One day while leading my walking tour along the cobblestones of central Vallarta, we happened upon several people dressed in old frontier clothes. As we drew closer, they turned out to be mannequins standing outside a local leather store.
This is when I met Alfonso. His leather apron and happy greeting drew us inside. Here we found numerous offerings of all things leather. Even the air smelled of leather.
Alfonso told us he has been working with leather for 53 years. His well-worn leather apron attests to this. The mannequins are his dream project of hand-making examples of the clothes worn by Mexican people throughout history during Mexico’s struggles for independence. He has been working on this project for the past 20 years!
He perfected his tailoring skills while in Hollywood. Here he worked creating the rugged clothes for actors in the popular westerns of the 1970-1990 era. After returning to Mexico, he attended a reenactment of the ancient Mayan ball game. There he had the inspiration to create his museum to preserve for coming generations the greatness of the Mayan culture through the fashions and styles of the different periods of Mexican history.
The books and illustrations he found only went back to the 1850’s so his first projects covered the indigenous Indios, rancheros, banditos, and fighters for independence from 1850 up to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. There were not many women examples back then for him to draw from so most of his mannequins are of men. He next wants to work on costumes from the War of Independence of 1810.
He does extensive research, diving into archives of old photos and stories to find the examples he uses for creating his clothing. When I first met Alfonso back in 2012, he only had a few mannequins… the ones we saw while walking. He has eventually outgrown that space and so he and his museum are now housed on the second floor of the Art with Leather shop on Venustiano Carranza.
His growing group of mannequins currently numbers 40 and he is still finding more historical examples. He recently heard about a long shirt used by some warriors that was so thick with several layers of leather that arrows could not penetrate to the skin to inflict a wound.
The materials Alfonso uses are not always easy to find. The headdresses on some of the Indios for example needed feathers and quills difficult to obtain today. Some of the hats are made from dead animal skins he finds while exploring the surrounding areas. A recent badger roadkill will now become another hat complete with the preserved head, eyes, and teeth. Most of the leather is cowhide that he dyes himself with alcohol-based inks. Sometimes strange furs come to him donated by friends or customers. He only uses animal skins native to the culture. No animals are killed in the wild.
His tools include various needles for sewing, punches, awls, knives, glues, inks, brushes, and tools for leather designs. Tooling is another of Alfonso’s skills. His designs can be found on the mannequin belts and boots and even notebook covers sold in his shop.
Stop in to see the amazing work he has done. His care in recreating history and his skill with the materials are obvious. When he has time, Alfonso will tell you some of the stories behind each costume. And be sure to notice his apron… it tells much about this interesting and talented man.
Art with Leather is located at Calle Venustiano Carranza 370 on the south side of Vallarta.
The Guadalajara Post