BY Evan Moffitt in Profiles | 11 SEP 23
Featured in
Issue 237

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane Disarms Masculinity in Mexico

The designer seeks to empower female and queer bodies by deconstructing garments

BY Evan Moffitt in Profiles | 11 SEP 23

To try on an item of clothing designed by Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, you must visit the artist in her Mexico City atelier. It was there that I first met her, in May 2021. She greeted me in a red velvet and mirror-lined boudoir, dressed in French cuffs and a pinstripe suit with wide, open lapels, enthroned on a steel chair shaped like two scissoring pairs of women’s legs. The coolly seductive scene was as tailored as her attire. Her seat, for instance, referenced the splayed, high-heeled limbs that form the logo for Sánchez-Kane, the brand she founded in 2016. Nearby, racks and shelves displayed garments whose central details were drolly at odds with the glamour of their surroundings: biker jackets of the finest leather with epaulettes fashioned from cheap coin purses; a corset made of vinyl boxing gloves; shoes with tiny supermarket shopping carts for heels; a pair of molcajetes – stone mortars used for grinding spices – hung like udders inside the fishnet casing around a sombrero. Objects sold on the streets outside made runway ready.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, ‘Macho Sentimental, Vol. I’, 2018, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Pia Opp

We sat and watched the video for what was then her latest and, to date, most irreverent project: Prêt-à-Patria (2021) – its title a portmanteau of the French term for ready-to-wear fashion (prêt-à-porter) and the Spanish word for homeland (patria). The film follows the members of a Mexican military band as they march across a dusty parade ground, their faces concealed by white sackcloth. With each quarter turn, they expose more of their uniforms, which are cut away at the back to reveal lacy red lingerie.

The goose-step, George Orwell wrote in his 1941 essay ‘England Your England’, is ‘one of the most horrible sights in the world […]; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a human face.’ But the leather boots worn by the very real yet faceless soldiers in Prêt-à-Patria are more akin to clown shoes, their oversized toes stitched from boxing gloves. It’s difficult to imagine them landing a real blow. The lengthened visors of the band’s service caps, meanwhile, resemble pathetic phalluses. Like much that Sánchez-Kane has designed, these costumes expose the trappings of patriarchy and nationalism to be little more than pompous drag. In 2021, as part of the year-long rolling group show ‘Siembra’ at kurimanzutto in Mexico City, three of these uniforms were displayed on mannequins impaled, human centipede-style, on a golden flagpole. The emasculating joke hit almost too quickly before you could register the work’s deadly serious intention: according to a report published that year by Amnesty International, violence against women had skyrocketed in Mexico, where, on average, ten women and girls were being murdered every day.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, Prêt-à-Patria, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City/New York

Sánchez-Kane wants to disarm and detoxify Mexican masculinity. She refers to her brand, under which she has produced a vast body of clothing and sculpture in just a few years, as La Casa de Macho Sentimental (House of the Sentimental Macho), in an effort to counter male self-repression. Of course, not all sentimental machos are men, and each of Sánchez-Kane’s garments, including the suit she wore at our meeting, is unisex. Ripping apart familiar signifiers of Mexican identity and provocatively stitching them back together, the designer imagines a safer, more gender-fluid world.

Sánchez-Kane was born in 1987 in Mérida, the capital of tropical Yucatán. She was raised in a religious household and the Catholic Church provided an early source of aesthetic inspiration. ‘The first drape I fell in love with was the loincloth worn by Jesus,’ she recalled when we met. Still, she hated being forced to wear dresses and heels to Sunday mass. As a teenager, she rebelled by tearing apart her shoes and reconstructing them.

