Hurricane Maria left her atelier without power. Her seamstresses lost everything and her house flooded. But Puerto Rican designer Stella Nolasco put tragedy behind her to bring a color and optimism to New York Fashion Week, laced with a clear political message.
She was just starting to prepare for her fall/winter 2018 collection when the monster storm tore through the island on September 20, devastating the US territory and leaving Puerto Rico without power or telecommunications for months.
President Donald Trump's government was widely criticized over its response to the tragedy in the US territory. Authorities are still struggling to restore power and clean drinking water to all citizens, and total cost of damages has been estimated at $90 billion.
"My atelier was running on a generator until last week," Nolasco told AFP backstage after her show at Chelsea Piers late Thursday. "It was a huge sacrifice."
She was not on the island when the hurricane hit, but members of her immediate family were. "It was a month of heavy depression, until I decided to make this collection and give it a purpose to help my country," she said.
"It helped me feel useful."
The runway was a whirlwind of Puerto Rican modeling talent, headlined by former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres, 43, and Monic Perez, 28, who was Miss Universe Puerto Rico, along with Agueda Lopez, wife of "Despacito" singer Luis Fonsi.
Actresses from the Netflix hit series "Orange Is The New Black" sat front row.
- 'Equality is sexy' -
Models waved Puerto Rican flags and "We Are US Citizens" banners to protest the federal government's response to the disaster.
Furthermore, Nolasco says proceeds from the collection will be donated to the Foundation for Puerto Rico to raise funds for better infrastructure and sustainability.
The collection itself dazzled with ultra-feminine dresses of lace, feathers and embroidery, and while there were smatterings of black, colors were bold.
"This is how life should be," Nolasco explained. "When my house was flooded, all the plants in my garden died, except for one, the begonia rex, with red leaves in the shape of a heart," she said. Hence plenty of pieces rich in texture and red.
Before the show began, she plunged the room into darkness to play a recording of Oprah Winfrey's emotional speech at the Golden Globes proclaiming a "new day" for girls and women after the sexual harassment watershed exploding in the United States.
There was also a promotional video inviting the public to once again visit Puerto Rico on holiday to revive the tourism industry.
"Equality is sexy," proclaimed a banner held aloft by a model dressed in a revealing lace dress -- embroidery placed in strategic areas.
"I am feminist but feminine, I believe that what you wear does not entitle anyone to treat you how they want. As a woman I have the right to decide how I want to dress, and they have to respect me," Nolasco said.