Designer talks about inspiration - and tragedy

Charlotte fashion designer Luis Machicao talks about a collection done all in black and white, and why he did it that way.
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Charlotte fashion designer Luis Machicao talks about a collection done all in black and white, and why he did it that way.
By

Style

This designer dresses the mayor, and some Charlotte A-listers. How? He works it. Every day.

May 18, 2017 12:07 PM

It’s a Friday night in a cavernous makeshift dressing room in the Mint Museum uptown, and fashion designer Luis Machicao is doing what he’s done dozens of times before: pacing the room, making sure each model’s neckline is smooth, adjusting every zipper.

“Is there padding in there?” he questions one model, nodding at her chest. “Put more.” He turns away to stitch up the bodice back of another model’s gown.

Tonight’s fashion show is part of the annual Autism Charlotte fundraiser, and just down the hall, sipping cocktails and smiling for photographers, are many of Charlotte’s power players.

Machicao will make only a cameo appearance tonight – he has a show to put on, after all – but events like these are where he feels he can best grow his influence among the city’s A-list bank executives and political leaders, attorneys and doctors.

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Machicao does some last-minute work on a gown during his March runway show for Autism Charlotte at the Mint.
Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Peruvian-born Machicao (pronounced match-ee-COW) cultivates his place in this scene. Gala selfies with Charlotte elites – many in the eye-popping colors he has made his signature – dot his Instagram feed. His cellphone logs images taken in glamorous bedrooms and walk-in closets, dressing women for formal functions.

But privately, he says this has been one of the worst years of his life.

Tonight, as the seats fill and the music starts for his 2017 collection, “In the Garden of Memories,” he’ll push through his grief. He’ll smile and offer high-fives as he walks the runway for the show’s finale. For that is how he’s gotten this far.

Where does he fit?

Charlotte’s fashion design world is a small, sometimes complicated, one.

A handful of veteran local designers offer formal and bridal wear in their own showrooms, to loyal followings. Some others offer designs in a range of ready-to-wear sizes, as well as custom-made pieces; others create lines or single looks, and sell pieces to order only.

Runway shows tend to feature a few Charlotte-based designers, but also rely on out-of-town designers, store-brand lines and clothes currently in area boutiques. And they usually keep the scale small; a yearly show raising funds for a particular cause, or two- or three-day “fashion weeks.”

Charlotteans in the market for luxe, and with the money for it, can find pieces from the world’s most acclaimed and cutting-edge designers at women’s boutique Capitol. Other locally owned places such as Coplon’s, Taylor Richards & Conger and Paul Simon carry high-end brands, and a broader range is available at the bigger chains in town, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Where Machicao fits in depends on who you ask.

Ask him and you get, “In Charlotte, I’m the only couturier” and “I don’t recognize other designers in Charlotte.” (Couture, if you’re foggy on the concept, is custom-made, fashion-conscious apparel, fitted to the wearer. In some arenas, there are other requirements, but that’s the general idea.)

One of Machicao’s dresses from “In the Garden of Memories.”
Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Machicao says he takes more than 50 measurements per gown (and that his prices start at $900 for formal gowns, $1,500 for wedding dresses). And he points out he has shown in New York and Paris: “To me, you are not a designer unless you show in New York or Paris.”

Machicao has shown at Tiffany’s Fashion Week Paris – named for a woman named Tiffany McCall, who created the series in 2012 and schedules it near the prominent-designer-and-media-studded (and separate) Fashion Weeks organized by the French Fashion Federation. In 2013, at the Marriott Champs Elysees, Machicao was named Tiffany’s best designer. He’ll return to Paris this September with his “In the Garden of Memories” collection, and says he’ll also show in Budapest this year. (He showed the gowns in New York in February during Couture Fashion Week, another series timed to coincide with the separate, mainstream Fashion Week.)

Ask other designers in Charlotte and you’ll hear he’s not the only couture designer in town, and there’s a question or two about whether his designs, which lean toward the traditional, are cutting-edge enough to qualify as couture.

But what made him Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ go-to designer wasn’t his background. And it wasn’t his image.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts poses in a gown designer Luis Machicao created for her.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Roberts

How do you come to dress a mayor?

Social functions are the lifeblood of Machicao’s business model. And once he makes the right connections, he builds relationships. Incessantly.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts recalls his persistence at wooing – and keeping – her as a client after the two met at an uptown gala one evening.

“He said, ‘You’re just so tall, you’d be great’ ” to dress, she says. “I tried to say I didn’t have time to have dresses made. I’m so busy.”

Machicao pursued her, though, and when she finally made time to visit his studio, he designed a cream-colored dress for her to wear to the Charlotte Human Rights Campaign gala. He lined up a hair-and-makeup stylist to come to her house, and lent her a long string of pearls, she says.