In 2015, after a short stint building houses in Mérida for the Mexican oil company Pemex, Sánchez-Kane completed a fashion design degree at Polimoda in Florence. She was criticized by her fellow students for presenting clothes that mocked Mexican stereotypes and were often not intended to be worn – as though a derisive lack of commercialism didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Several garments she made there remixed the notoriously camp costumes of luchadores (wrestlers) into edgy streetwear: leather wrestling belts festooned with cheap padlocks formed part of a crop top; colourful masks were repurposed as beanies. With such early works, Sánchez-Kane had already begun to deflate macho tropes. Yet, when she moved to Mexico City after graduation, many locals were just as circumspect as her former classmates: ‘They actually hated my designs for being “too Mexican”,’ she laughed.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, ‘Sánchez-Kaneismo’, 2022, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Patricio Malagón

Not everyone felt that way. Sánchez-Kane’s peers, a rising generation of young Mexican designers who are queering the country’s vernacular clothing for the high-fashion market, have supported each other in the face of a sometimes-hostile public. These include Victor Barragán, whose eponymous label celebrates the cholo (gangster), and Patricio Campillo, whose brand The Pack is indebted to the charro (cowboy). As Mexico City has become an increasingly popular international destination – with all of the contentious gentrification that entails – these designers have become the chief exporters of its sartorial culture, a position rife with possibilities and pressures.

By 2017, Sánchez-Kane’s mature style had begun to emerge in ‘Men Without Fear’, a collection whose title acknowledged the courage it can take to transgress masculinity’s conventions. Jackets and jumpsuits with reconfigurable tailoring – reminiscent of clothing by the Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck, whom Sánchez-Kane cites as an inspiration – featured extra sleeves with fitted gloves wrapped around the bodies of the models who wore them, as if they were being embraced. Coats were reversed, so their lapels exposed the models’ upper backs. Like a coat of armour, these clothes could make their wearer brave.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, ‘Men Without Fear’, 2017, runway view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Serichai Traipoom

A reversed silk jacket was also worn by a model in Sánchez-Kane’s June 2018 presentation ‘Macho Sentimental, Vol. I’ at Grand Tour Studio, Milan. During the performance, the artist, dressed in khaki military fatigues with an appliquéd patch of the Mérida state flag, donned a mask of paint rollers that she used to slick up a mostly nude female performer with red tempera, like a lesbian Yves Klein. A male model wore a silk jacket with two prominent breast rosettes, whose plunging neckline held fresh calla lilies, which are offered during the celebrations for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). A stack of DVD cases bearing the titles of satirical instructional videos, meanwhile, expressed Sánchez-Kane’s disdain for definitions: ‘Are You an Artist or a Fashion Designer? – the Journey’, ‘Learning How to Be a Lesbian Catholic Mexican Mother’ and ‘Kindly Go Fuck Yourself’.

Clothing is inherently ideological, and Sánchez-Kane wants to deconstruct it in order to reimagine how it might function. ‘We don’t live in a naked society,’ she told me. ‘How, for example, did the Mexican government use uniforms to create a sense of national identity after the revolution? Can you make people want to be part of a group without uniforms?’ Belonging comes in many forms, so Sánchez-Kane has used her sewing needle to puncture church and family traditions. In February 2019, for ‘Macho Sentimental, Vol. II’ at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, she donned a sculpted bodice with juicers built into its breast and pubic areas. Two performers – one clad in a reconfigured quinceañera dress (a garment typically worn by Mexican girls on their 15th birthdays) and another in a jockstrap and leather floral headpiece – ground citrus fruit against her body until juice ran down her limbs onto the museum floor. A pair of platform shoes with cheese-grater heels were used to shred large wheels of queso. Clothing became less about utility than about serving as a means to reclaim the power of queer and female bodies treated by the patriarchy as items for public consumption. The juicers also resembled stigmata: wounds that, while rupturing the surface of the skin, also render it sacred.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, ‘Macho Sentimental, Vol. II’, 2019, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paola Vivas

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, travel restrictions and supply-chain shortages found Sánchez-Kane living back with her parents in Mérida, where she relied on the craftsmanship of local leather and metalworkers to make sculptures that bore a passing resemblance to wearable clothing: a chrome-plated stripper heel with a Tabasco sauce stiletto and a Corona beer lodged in its sole; a pair of silver ankle boots with machetes piercing their closed toes. The traditional leather shop in Mérida, more used to making horse bridles, was slightly baffled by her request to fashion a belt harness for a strap-on, with a tape measure instead of a dildo to size up its wearer, but they nonetheless completed the piece with exacting detail. The impracticality of these garments seemed to indicate that the oppressive terms of gender and national identity in Mexico are no longer workable: like a hot-sauce-bottle heel, they would shatter under just enough pressure – if they could be considered garments at all.

