The same way a perfume or a photograph can instantly take you back to a specific setting or moment in time, a garment can be powerfully evocative of a certain place. For Juan de Dios designer and creative director Maria "Nana" Fernanda Valencia, the purpose of her resort and swimwear label is to invite consumers to share in stories of her native country Colombia’s culture.
Valencia’s under-the-radar but on-the-rise brand (which counts supermodel Karolina Kurkova as a fan) has been consistently turning out several collections a year of tasteful yet playful pieces, featuring tropical prints inspired by the natural landscapes of Colombia. The swimwear’s lush greens and vibrant oranges are the colors inspired by Valencia’s childhood in the coastal city of Cali. Infusing her heritage into the label was crucial to the designer — in fact, Playa Juan de Dios, the brand’s namesake and one of Valencia’s favorite places on earth, is a hidden treasure within a nature reserve just a few hours from her childhood home.
“It’s a virgin beach in the middle of the jungle, I’ve been going there since I was little with my parents,” she says. “It’s where I reconnect with myself, where my soul feels complete.”
On a Zoom call from Paris, Valencia is glamour personified: She is casually dressed in her own designs, relaxing at an al fresco cafe spot just before sunset in the City of Lights during couture week. While the Colombia-based brand recently expanded operations into Europe, she’s not there on business this time — the mother of two is vacationing with her family, and leaving shortly from Paris for Saint Tropez (as one does). Naturally, she’s packed plenty of Juan de Dios’s chic swimsuits and breezy caftans for some field testing.
Globetrotting while outfitted in her own creations was always a dream of Valencia’s, but it took a second-act pivot to get there. She always loved fashion, and spent much of her childhood cutting up fabrics and styling them into new looks, and even worked as a model for a few of her teenage years. She hoped to study design in Italy, but took a detour when she got married and started a family — and made a career change in the most unlikely direction: a job at a pasta factory.
“It is crazy to think about, working with ravioli and spaghetti,” the designer says, laughing as she remembers her life before founding Juan de Dios in 2017. “It was a full change of life: I got married, I had my kids, so this is why I didn't do what I was expecting to do in the beginning. But you know, things come when you need them.”
But Valencia eventually enrolled in a design course that helped set her back on the path she’d envisioned for herself, on a mission for what she calls her “soul fulfillment.” She wasn’t 100% certain of which direction she wanted to go in with her clothing, but she knew she loved the beach and the ocean — so she decided on swimwear. Her dreams started taking a more solid shape as she learned to cut her own patterns and found some early success selling the finished pieces in her local market.
The beauty of Colombia was all the inspiration Valencia needed to land on an aesthetic for Juan de Dios. From weaving elements of the country’s natural environment into her designs to shooting campaigns on the Playa Juan de Dios itself, the land has proven to be fertile ground for inspiration.
“It’s about telling the story of us through prints,” says Valencia of her company’s ethos. “The palms, the exotic fruits — the chontaduro [palm peach]. It is a way of communicating our story and taking our culture to the world.”
Their recent High Summer ‘22 campaign was a sartorial celebration of the brand’s five-year anniversary, telling the tale of Juan de Dios’s voyage as well as depicting a piece of Colombia’s culture through a sarong.
“The High Summer campaign was inspired by the San Juan River journey, where people go in their canoes and they have their chontaduros,” Valencia says. “Our first collection when we launched the brand was the print of chontaduros. So this campaign for the five year celebration was all about the journey through the river, an homage to our five year journey.”
Running a brand that’s essentially a love letter to Colombia, Valencia is passionate about giving back to her country’s fellow residents in whatever way she could. That’s why all Juan de Dios pieces are made by local women artisans, right down to the embroidery detailing. Her employees are also heads-of-households, responsible for supporting their entire families.
Valencia sees uplifting women in the area as one facet of the brand’s commitment to sustainability, right up there with making environmentally friendly choices, like their use of recycled yarn fabric. Excess material from the clothing is upcycled for use in the brand’s line of home items.
Business is going well at the moment, with plans to grow their market in the U.S. and events organized on the west coast to boost visibility. They’re also preparing new collections to debut later this year, including resort wear in October and a ready-to-wear line slated for December. Valencia is already looking ahead at next summer, beaming as she mentions the knitwear and crochet she plans on featuring in 2023.
While Valencia’s creations are all about paying homage to the rich traditions and landscapes of Colombia, her own tastes and desires factors heavily into the design process as well. Many of her pieces are born from the need to fill empty holes in her wardrobe.
“I’m always thinking about what I want to wear, so it completes the line,” Valencia says. “In a kind of way, I’m always designing for me, too. Like, what am I going to wear this summer? That’s why the lines keep rolling. I always want to be dressed by Juan de Dios.”
The average Juan de Dios consumer? Valencia describes her as someone who is effortless, elegant, and craves versatility from her resort and swimwear. The ability to add one element to a beachy outfit and shift its vibe completely for a different setting is a major emphasis for the label.
“We’ve always been a brand you can wear from the beach to the bar, it’s part of our main idea since we launched,” Valencia says. “Like you can wear your swimsuit to the beach and then just put a sarong, or your pants, or your skirt, and go out to wherever.” The relationship between swimwear and everyday-wear is intriguing to Valencia; she’s recently been playing with blending qualities of the two.
“It’s a sort of migration, what we are now building,” she says. “We’re growing our resort wear line by bringing in these iconic silhouettes from swim to the resort wear.”
As she looks ahead, planning out both the label’s upcoming lines and expansion into new territories, Valencia’s mind is never far from home. She hopes the essence of her native land is felt in every stitch of the clothing Juan de Dios puts out, since in the end, she owes it all to Colombia.
“Our country is always inspiring me,” she says. “I’m proud of being capable of starting a new life, and I’m proud of my team — I love them. Everything is possible because of them.”
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