Juan Carlos Obando has a desk but no chair. It’s a calculated decision taken two years ago at his Los Angeles design studio, when it occurred to him that he created more freely when he wasn’t sitting still. “I used to sit at my desk and do research for the new collection on the computer,” he says from his comfortable position on the couch in Barneys New York’s penthouse suite at Madison Avenue. Obando has just finished giving a presentation to the sales team of his new collection commemorating the brand’s 10th anniversary—a mix of signature fluid silhouettes and vibrantly hued fabrics. “Then one day I said, ‘That’s it. No more.’ Now I design in my head when I’m traveling, on a plane, in a café—anywhere I am among life. I’ve never looked back.”
“My earliest memories are of waking up in these clubs at 2 AM and seeing this blur of beautiful women in sultry dresses dancing and drinking.”
It’s good Obando is so comfortable creating on the road, as he spends a large portion of his time there, holding a dozen trunk shows a year for a devoted customer base that returns each season for new offerings. There is a remarkable continuity in Obando’s style: Pieces he designed for his first season, which launched exclusively with Barneys New York, are still relevant in 2019. Silhouettes are reimagined but not radically altered, and the color palette remains loyal to the rich jewel tones with which he made his mark.
“I see my brand almost like a perfume company,” he explains. “The collection evolves but it doesn’t forget the past.” Furthering the olfactory analogy, he offers, “Our clothes are like smelling a really good perfume on someone you pass in the street—you recognize the scent even if you can’t recall its name. Our collection is like that: People know the aesthetic even though the brand’s name is under the radar.”
Obando prefers it that way. He stopped doing runway several seasons ago and devotes his energy to developing an intimate relationship with his clients, many of whom are on the Hollywood A-list and grace the red carpet with his designs—better publicity than even the best catwalk, after all.
Crafted of beautifully draped silks, Obando’s collection was never intended for hangers and racks. It’s when the clothes are in motion that the magic truly happens. “We don’t do wools, knits, or leathers,” he points out. “It’s always light and meant to flow.”
The design process begins with draping on a mannequin. Obando twists and tucks the fabric, letting it fall naturally before determining where to make his next move. He experiments—sometimes it’s a home run and others, back to the proverbial drawing board. In the end, a single dress can require up to nine yards of silk, largely because the perfectionist in him has a strong dislike of seams, so he purchases long sheets that can be manipulated without slicing.
Each collection bears examples of the brand’s trademark sashes and dangling ties, a look that came about organically after a particularly windy photo shoot early on. “I wanted the lookbook to be peaceful and serene,” Obando recalls. “But this wind was crazy! Nothing would stay put. Then I saw how the sashes were whipping around and I thought, ‘What if we double their length and make it even more dramatic?’ It started from there.”
“I design in my head when I’m traveling, on a plane, in a café—anywhere I am among life.”
As for the sensual, curve-skimming shapes, those can be traced to the designer’s upbringing in the Colombian coastal city of Barranquilla in the 1970s. A colorful, gritty city, Barranquilla served as a major South American port for ships arriving from Africa, bringing with them Senegalese music—percussive sounds tinged with Cuban influences that quickly intertwined with local rhythms to create beats born for dancing.
Raised by his father, at a very early age Obando found himself being carted off to the Colombian dancehalls at night, where he was tucked away in a corner while his dad mingled with the crowd. “My earliest memories are of waking up in these clubs at 2 AM and seeing this blur of beautiful women in sultry dresses dancing and drinking,” he recalls. “It was sensuality through movement—a mind-blowing concept for a small child—and it is the foundation of the pieces I design today.”
It wasn’t just the clothes these women wore, Obando adds, but the sense of occasion for which they dressed themselves. “When I design, the setting is everything,” he says. “What is the narrative? What story are you trying to tell? I always start here.”
For his 10th anniversary, Obando has taken some of the label’s most popular styles and enhanced them: The focus is on colorblocking rather than blending, a subtle but meaningful shift. After a few seasons of softer tones, fuchsia, parrot green, and other bright hues are also making a comeback, in layered looks that show how seamlessly the pieces can be combined. “We are known for our gowns, but actually, 80 percent of this collection is separates,” Obando says. “It’s just that the pieces work so well together, they create head-to-toe looks as if they were dresses.”
Reflecting on a decade of design, the designer notes that many of his core pieces are heavily influenced by his relationship with Barneys, a partner since the beginning. “So many of these pieces evolved from conversations I had with the buyers at Barneys,” says Obando. “We’d talk about what the Barneys’ client wants, which is different than other markets, and I’d create pieces with this in mind. Barneys is really part of our DNA.”
Here’s to 10 more years!