Soon, Machicao was calling Roberts’ scheduler to find out what black-tie events the mayor had coming up.

Now, he’s Roberts’ main source for formal wear. She says she pays for the dresses he makes her. And “Everybody comments when I wear a Luis Machicao.”

Mayor Roberts poses in another Machicao gown.

Charlotte philanthropist and socialite Midge Barron recalls meeting Machicao at the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball several years ago. Machicao swooned over her Oscar de la Renta gown, and within minutes of knowing each other, Machicao had agreed to provide gowns for the dancers in the charity fundraiser Barron was launching, Charlotte’s Dancing with the Stars.

“He said yes, without hesitating,” Barron says.

Luis Machicao designed this pink dress for Midge Barron to wear to a wedding. Barron says the two of them collaborate on the dresses he makes for her.
Courtesy of Midge Barron

Soon, Machicao was designing dresses and ballgowns for Barron, and she loved his classic lines so much that she gave him a new hashtag: #thenewoscar.

“I call him ‘the new Oscar from Peru,’ ” Barron laughs. When she has an event, “he’ll just come up with some ideas and he’ll say, ‘You need this,’ ” she says. “The best part about Luis is that he just works with what you’ve got. He doesn’t make you need to be a runway model.”

As happens with many of Machicao’s business relationships, he and Barron moved from fashion to friendship. The two are running buddies, Barron says, and she organized a group of Machicao admirers to attend his New York shows in February.

Midge Barron poses with husband Dr. Jerry Barron on opening night of the Charlotte Ballet’s 2016 Nutcracker, wearing a gown loaned to her by Machicao, which he says he designed for Miss Peru in 1994.
Courtesy of Midge Barron

Barron says Machicao’s prices are “affordable” and in-line with retail couture dresses. “You go to a fitting several times, and it just fits perfectly. And the day you put it on, he’s there to put it on you,” she says.

Effie Loukas, a longtime veteran of Charlotte’s fashion scene both as a boutique owner and fashion show producer, says Machicao’s personality drives him from work zone to friend zone. “If you want to get a gown made, you are going to become his friend. There’s no way around it. You guys are going to become best buddies.”

Luis Machicao (l) designed this bridal gown for JoBrent Austin-Diehl for her marriage to Bill Diehl Jr.
Courtesy of Luis Machicao

‘In my blood’

Machicao, 52, says moving amid Charlotte’s high society is “in my blood”: His grandfather was in politics in Peru and he grew up with a banker father and a mother who worked in healthcare, then became a university professor.

After studying fashion in Paris, he says, he returned to Peru and became close with then-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori and his family. He claims he served as the first lady’s dressmaker and the first family’s image consultant.

That role for the controversial Fujimoris, he says, led to threats against his life. So he fled Peru in 1998 and headed to Houston, where he lived for three years before moving to the Charlotte area.

Once here, he says he opened a granite and marble company in Fort Mill to allow him an income while he built his fashion clientele.

In Charlotte, he had to work to get noticed. He began to attend galas all over town, mixing and mingling.

“The secret,” he says, “is to know when to show up.”

Black-and-white, then ...

At the Mint, models have made it to the runway in Machicao’s show for Autism Charlotte.

He’s done this show for four years now, and CEO Valerie Iseah says they’re already planning to ask him again, because “he has a real heart connection to the mission of Autism Charlotte.”

These looks weren’t what he first envisioned.

Last fall, Machicao was giddy at the prospect of celebrating three decades as a designer, and he’d begun a collection for 2017 that was filled with color, plus a bit of classic black.

Then, in December, his younger sister back home in Cuzco, Peru, began to lose her battle with breast cancer.

Machicao spent the final two weeks, day and night, at her bedside, he says, and was with her when she died on Dec. 15. She was 45.

He returned to Charlotte on Christmas Day.

He had finished just three dresses before going to his sister – three black ones.

Now he ached to mourn in bed every day, but couldn’t bring himself to cancel the collection; he was scheduled to take it to New York in February.

So he “started working like a crazy madman,” he says, designing night and day and employing two seamstresses and two tailors.

He named the result “In the Garden of Memories” for his sister. Twenty-three gowns – because her birthday was Jan. 23 – every one in only black and white.

The darkness of death, he says, and the hope and peace that comes after that darkness.

He believes the collection is one of his best.

“There are no grays. This collection didn’t come as I had wanted, but I think it came out a better way. This was the light at the end of my tunnel.”

The music Machicao chose for the show starts off with the sound of wind and chirping, as in a garden. A series of pounding, somber piano ballads follows. Models stare expressionless as they walk the runway.

Each time he presents the collection is emotional, Machicao says.

But he will work through it. And he’s already chosen a title for next year’s runway collection, one he calls “appropriate” after a year of grieving:

“Machicao Fire” – all in red.