When Moore College of Art and Design student Ashleen Castillo presented her first clothing collection last year, each garment was a testament to the pain she’d felt since Hurricane Maria had devastated Puerto Rico, as well as a tribute to her home island and its people.
All of the garments were white “because that’s how I see my island, pure and so precious to me.” One jacket had a high neckline fringed in blue, a reference to flood waters. Another had sleeves finished with green fringes, a tribute to the island’s once-lush tree canopy that the storm destroyed. On the back of one hoodie were the swirls of an elaborate hand-embroidered hurricane symbol. The models walked barefoot.
But with the pain there was pride: Inspired by a photo of an older man using a machete to make a path through the hurricane’s devastation, Castillo created a jacket with a machete-shape collar. On it was embroidered “Resistencia.”
“I think when she came here she was trying to understand and to heal,” said Moore fashion design chair Nasheli Ortiz-Gonzalez, who invited Castillo to study in Philadelphia after her university was damaged during the hurricane. “That’s what creative people do: They make something out of the pain.”
Now, Castillo is preparing for her second – and final – 2019 spring fashion show, to be held Friday, May 17, at the Barnes Foundation, recreating some looks that were lost when her design studio was destroyed, emphasizing the bond between humans and the natural world and again paying homage to her home.
“It’s been a lot of sacrifice and a lot of nights without sleeping, and crying and missing home, but it’s been the best experience of my life for learning and growing as a woman, a professional, as a human,” said Castillo, 26, who graduates this month. “I didn’t want to leave [Puerto Rico] because I thought I was abandoning my family, but then I said, ‘There’s a world waiting for me. I need to keep going.’”
Like many Puerto Ricans, Castillo was prepared for the storm. She wasn’t prepared for the aftermath, including the weeks spent waiting for government relief. When her father, who lives in Miami, offered to fly her to the U.S. mainland, she reluctantly did so.
She was in Florida when she saw that Ortiz-Gonzalez, her former professor and a Puerto Rican native, was offering to help students at Escuela Internatcional de Diseno y Arquitectura move their credits and their educations to Moore. Four students contacted Ortiz-Gonzalez about transferring. Castillo is the only one who took her up on her offer to help.
“I was super-scared,” Castillo said.
Still, she submitted her portfolio, did the required interviews, and took out the loans she needed to finance her studies. Ortiz-Gonzalez and other Moore administrators worked quickly to finish the required paperwork.
“The whole school just activated. We made it happen,” Ortiz-Gonzalez said. “[Castillo] had the strength to move, and that’s so hard when you’re scared and scarred and leaving your family.”
Castillo’s first “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment was when she arrived in Philadelphia in January 2018: The temperature was 13 degrees.
“Emotionally, I felt like I was on Rollerblades, going 100 miles per hour on a Jet Ski,” she said, referencing a song by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. “I didn’t know [Ortiz-Gonzalez] very well or anyone here.”
That soon changed. Ortiz-Gonzalez hosted Castillo in her Ardmore home for a few months, preparing island dishes like viandas to keep home sickness at bay. The pair became close.
“Now, she’s mom,” Castillo said. “She’s my mentor and she’s my friend and she’s my family, too.”
Castillo’s spring 2019 collection connects clothing to nature and, she hopes, makes a statement about the fashion industry’s problem with waste. The color palette includes a dark blue that reminds her of the sea, a light blue that reminds her of the Puerto Rican sky, and shades of coral.
All of the garments feature color-blocking, with one jacket composed of more than 20 separate pieces. One recurring image is a screen-printed conch shell like the ones hermit crabs take harbor in. All the garments have zippers that hold various pieces in place — sleeves, pants bottoms, pockets – that can be removed to create new looks.
“My collection is about transitions, and the hermit crab is a metaphor of who we are as humans,” she said. “The hermit crab has interesting qualities: He creates symbiotic relations with other creatures, like the coral that attaches to his back protects him from predators and when he eats, he feeds the coral. Every time a hermit crab grows, he needs to change his shell, but he doesn’t care what shell, any shell that will fit will work.
“It’s beautiful because every time we grow, we need to change our own shell, not only mentally, professionally, spiritually, but literally our clothes change,” she said. “This was the opportunity to create something that’s adaptable to the moment you’re living in.”
She knows about being adaptable. After all, she moved across an ocean to a strange, cold city more than 1,500 miles from home to complete her studies.