Fashion, Sánchez-Kane believes, is a form of sculpture and, like sculpture, it should be able to stand on its own. ‘Is clothing just clothing when it’s worn?’ she asks me, when I return to visit her in April. ‘I’m trying to understand what clothes could be without what we normally recognize as a body in them.’ We are touring her new studio; although not far away from the old one, it is a world apart, with white plaster walls that radiate natural light. She shows me the prototype for a sculpture woven from red vinyl belts that resemble snakeskin. When certain ends are pulled, the tubular form cinches and snakes in different directions. ‘It’s about creating spaces of tension,’ Sánchez-Kane explains. She’s previously used this method to make adjustable-length coats but is now exploring it more abstractly for her upcoming exhibition at kurimanzutto’s New York space in September. ‘I call it my little monster,’ she says.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, ‘Macho Sentimental, Vol. I’, 2018, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Pia Opp

The serpent shares studio space with numerous sketches for garments and sculptures that Sánchez-Kane hopes to create for the show. Many of these incorporate the same principles of expansion and contraction. One leather coat with four long, narrow arms, like the legs of a coyote, has a collapsible spine on its back that resembles the cardboard beer caddies sold at Oxxo, Mexico’s biggest convenience-store chain. Other works use fabric that Sánchez-Kane has heat-moulded to egg cartons. Reference images are tacked to the walls beside these drawings: abstract-expressionist paintings, BDSM rituals, a baroque image of the pietà. She speaks about Mexico City as if it is her lookbook, recalling a fallen leaf of agave she saw on the street earlier that week, impaled on the spike of another cactus, or the beauty she found in a pair of identical jars of hibiscus juice on a vendor’s table around the corner.

If tension is a thread throughout her latest works, Sánchez-Kane herself – dressed in baggy overalls with one strap cast off her shoulder – seems more relaxed than she was during our previous meeting. It’s as though she feels she no longer has anything to prove. She even titled her April 2022 collection ‘Sánchez-Kaneismo’, rendering her name a movement, with ironic bravado. In that show, a calla lily dangled from a drone as it flew ominously over the proceedings: models in lingerie made from rawhide moved across a red stage against which the Sánchez-Kane logo unfurled its legs. The catwalk became a birth canal; the theatre around it an enormous womb. Within this matriarchal architecture, garments that might typically be worn by Mexican men were restitched in ways that enabled them to transcend gender. The mamado suit, for instance – recently acquired by the Museum at FIT, New York, where it is on view as part of ‘¡Moda Hoy! Latin American and Latinx Fashion Design Today’ until 12 November – renders the bulging contours of male bodybuilders in pink leather with embossed designs taken from traditional Mexican pottery. Named after a derogatory term for a muscled stud, the hyper-butch suit is deliciously soft along its edges.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, Untitled, 2020, ‘SEÑORA!’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Meyer Kainer

I ask Sánchez-Kane to describe her ideal wearer. ‘Our national heroes, who are all machos,’ she replies, then seems to reconsider. ‘I want someone willing to be perverse, but who can bring themselves to the clothes, because there are a million different ways to confront a garment.’ In other words, she designs for someone who is able to wear her clothes as much as they’re able to let her clothes wear them. ‘Sometimes it’s not always clear who is the parasite and who is the host,’ she muses. ‘Do clothes change how we perceive the world, or the other way around?’ Like the increasingly blurred boundaries between art and fashion, this relationship is not as antagonistic as it sounds. In the face of very real terrors, her little monsters invite us to transform ourselves.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘Profile: Bárbara Sánchez-Kane’

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane's ‘New Lexicons for Embodiment’ will be on view at kurimanzutto, New York, from 14 September to 21 October 2023 

Main image: Bárbara Sánchez-Kane, Prêt-à-Patria, 2021, video stills. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City/New York

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.