Designer Spotlight: Esteban Cortazar

Seven months ago, Esteban Cortazar was a fresh-faced, 23-year-old fashion designer who had just been faced with an incredible challenge: running the women’s collection for Ungaro, a prestigious Parisian fashion house which has clothed Eva Longoria Parker and Jessica Simpson, among so many others.

Now the wizened 24-year-old can breathe easy with a successful debut under his belt. In recent months, he’s focused on tightening up his team, channeling Cartagena for inspiration for the next big fashion show, and giving the Ungaro woman a new lease on life with his version of earthy femininity. caught up with Cortazar at the end of a hectic workday at his Paris office for a quick chat.

Why was your post at Ungaro so controversial?

Was it? I think it has a lot to do with my age, my lack of experience and heading a house with such legacy and so many years behind it. Of course people are going to raise an eyebrow, but at the same time it’s an incredible challenge. It shakes things up a little bit for the house. So I think it was a good thing. Hopefully I can stand up to that plate. Overall, I’m very happy with this opportunity. I feel very blessed.

How are your designs a break from the Ungaro of the past?

I think Ungaro, for a moment, had a harder, more aggressive look, as a preposition. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, but I don’t know how well it represented a modern-day Ungaro. I think Ungaro is the ultimate, unapologetically feminine girl. She is effortlessly seductive and very relaxed. It’s a relaxed elegance. I wanted to still have the elegance and femininity of the house, but make it young and relaxed—not so worked up. That was my vision. I also wanted an earthy, organic, minerally feel to the collection as well, which is what I felt gave it a breath of fresh air. Everything felt light and airy.

Why did you send out a save the date card for your first Ungaro fashion show that said, “Pressure! What pressure!” to the fashion press?

I started to feel pressure because everyone and their mother was going to come see what I was going to do. I just wanted to lighten things up and have a little bit of a sense of humor and not take it so seriously. I just wanted people to come with an open mind, and I think that it worked.

From age 11 on, you lived in Miami, so what was your connection to Versace’s mansion?

I lived in the heart of South Beach above the News Café right by Versace’s mansion. Of course, Gianni would hang out so much at the News. He was like the first designer that I was close to in any way. It was very inspirational to follow his career. And his tragedy affected me a lot, too. It was horrible and unexpected. Miami changed the minute that happened. It was the first time that something that bad happened in the middle of Ocean Drive. Until then, it was such a free spirited and spontaneous town. When all of the media from all over the world came to Ocean Drive, it just changed. All of a sudden, Miami was in every single newspaper, news channel. From there, it lost its touch.

Tell me about the first fashion show you’ve ever staged?

The first fashion show that I ever staged was at the age of 13. It was at my elementary school in Miami, South Pointe Elementary School for a talent show. I put together a 13-piece collection with school classmates as models. I even did a casting, actually. And I picked the three girls that I wanted. And I won the talent show.

Where do you like to vacation in Latin America?

Cartagena. I’ve been going to my family's island vacation home there since I was little. And now the family is not really using it, so it’s become mine. That’s where I connect with my roots. I feel relieved from everything. I feel more inspired than ever before.

Your life soundtrack would lead with what song?

“Freedom” by George Michael is the first song that comes to mind. I’m a very free person, and so it feels good when I hear that song.

—Serena Kim