved to Iceland and have been living together for almost two years. “We‘re opposites, I don‘t know anything about computers and media and he, although he has an understanding of fashion, is not much involved in it so at the end of the day we don’t talk about work, which is great!”

Still, we need to talk about fashion and design. “Soon after I started my studies, I discovered that my designs are very influenced by architecture. My BA thesis is actually about similar practices in fashion and architecture and my graduation collection is inspired by 1950’s couture designers and modern architecture, where I like the structure and clean, smooth surfaces.”

Andrés says that if he hadn’t become a fashion designer, he very likely would have become an architect. He agrees with what has often been said, that Iceland lacks architecture but he still loves some of the latest designs, such as Harpa concert hall and he shows me a book by his new, favourite architect, Pálmar Kristmundsson who designed e.g. Höfðatorg and a building called Árbrog, which was one of the inspirations for Andrés’ clothes designs.

Noteworthy about Andrés’ designs is that they don’t reveal much flesh, in times when there’s constant debate about how revealing and daring clothes should or shouldn’t be.

“I would say two things about that. First, I create clothes for women and see the body as a canvas that I create clothes on. I wouldn’t want to disrespect the human body by flashing it. Second, I try to keep in mind the person I’m designing the clothes for, who is she? And then try to create something for her. So, the body is my canvas and I create on it, without making the body an actual part of the collection.”

“Being gay in Guatemala is still a taboo…I told my brother a few years before I came here and he was very supportive…My father didn’t talk to me for two months afterwards…”

Andrés has settled well in here but is still open to going abroad to further his career. “My ambition is to get an internship at some of the big fashion houses that I love, either in London or Paris. I would also like to study a bit more, specialize in something but that would have to be somewhere else, in one of the fashion capitals.”

For now though, he’s happy where he is. “Basically, it’s just easier to be gay here in Iceland. Being gay in Guatemala is still a taboo thing, even though the society is getting better and it’s not dangerous or anything. And I was lucky enough to have great, supportive friends. I told my brother a few years before I came here and he was very supportive and we actually grew closer because we could finally be completely honest with each other.”

But it wasn’t until Andrés had moved to Iceland that he came out to his parents. “I did it in summer 2013, and it was difficult, I admit. I’m not sure if they knew it but didn’t want me to confirm it. Also, we’re Catholics so it was a bit tricky. But I wanted to share this part of my life with them, I never talk about them having to accept it because I don’t need their approval. My father didn’t talk to me for two months afterwards but we’ve come a long way and now they’re fine with it.”

They even visited Iceland again last Christmas and met Siggi. “Just a few days before they arrived, they asked especially whether they could meet him, so they did and they really liked him. At the end of their stay, we had a big dinner with both our families and I almost needed someone to pinch me when I looked around and saw them all together. And my parents have said: “We‘re so happy you‘ve created your life here, it‘s so much better than the life you would have had in Guatemala,“ so I consider myself very lucky. ”

The graduation from the Academy takes place on 20 June; two years, nine months and 20 days since that earthquake greeted Andrés. Perhaps it was an omen of how Iceland would shake up his life?

“Everything I‘ve done in the last two, three years, I see it as a journey. And a lot has happened but the biggest change is that my entire life has become a little bit more relaxed since then.”

Photos (except the upper one of Andres): Birta Rán Björgvinsdóttir

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