Design wunderkind Cortazar takes on Ungaro

By Joelle Diderich

PARIS – French fashion label Emanuel Ungaro, which has been struggling for direction since the retirement of its founder, is gambling on U.S. design wunderkind Esteban Cortazar to bring it the elusive “It” factor.

At 23, the Colombian-born Cortazar becomes the youngest designer to head a major fashion label. In an interview with The Associated Press, the newcomer to Paris said he was taking it all in his stride.

“I think the younger you are, the less pressure you feel,” Cortazar said between fittings at Ungaro’s headquarters on the swish avenue Montaigne. “It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.”

Cortazar is used to making history; in 2002, he became the youngest designer to show at New York Fashion Week.

Celebrities including Eva Longoria, Paris Hilton and Beyonce Knowles are fans of his work, and his designs have been featured on the TV show “Sex and the City.”

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In Europe, however, Cortazar is still an unknown quantity. He takes the helm at Ungaro after a period of turmoil; the label changed designers three times in as many years.

For his first collection, he avoided delving into the archives and just followed his instinct.

“I felt that I was so naturally and organically inspired by this house because it is very much my aesthetic as a designer to dress a woman that loves to be a woman. So I felt comfortable to just come in and give my vision,” he explained.

Cortazar’s effortlessly sexy designs are inspired by the city of Miami, where he moved from his native Bogota at age 10. The son of a jazz singer and an artist, he showed his first creations at his elementary school at 13.

The ebullient designer would seem a natural fit for Ungaro, which is famed for its vivid prints and Grecian-style draping, but has lost its sizzle in recent years. Cortazar is keenly aware that the label needs a shot in the arm.

“No. 1, I want to make Ungaro cool,” he said bluntly. “But I think the most important thing here is unapologetic femininity. This woman is unapologetically feminine. She’s sensual, and she’s alluring. It’s an ultimate celebration of life.”