Francisco Hernandez Puts His Mark on Seattle Fashion

Francisco Hernandez ~ Photo: Christine Buffalow

For this local designer, it all began with an Unku.

Francisco Hernandez, creative director for Seattle-based design house Built for Man, didn’t arrive at the helm of a burgeoning fashion house by taking the traditional route.

Francisco Hernandez ~ Photo: Christine Buffalow

Hernandez, 48, spent his younger years as a nomad. A Cuban-born refugee whose family settled in Manhattan in 1969, his introduction to fashion came from his mother, a door-to-door garment assemblage worker. He never received any formal training in fashion or clothing design.

“I grew up around sewing machines,” Hernandez told me in his Capitol Hill studio. “It was a real hand-me-down education.”

After spending his teenage years in Miami and a brief stint in Rome, Hernandez found work as a contemporary art consultant in Manhattan. But despite his success, he still had wanderlust. One day, a friend recommended he visit the Andean wool-producing villages of Peru. This turned out to be a journey that would change his life.

Workers in Peru

Hernandez was inspired by the friendly Quechua-speaking natives he met during his travels and the lustrous, alpaca wool they have produced for centuries. He returned from Peru with an idea: eliminate the process of buying from mills and deal directly with the aplaceros who extract and clean the wool.

This arrangement would allow him to work directly with the individuals who provide the raw material, an optimal condition for buyers. In the process, an impoverished community would be fairly compensated for their hard work. This concept led to the Loom Project, founded in 2005 and now a major component of Built for Man’s production line.

“For these people, it’s more than making money. It’s about pride, making something with your hands and being able to sell it,” he said. “I wanted to create a program to help these people. I wanted to make a sustainable way of conducting business, generating income and setting goals.”

The Loom Project began with the production of unkus — sacred, poncho-like garments that serve as a tribute to Aksu Mama, the Incan god of textile. Knit scarves, distinguished by their roughly elegant finish, comprise the majority of the project’s current output, which is produced at two Peruvian production sites. One is located in inner-city Lima and the other, Apurimac, is a rural center that specializes in traditional garments.

Loom, however, is not Hernandez’s only goodwill project. In 2008, he founded Built in America, a co-operative program that allows him to utilize local resources in the production of his clothing. Built in America uses materials from local distributors like Pendleton in Portland and Seattle Fabric in Belltown to produce original garments.“It’s the philosophy of eating food that grows nearby,” he explained. “If we are helping a community in Peru, why not help out the local community, as well?”

Baby Alpaca Scarf | Ash by Built For Man

Built for Man’s 2010 Fall/Winter line features several eye-catching men’s knitwear items. The collection also features new accessories, such as cravat ties, fingerless arm warmers and ski masks.

“Men buy clothes based on feel and comfort. Aesthetic comes second,” he says, adding that, while male shoppers can be rigid, they are often won over by word-of-mouth. “For men, buying clothing is about recommendation not impulse,” he says. “Once something works for one person, it has potential to work everywhere.”

As a designer, Hernandez ultimately strives for individuality. “To make it in this business, you must be able to create something beautiful,” he says. “If we become successful on our own, we will be much more successful than if we copy another label.”

Built for Man will hold their annual show on Tuesday, Feb. 22 (location to be announced). The company has stores in Seattle, Bellevue, Portland, Los Angeles and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Built For Man  |  509 13th Ave., Seattle  |  (206) 658-7642