Raul Peñaranda and House Xtravaganza Bring Ball Culture to the Cielo Gala Benefit for HIV/AIDS
“I've been called by editors at different magazines, the rebel in fashion,” says Raul Peñaranda with a chuckle.
“It's because I don't believe a season has to dictate the way you dress. You can wear red in winter and black in spring. Fashion is an opinion. It's an opinion and it's something that comes from within.”
Born in Cali, Colombia (with Venezuelan roots as well), Peñaranda has graced big fashion houses like Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan with his work. He has since created his own line — and he is ripe for recognition. For the past two decades plus, the Latino Commission on AIDS has gathered creatives in the artistic sphere to raise funds and resources to improve the lives of those affected by HIV and AIDS. This year benefit event is the Cielo Gala, with a theme that aimed to Design a World Without Aids. The first openly transgender in the Miss Universe competition, Angela Ponce, was honored. Peñaranda was selected as the featured fashion designer.
He understands the responsibility of the honor, especially this June, as we commemorate the origins of the LGBTQ+ movement. “It's a mix of emotions, and you know, happiness is a celebration. Pride. It's not only showing a collection to me, but it's also a celebration of individuality and an acceleration of each personality. The clothing is an extension of everyone's personality. In this case, I wanted to be just the vehicle, and they express their way of living through me…. I want those that believe their world is falling apart to know that I'm here, and if I can do it, they can too. Style comes and go, what stays is the memory and emotion.”
Along with Peñaranda, chair of the benefit committee Javier Pedroza also knows the significance of the gala: “We all have to give back, especially for the generations to come. They have to know who we are and where we come from. Especially now that we are celebrating 50 years of the Stonewall uprising. They need to know who people like Sylvia Rivera are, and we have to educate.”
Peñaranda presented a show that embraced ball culture (complete with faux judges!), and that urban pageant scene — highlighted in the FX show Pose — revolves around houses, which can be defined as alternative families and safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people of color.
House Xtravaganza is mainly Latinx and legendary for winning top honors at ball competitions. House father Jose Xtravaganza, who joined at just 16 years old, is best known as a pioneer in the vogue movement, a role that led him to become Madonna's lead dancer for her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990 and featured in the music video for “Vogue.”
Jose expressed to CHICA that although his parents embraced who he was, others weren't so lucky. “A lot of these kids that started this movement no longer have the privilege to be alive today due to the epidemic that started this whole movement…. A lot of their families disowned them for their preferences, and there weren't the benefits that are available today in which houses can come in and get medication. Back then, they didn't have that, so they had each other. The House of Xtravaganza was always big on being there for one another.”
Set on the belief that he does not design dresses but rather creates emotions that are dresses, Peñaranda's work sparked joy, fierceness and excitement throughout the event hall. A joy he couldn't wait to share alongside House of Xtravaganza, which he considers luchadores, or fighters. “They are like how I was when I first started my career. An outcast, the one that didn't fit in because my skin was too dark and didn't fit the European stereotypical look of a designer. When I found out they were participating I cried a little because it was like looking into the mirror that's reflected me for so many years.”
As a designer nine years ago, Peñarando was discriminated against for his skin color and language, and was often confused for the help or a messenger. Hearing comments like “ese negrito no va llegar” (that dark-skinned boy will not get far) occasionally left the designer with little aspiration, but he persevered nonetheless. “I feel that as Latinos, we can rise to the top, but we can stay true to where we come from, and the only way that I can express that is in the colors, the textures, and it's the message, season after season for me.”
After establishing himself in the industry, he set about changing the vibe. “Fashion is a world that can be seen as very cold because the ego is always present. I'm always thinking that I'm a designer with a humble heart, and I think that we have to be compassionate. We have to understand each other. We can be different sexual orientation, races, religion. Fashion is our universal language.”
The night's unifying message was best summarized by runway coach and casting director Dimas Bravo, who has worked with Raul for nine years: “Everybody is the same. Whether you're black, white, yellow, blue, we all have to respect each other. That's how we will make a change.”