Brooklyn-based knitwear designer Santiago Venegas talks performance art, making things, and the contemporary immigrant experience.
What was it like growing up queer in Colombia?
I had an ok childhood, I think. There were a lot of women in my family and they were nicer to me than the men, so I would pay a lot of attention to what they would say and do. They were really into fashion; my mom went to school to be a designer. I kind of idealized my mother and felt like, ‘I’m, gonna be like her, she’s got her shit together.’ She had always played guitar and sang and been in choirs and bands, so I learned how to play guitar and was in choirs too, when I was younger, but it never went anywhere. My father was great but emotionally distant. He and my mom would always have fights, and I think that influenced the way I saw him. I also didn’t know how he would accept the complete me, with the gay thing and everything, so I was like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t invest any emotions in my dad, mom is a better way to go.’ Which was kind of silly because in retrospect I think my dad and I are more similar.
Now you incorporate so many of those elements into your work—performance and singing and fantastic costumes. Where did you study fashion design?
At FIT. That sucked.
And you came in as an undergrad? Like at 18?
Yeah, well, I was 20. And it was really hard. I had a lot of money problems.
What was your relationship like with your parents after you moved?
Well, I had never been to NYC. I had never lived alone, outside my house. So it was pretty terrible. My dad was very loving and supportive, even after I came out, but he was never a stable figure for me. My mom was very controlling and overprotective, so when I moved it was very hard on her, but I was dealing with all this shit here. Growing up in Colombia there were a lot of American influences—music, tv shows—and I thought to myself, ‘When I get to New York it’ll be great because I know it, I know what it’s like.’ But it’s not at all like that. I wasn’t prepared, and I didn’t have the tools to manage.
Did you not meet other Colombians or Latin American students?
I didn’t, and that was a huge concern of mine. I wanted to make this blog called ‘Bogotano Gay Vivo en New York’, because I would Google that constantly, trying to find other people like me. I never got around to it, of course. I felt like, where are the other Colombians? So we can talk and support each other emotionally. So they can tell me how the fuck this works and what are Americans like and where are the other Colombians? That didn’t happen for years and years and years. My roommate [at the time] was someone who had a lot more experience living alone. He had a job and more financial independence. He was also very cute. He started interning at Heatherette and going to parties. I moved to New Jersey and got a job at a restaurant.
And you didn’t have…
Nothing, no community. I didn’t even know what community was. I also didn’t have Facebook or Myspace or any of that shit. And I didn’t go back to Colombia for eight years because of visa restrictions, and I didn’t have any money. I was afraid to go back and be stopped and be stuck there, so I didn’t. That also made things worse and informed my work.
What was the turning point? Not to be preposterous, but it did get better, didn’t it?
After I graduated I started to see that fashion was not something that I…there were so many things about it that I didn’t like. I was beginning to get serious about environmentalism and activist causes and that’s when I started hanging out with other performers. I started feeling like I needed to be in that world. As time went by I realized that it’s the most joyful thing for me to do, to perform. It’s the best time ever. When I am singing or doing something in front of people I am in command—it’s a very powerful feeling, actually.
Do you feel more aligned with one side of your creative self versus the other? Or do you think they feed into each other?
I think I’m becoming more aligned with performance art just because I enjoy it more and because I’ve done less of it. Who knows what will happen in ten years. But I still want to make fashion, I like working with my hands. But I definitely don’t want to be a part of fast fashion, of the current fashion economy. I’m trying to find a way to make without participating in that world anymore.
I think one of the things that’s a really big issue with fashion is the consumer attitude towards clothing. The audience has been conditioned to think it’s dispensable, to want X now and Y later and not be concerned about the fact that X is still perfectly fine. With a lamp or a desk that’s just not even a dialogue that’s happening around that product, it’s not the same language.
There was a discussion the other day at a panel for sustainable fashion and this girl said something very true that I’ve been thinking for awhile, which is that we can’t have a conversation about the price of clothes without having a discussion about the disproportion of wealth in the world. So unless consumers from the middle and lower class have a better ability to have better lives where they’re paid better, where they have a better standard of living, I don’t feel like I can demand of anyone that they buy my shirt for a lot of money. Even if it’s made out of really good materials. If I were to say to myself, ok, I’m going to make and sell expensive clothes, I’m still contributing to the same system that I’m trying to get away from. I’m still only catering to rich people, who are few, the same rich people that buy clothes from the companies that I don’t want to be a part of, that make things unethically. I understand that. I know many artists that are friends of mine and they can’t afford anything. They can either pay rent or buy a shirt.
I think that this is something that we’re finding in the post-industrial phase, or wherever we are. It’s the exact same thing with food, maybe with everything that’s consumed at this point. It’s like, here’s something really nice, that’s good for you and that doesn’t harm the environment. Once it ticks off all of those boxes it’s prohibitively expensive.
To me it’s all about switching the way that I want to make my clothes and working on it and working on it and working on it. I’m just curious, that’s all. I think everyone should get curious and start trying things differently, just start trying things out and see where they get.