Raul Lopez Chose to Defy The Odds

2022-04-15T12:26:55-04:00Self|FOUNDER STORIES 
  • The Designer Raul Lopez. Photography by Elvin Tavarez.

For Raul Lopez, the designer and founder behind LUAR’s namesake fashion brand (Raul spelled backward), success boils down to community — the chosen family beyond parents and siblings. Community isn’t just buying merch or showing up to rallies with signs. For people like Lopez — born, raised and currently based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with deep-seated roots in the Christopher Street piers and Washington Heights ballroom scene — community means refuge, self-expression and freedom.

Growing up in New York City, the people Lopez met have become his second family. He counts Telfar Clemens — the rebellious fashion juggernaut who shook the industry with his eponymous brand Telfar — as his best friend. Some of these connections became his business partners; Lopez co-founded the disruptive streetwear brand Hood by Air with designer Shayne Oliver. Lopez is a collage of his lived experiences from growing up on the streets of New York City — gritty, unexpected, glamorous, sexy, thrilling and real.

LUAR, the fashion label Lopez founded in 2017, is an amalgam of influences, from the queens he met as a teenager at Chi Chiz bar, an old gay haunt on Christopher Street now called Ty’s, to the young kids from Bushwick that idolize him, to his family, friends and the Dominican Republic. Industry insiders met his irreverent presence with dismay, but Lopez never let that get to him. When we spoke over Zoom before New York Fashion Week — which Lopez skipped for the Fall/Winter 2022 season — he’s quick to remind himself and the world that he has carved a place for himself in an industry and culture that wasn’t quite ready for his offerings. “I always say that LUAR is just a reflection of me,” he told me. “I’m so inspired by the dolls and all the kids, even the grannies, and you can see it all in the collection with the cuts, the shapes, the details.”

During our call, he emphasized that he doesn’t design for clout or praise from the old-fashioned vanguard, such as corporations, institutions and magazines often led by white gatekeepers. Instead, he’s built a fashion brand dedicated to the people who made him and continue to inspire him today. “I don’t even care if they’re supermodels or not. That’s why I always do street casting because it’s my identity. It’s like my blood,” he says of the non-models he prefers to tap. Raul truly cares about leaving a legacy behind for the kids that will undoubtedly come after him. “They have their legacy,” he says of the current industry gatekeepers. “Let the girls build their legacies now.”

To fully grasp the reach of Lopez and his brand, it is crucial to hear from the kids who inspire his empire. Take, for example, Maxwell Vice, a Brooklyn-born and raised photographer, club kid and self-proclaimed “child of LUAR.” “I was 17, working for a streetwear brand, and I asked the designer if he knew of any Latino Queer designers, and he asked me, ‘You never hear about Hood By Air?’ Honestly, at the time, I didn’t,” Vice told me during our interview via Instagram direct messages — it’s 2022, after all — during which he repeatedly emphasized the impact of feeling represented by Lopez’s presence in the New York City fashion scene. “There’s a million kids like me trying to find a place in the fashion world, and it’s very gratifying to see someone like [Lopez],” said Vice. “I don’t mean someone with the same race or sexuality, but someone who came up from where I’m from and transcended what we were supposed to be.” In recent years, thanks to Vice’s presence in the nightlife, queer and fashion circuits of Nueva York, the young creative became LUAR “familia.” For example, Lopez asked Vice to shoot Polaroids backstage during the brand’s 2021 fashion presentation. “I learned he has a lot of love for his work,” Vice told LATINA. “Even when I was talking about my polaroids backstage, he was excited to hear about my point of view on his show, and that was exciting.”  

