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Designer spotlight: Tottem


You know when you're scrolling through Instagram looking for inspiration and all of a sudden you stumble across something that seriously catches your eye? That's how we discovered TOTTEM, and we immediately knew we had to bring these pieces to you. The line was founded by Colombian-born Laura Buitrago in 2017 after graduating from Parsons. Inspired by the colors and liveliness of her country, Laura's pieces feature intricate design details that make them truly unique - a work of art. We'll let her tell you more...

Tell us about your beginnings. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia; a small town known for the joy of its people and their passion for culture, dance and folk. The city is vibrant and filled with places where you can dance salsa and cumbia, which is why Barranquilla is best recognized for being the happiest place in Colombia. This northern corner of the country hosts the famous 'Carnaval de Barranquilla', the second most important carnival in the world (after Brazil). Some of the most recognizable “Barranquilleros” such as Shakira and Sofia Vergara are great examples of the charisma, great energy and talent the natives of this town possess.

You studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City. What made you want to study fashion?

From a very young age I would find comfort in mixing colors, textures and patterns. This allowed my creativity to flow - exploring my emotions through visual imagery challenged me mentally, spiritually and artistically.

With time, I noticed that by creating some sort of self-therapy through design, I had the power to not only transform and simplify my life, but also the life of others. By being myself and exploring different phases of my personality I would potentially influence the way people communicated visually as well as how they interacted with others. Fashion has always been a language of its own; it is a visual way to tell a story, to show one's personality and to create emotion.

Tell us about your experience living in New York

Living in New York was an excellent experience to grow spiritually and mentally. Meeting so many people from different parts of the world with completely diverse cultures allowed me to be more open minded and appreciative of how I had grown up. Having these distinctive influences from people I met encouraged me to see beauty in the unknown and the rare. Accepting people as they are taught me to be tolerant and welcoming of new ideas, which ultimately helped me to communicate better with the artisans I work with today.

How did the idea for TOTTEM come about? What does the name mean?

A totem is a natural object, an iconic symbol representing a particular culture, tribe or individual. In addition to being a cultural object, totems are an artistic expression that seek to symbolically represent a particular person, and give meaning to the attributes of those who identify with this object.

TOTTEM allows its pieces to be insignias and emblems of identity of each person, according to their tastes, preferences and fashion sense. With TOTTEM, you can tell a story through original designs that represent the identity of their owners.

Your collections are inspired by Colombian culture, art and the country's flora and fauna – tell us a bit about that.

After I came back home from living in New York, I started appreciating what I had been taking for granted while growing up. Discovering this appreciation for my culture and the art that had lived with me all my life inspired me to design the first collection for TOTTEM. The Pompeya flooring, the tall palm trees, the colorful flowers, the joy of the Colombian people and the beauty of handmade, the imperfect (yet perfect) craft of the artisans of my country were all inspirations for this collection.

For example, the In the Sevilla Bag features patterns of Pompeya tiles, in our Mucura Lunchbox you can see the influence of tropical flowers, and through all of our designs you will see how the energy and joy of the Colombian people are captured by the use of bright colors.

Let’s focus on the Mucura and Matraca bags, which we’re absolutely obsessed with. They are handmade by artisans with iraca palm. What’s that process like from start to finish?

The iraca palm is an herb that grows in warm climate; it has large segmented leaves in the form of a fan and tiny flowers. In order to work and manipulate the palm, artisans process it and let it dry under the sun. This process might take a few days, but it's the only way to take the green color the herb originally has. After this step is completed, the dying process begins. With natural herbs, artificial coloring and flowers, artisans give color to the palm. This method is carried out in pods and firewood, which is why every time a palm is tinted the color shifts in tone.

The weaving technique used by the artisans in the elaboration of products in iraca is one of the richest and most delicate in Colombia. Among the tools that we use in the realization of these crafts are: needles, scissors, tweezers and pliers. Depending on the technique that is being used artisans implement their skills to shape and sew the palm.

The details are exquisite – blew our minds the first time we saw them in person! How do you achieve that level of detail?

The detail you see in each of our pieces is a demonstration of the hard work that is put in each of our products. With dedication, patience and talent these artisans delicately play with our tinted iraca palm to make figures and patterns that are later sewn together to give shape to our Mucura and Matraca bags.

How long would you say each of those pieces take to make? 

An artisan might take two to three days to make a piece. This all depends on the size and the amount of detail in the bags. Our Mucura and Matraca bags can take more than 30 hours to produce.

How did you go about finding artisans to work with?

A few days after I came home for Christmas, I had the chance to work hand in hand with the First Lady of the Atlántico in a new project she was starting to develop with artisans of the region. With this experience I got a chance to really see the talent that was undiscovered in the area where I had grown up.

Given the chance to work at such a personal level with different artisans inspired me to design my first collection and work directly with them. This intimate experience allowed me to not only learn from their talent but also understand the way they see life. I have been blessed to meet these amazing communities where their handcraft traditions have been passed on through many generations.

Designers have such different processes – what’s your design process like? 

To get inspired and get a feel of what the collection will look like we do moodboards. This is the first step to brainstorm what we want to portray and what colors we will be using for the next season. We are big on having quotes and imagery of where we would imagine a client taking one of our pieces. From here we can decide sizes, colors and how a person will interact with TOTTEM. We later work directly with our artisans and collaborate on ideas to do different prototypes, from where we choose what we would like to fix, keep or leave behind.

When you’re designing accessories, do you have a specific girl in mind?

TOTTEM doesn’t set a standard of an 'it' girl, TOTTEM allows every girl to be herself.

With a dreamy heart, hopeful of finding peace and tranquility where she goes. The TOTTEM woman enjoys life at full. She knows what to say, because she always has the right words to give good advice and convey love for others. While her clothing is a reflection of her personality; she is a woman detached from the materialistic. Her taste goes beyond attraction, she seeks a special bond in everything that surrounds her.

What’s next for Tottem?

We want to build a TOTTEM tribe! I want girls to not only identify with their TOTTEM, but to feel empowered and unique while they carry a piece of Colombia. Make them feel like even though they might not know the place, they can identify with it, its happy people, its colorful surroundings and the most contagious positive energy. We want girls all over the world to join us!

Lastly, if someone was visiting Colombia for the first time – what are your top insider recommendations for things to do and places to see?

My personal favorite spot in Colombia is Cartagena! The city that blends the old with the new is rich in history and culture. The old city has magical streets that are home to boutique hotels, exquisite restaurants and hip bars. While this part of the city great to enjoy during the day or the night, it is must to visit the Islas del Rosario. These islands are only one hour away on boat from the city, and offer a great variety of resorts, clubs and activities.

Best Hotels:
Silvia Tcherassi Hotel Boutique
Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara

Best Bars:
La Movida
La Jugada
Mirador Terrace at Hotel Movich

Best Restaurants:
La Vitrola
Don Juan
Carmen Cartagena

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