Fashion Designer Agosto Cuellar Wants to Keep San Antonio Lamé

Agosto Cuellar (center) photographed by Kristel Puente

Agosto Cuellar is a veteran visionary in this town. Couturier, entrepreneur and social activist, he’s got deep roots and wide wings, having owned and operated legendary Southtown resale shop Jive Refried, created collections of irreverent, often-recycled garments that have landed him in serious Project Runway consideration, and DJed at big events and unexpected venues citywide. He currently works as the merchandising maven at Goodwill, where he combines his unparalleled eye for revolutionary fashion with his dedication to green design, recombination and fashion at every price point, and has been the fashion designer/creative director at AC19 Projects since 1999.

On October 15, the street-level runway show he curates, Runway en la Calle, takes place during Una Noche en la Gloria: Contemporary Art in the Cultural Zone, an annual event founded by Gabriel Velasquez and presented in partnership with the Avenida Guadalupe Association.

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Cuellar’s Runway en la Calle 2012 collection photographed by Bryan Rindfuss

Tell us what we can look forward to at this year’s Runway en la Calle.
This year we’ve got five designers. Our opening designer is Golden Sky, a transplant from New York who has also worked in Japan, but he’s made his home in San Antonio. Fabian Alejandro Diaz, I’ve been working with him for years … he’s coming on this year as a designer with his own collection, and he’s our featured designer this year. Petricia Falcon, she’s a University of the Incarnate Word graduate, she’s been doing her work a long time but she has been so under-recognized. This is her fifth year. And we’ve got Angeline De Carlo, a collaborative designer and hair artist with Mary Alice Medina being the lead. That’s four right? And then myself.

And what will you be showing?
I’m doing my collection which, instead of “Keep San Antonio Lame,” is “Keep San Antonio Lamé.” El accento es todo! I’m not going to describe it. People will have to come and see. I will say that, of course, the inspiration always has to do with rasquache — it’s a design aesthetic, and also the hands-on practice of doing the best you can with what you have.

How do you raise the money to put this on every year?
We had our fundraising event at Brick in July, which is important because we receive no city funding. No COSA, no PASA, no nada. [Editor’s note: Una Noche en la Gloria and Runway en la Calle are funded by event founder Gabriel Velasquez and presenting partner Avenida Guadalupe Association.]

Cuellar (center) photographed by Kristel Puente

Cuellar (center) photographed by Kristel Puente

Ideally, would you like more city support?
We’ve approached people at that level, but it seems we are so guerrilla-style and fringe and avant garde that they say, “We just don’t really understand what you are doing. Are you an expo? Are you promoting artists? Are you selling something?” And we are promoting artists, and selling something.

So Runway en la Calle isn’t just a fashion performance showcase, it’s entrepreneurial.
Yes. I want it to be a marketplace, where the artists are paid for their work. And they’re all pretty much providing their own money as a foundation. For all of us, it’s really an economic endeavor … This year we want to do a bunch of little pop-up shops. We’re shooting for two or three models from each collection to be inside the Progresso, which is the building where we are changing, and produce a very interactive and raw, behind-the-scenes environment where the public is invited to come see where the collections are created; and some of the items are on sale. We haven’t tried that, but we have the venue this year and we’re going to give it a shot.

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is the anchor institution you’ve worked with, how important is it to you?
The Guadalupe has always been, for me, a place of refuge, a place to do hands-on work. I’ve been involved with Grupo Animo … I worked on the production of the play Heroes and Saints with Cherríe Moraga, Real Women Have Curves with Evelina Fernández; they’ve allowed me to do set design, and sound design, backdrop design … It’s a relationship that I’ve nurtured. I have never lost sight of the fact that it is a strong institution on the Westside, and serves a lot of people who do not have access to a traditional museum, or to theater, or for that matter, education.

How does fashion fit into your idea of the Westside’s potential?
Each year, I am amazed at the support from the community and the audience. I will have a little abuelita from the courts sitting next to somebody from Neiman Marcus. And that mixture is why I do it, because I want to expose everyone to everyone. I’ve been doing this for eight years, so there was a little 10-year-old out there in the beginning and he’s 18 years old now — and he has been inspired by everything he has seen on that runway, and it has liberated him. I don’t know who he is, but I know he exists. I know that we have touched hearts and minds … it’s free, it’s open to the public, and we are very close to the neighborhood. I want to show emerging designers who have never shown before. I want to say, “You can do it, you can spread your wings and I want to give you the venue to make it happen.”

When you were a kid, where did you look for this kind of real-world inspiration?
When I was 10 years old, no such thing existed. That’s why now I would like to create a hybrid — a kind of curriculum, something that combines a memoir with a textbook … where you learn about me, and you learn about the people who inspired me. Because a kid starting out thinks he has done something original. Although he hasn’t, and people came before. I used to think that. I want young designers to know that there are people, who are still alive, whose work pertains to what they are doing. I know people in their 60s and 70s who say to me, “Agosto, I went to design school and worked, but it didn’t really work out for me.” And I say, “Yes it did, because you laid the foundation I’m working on.”

You’ve also laid your own foundation. San Antonio can’t be the easiest city to make a fashion career in. How do you stick with it?
You know, when Jive Refried closed, I experienced it as a failure. It is so hard to build something, whether it’s a collection or a business or a brand, and not have it come out how you had hoped. And you think, “Will the market ever get it? Why am I still doing this?” As a designer, you face criticism and rejection, some of your ideas are copied, others are praised. You have to not attach too much importance to any of these things. I have faith that the market is coming around. I have faith that San Antonio is on the brink of getting the attention it deserves. Everything I have built helps to build everything else I do. I knew that another big door was going to open up, and that door was Goodwill. I was blogging for them for about three years, and the CEO, Marla Jackson, liked what I was doing and understood it. She said, “I don’t have a job for you yet, but I’m working on it.” And here we are, four years later. I’m their retail merchandiser. I love this job for so many reasons. I feel respected, I’m inspired and I’m challenged. It’s like a rasquache empowerment position!

Una Noche en la Gloria: Contemporary Art in the Cultural Zone
Free, 4-11:30pm Sat, Oct. 15, corner of Brazos and Guadalupe streets, lagloriaarts.org

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