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Wasi Clothing: Behind the Brand

Interview by Devon Lach 
Photography by Vanessa Acosta 

Vanessa Acosta’s clothing brand, Wasi Clothing, is in many ways inseparable from Vanessa herself. Her Los Angeles home studio is filled with a cutting table, sewing machines and fabric display racks–everything she needs to sew each Wasi garment. Almost every piece is still sewn made-to-order by Vanessa herself. Not to mention she also does all the photography and runs the business side of things.

The brand is an homage to Vanessa’s Bolivian heritage; combining Bolivian textiles with modern silhouettes. In the search for her design aesthetic Vanessa initially veered away from shaping the business around her Bolivian-American identity but through years of development as a designer being a brown-owned business is now a cornerstone of Wasi Clothing.

I sat down with Vanessa to learn more about her process and the story behind Wasi Clothing. 

Let’s start at the beginning….how did you develop a love for fashion and learn to sew?

I am actually one of those people that knew what she wanted to do at a very young age. Since I was a little girl I was very artistic–more on the artistic side rather than the academic side. In high school I did all the costumes for our musical theater; the costume design department was only 3 students and a teacher. I ended up going to fashion school after high school so it’s been a lifelong journey.

How did the idea for Wasi Clothing come about?

I worked for the fashion industry for maybe about 10 years before I decided to go off on my own,  just trying to figure out my aesthetic. I wasn't really finding anything that felt right.

My parents always try to get me to do something rich in Bolivian textiles and me being a young  girl wanted to figure this out on my own. I didn’t want to do that.

So it wasn't until 2016... I had a whole bunch of Bolivian textiles but I never knew what to do with them.

I hated my industry job at the time and just wanted to create something.

I got attention from some magazines–I was like wow people actually like this. So in 2018 I changed the name, revamped it and made it into Wasi Clothing.

The name means more to me; Wasi is the Quechuan word in Bolivia–it means family and home.

Can you tell me more about your Bolivian heritage and how it influences Wasi.

The Bolivian community is kind of nonexistent on the west coast. The Bolivian culture that I grew up with was instilled by my parents in our household. We traveled to Bolivia regularly as kids to see family.

I'm vocal about being a Bolivian-American run business. Every year I release an exclusive Bolivian textile collection which is very limited.

So that's your Aguayo collection...is that a collection you see as intended for people of South American heritage or you see it as expanding beyond?

I have this conversation a lot with potential customers at  pop ups–non Latin people ask “ is it okay for me to purchase this?”... I'm always very appreciative when people ask. I think there's a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

When it comes to these individual pieces, yes there is a very sacred meaning to them and you need to respect them but it's not appropriating if you're wearing the piece not as a costume, respecting the culture. I often tell people of course it's okay for you to buy this top, that just-so-happens to made by a Bolivian-American using Bolivian textiles, but match it with a pair of jeans, nothing costumey where you would offend the culture or the people.

I'm definitely relieved that people ask often and are conscious about possibly making a mistake if they were to purchase these pieces.

The collection gets more attention from Latina and South Americans to Mexicans to Central Americans because all of these Latin countries have this common ground where they're very bold and colorful. But it’s for everyone.

It’s great to see the way you weave color throughout your different collections. What are few ways you keep the collections modern while still respecting the heritage?

I am paying homage by using the textiles but the silhouettes are a little different and more wearable for women today.

I blend the two. 

What is your favorite color?

It always changes. I'm a Libra so I'm indecisive. My favorite color has never been the same.  Right now I really like dusty orange kind of tangerine color...that's good color.

What’s something surprising or challenging you've experienced while running Wasi?

There's the challenge of wanting to grow, wanting to progress, wanting to expand but having limited resources and limited capacity to do it.

People are very used to everything being so easy, so some newcomers don't really understand how the new wave of slow fashion works. It requires more patience;  it takes a little bit to get out of the Amazon [immediate] kind of mentality. 

But it’s all good when it comes with growth.

So is running Wasi Clothing now your full time job?

No I have a full time job to support Wasi.

I’d actually like to speak about having a full time job because I feel like small business owners just don't talk about having a full time job. It’s like you have to let people think that you're running this successful business on your own with no other side gig.  I actually wasn't able to do the T-shirt collection until I got the full time job.

I love your T-shirts, both curious and playful. Which T-shirt sparked the idea for this collection?

The company that I worked for before I started this business made graphic garments so I was very proficient in digital printing and screen printing and just designing graphics.

It was always something I wanted to do, I just didn't have the capacity to do it.

The first one I designed, I think, was a photo that I took myself in Bolivia which was mostly for Bolivians and then I did the brown one with like the brown face that says “brown” at the bottom.

I love graphic design so I'm constantly coming up with new ideas. There's definitely a very conscious political statement on some of them: for people who want to support POC businesses or who want to support the LGBTQ community or just inclusivity...but I also just want to have fun with some of them.

I'm open to making many more in the future.

Check out Wasi Clothing to keep up with Vanessa’s latest designs.


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