Lopez was born with a panache for glamour. He woke up eager to choose his outfit each morning as early as kindergarten. “There are pictures we have of him at the age of two, wearing mom’s pearl necklace, a diaper and dad’s Timberlands,” Ana Lopez, his sister, fondly recalled during our interview via email. Unlike her brother, she’s a bit shy. Lopez described her brother as loud, different and resilient, a trait she credits to their rough upbringing in Brooklyn during the late ’80s. Things have changed, yet many things remain untouched, like Raul’s adoration for the women in his family. “I would always ‘catch’ Raul searching through my mother’s closet,” Lopez tells me, “he would tell her she looked pretty or ‘that does not look good.’ I think our mom was his first muse.” Now, it’s Lopez’s turn in the role of muse; her brother’s it-bag, the Ana, is named for her.

Taking cues from many walks of life, but primarily his own, Raul Lopez has a sense of self flamboyantly expressed through his style and, by extension, LUAR. He calls it “granny” style and proudly displays it on Instagram — faux furs, oversized sunglasses, always gorgeous tan skin and wild, over-the-top accessories. But, of course, he credits his mom. “My mom always said, ‘Ponte crema en la cara.’”  On Instagram, his fans, his customers and industry players flood his fit pictures with love. They all applaud his daring fashion sense, developed and informed by haute couture, handmade, high fashion creations and New York City nightlife. “I’ve always said I’m too ghetto for fashion and too fashion for the ghetto,” Raul tells me. Though his choices, both personal and for the brand, are often referential, as much of fashion is, they don’t pander to fads.

On the contrary, he aims to create a legacy, not by following but by leading. Even today, after achieving some success — he’s designed a signature bag that’s selling out with every drop — Raul feels the fashion industry has not fully recognized him. “I don’t reference all these Tumblrs and Instagram accounts — Give me my fucking flowers,” he said during our Zoom call, nodding his head and throwing a sassy gesture in the air. 

In 2021, the gates of the fashion industry were pushed ajar by a cohort of diverse designers ready for the spotlight. This reckoning came on the heels of Geroge Floyd’s murder at the hands of policemen. Suddenly, people were eager to welcome BIPOC into formerly inaccessible spaces. As a result, new projects emerged onto the scene. For example, Your Friends in New York, a group dedicated to supporting emerging POC designers and founded by Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and luxury conglomerate Kering, was founded in September of 2020. Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic at the “New York Times” called them the “Next Big Fashion Group,” an astute observation considering the breadth of the cohort. The inaugural group includes Lopez, Taofeek Abijako of Head of State and the CFDA breakout star Edvin Thompson of Theophilio. These daring designers are slowly building an updated version of the current fashion landscape, with the help of a few established forces, of course. 

“People will remember that he was a kid from Brooklyn that did not permit the circumstances to define him,” Ana Lopez told me of Raul’s current come up. “He chose to defy the odds to pursue his dreams.” During the pandemic lockdown, LUAR began appearing in editorials, on red carpets, on stages and on Instagram feeds. The Ana, LUAR’s odd-yet-chic handbag available in sizes small to giant, is becoming a highly-coveted item with the If-You-Know-You-Know crowd. Everyone from Dua Lipa to twinky ravers in Bushwick have carried the bag. Lopez reminds the fashion establishment and his rebellious youthful fans that LUAR’s creations are for everyone, from subway rats and Upper East Side ladies to Lower East Side starlets and even worldwide pop stars like his friend Solange. Recently, he released sunglasses in a tortoiseshell pattern with a half-moon, spacey shape obscuring most of the face. Like Lopez himself, they are a bit too much and just right. 

Lopez doesn’t care whether the industry fully opens the doors for him. Really. The designer is doing things his way, which explains why he didn’t show during the Fall/Winter 2022 season. He is currently concentrating his efforts on cultivating and growing his empire while honoring his chosen family and growing fanbase. “I want people to understand that community is key, and it shouldn’t be taken as a joke,” he tells me of his current relationship with the fashion industry. “They perceive me like this caricature, like Cardi B,” he said, recalling the New York rapper’s rise in the cultural zeitgeist. The environment Lopez dreams of is not unimaginable; it reflects his own come up. He is also well aware that he has to build that environment himself, through the power of community, particularly his community: “We can conquer everything because we are strong. We are the ones who create everything.” And that’s where he’ll be, creating everything.