Laura Agudelo Is Living Large

In beauty-obsessed Bogotá, a plus-size fashionista challenges Colombia’s cultural norms, inspiring thousands of Latin American ladies to look good and feel great at any size.

Laura Agudelo Is Living Large

Laura Agudelo grew up amidst a labyrinth of colors and patterns. In the small, sweltering town of Viotá, Colombia, her grandparents owned the best and biggest fabric store around. There, the petite little girl would help her grandmother in the store for hours, unrolling huge tubes of floral, plaid and striped prints and re-folding the textiles into small squares, organizing them by color and style for the customers. She loved the feel of the fabrics between her hands, the way they could make seemingly endless combinations of styles.

She and her younger sister Milena loved to transform the store into their own personal runway, becoming models for the stream of blouses, dresses and skirts their grandmother sewed. The girls yearned to be just like their mother, one of the most elegant, well-dressed women in all of Viotá — always bien arreglada, or well-put-together — who taught them the value of grace and sophistication in “everything you do.”

Every week, their father would drive three hours from town, up the mountains to the capital, Bogotá, to bring back newspapers and magazines to sell at the family’s newsstand. Laura loved when he came back with Vogue and Elle. Poring over the pages of those magazines, she became obsessed with fashion.

It’s a passion that’s remained throughout her life. Now, the forty-two-year-old Agudelo is one of the best-known fashion bloggers and critics in the region. But just because she loves clothes doesn’t mean she can always buy them.

“None of these clothes fit me,” Agudelo laments, running her admiring hands over the thick, gold-foil brushstrokes in Colombian designer Laura Laurens’s latest collection. “They’re all for skinny people.”

“There are many women, like me, that simply don’t want to or can’t or don’t try to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean we should live bitter, insecure or sad lives.” – May 5, 2010

Before Laura Agudelo began struggling with her weight, she was a thin girl — always smaller than her younger sister Milena, who was overweight as a child. But Milena never doubted herself. She was a proud, confident child who valued her studies. One day in town, the sisters overheard two neighbors whispering about eight-year-old Milena’s size, calling her fat. With plenty of attitude, Milena approached the women and matter-of-factly announced to them she was “fat but pretty” — gorda, pero linda.

Years later, in college in Bogotá, as Laura gained weight, she yearned to feel the same confidence her sister had exuded as a girl. Between classes and studying, she tried to save time and money by grabbing chips and a soda on the go. She began to outgrow her clothes, and for the first time in her life, her wardrobe diminished. She went shopping, but time and again came back empty handed. Stores simply didn’t carry clothing in her size.

Post-college and working as a journalist, she struggled to find outfits for the office. She rarely joined after-work events or dinners, preferring to head home alone instead. The more weight she gained, the harder it got.

“Most women worry about what to wear, but trust me: It’s much harder for XL or plus-size women,” she says. “Especially because I’m short [at five feet tall], the problem can be unbearable and depressing.”

One afternoon, a colleague approached Agudelo with a pile of hand-me-down clothes from a plus-sized aunt and grandmother, and suggested she see if they might fit. The baggy fabrics, with few details and simple colors and patterns, were like “sacks,” Agudelo says, that were “sad and boring.”

She longed for the days of her fun, bottomless closet, and the catwalk in her grandmother’s store.

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“I appreciate the good intentions,” she kindly told her colleague, “but…no.”

“There comes a point when, as a fat woman, you get bored of comments like: “Never wear horizontal stripes,” “Always wear dark colors, preferably black” … and the hundreds of other lines from experts who want to drill it into our heads that we should dress to try to appear less fat. All I want is to look pretty!” – May 28, 2010

Laura knew it was time for a change. One day, she stood up to her toughest critic — her mirror — and called to mind her younger sister’s bold attitude. Like a mantra, she avowed to be, henceforth, “fat but pretty.”

In 2004, with fashion magazines and fabrics in hand, Agudelo drove home to Viotá, to a talented tailor named Victor Contreras. (Years earlier, it was his mother who taught Agudelo’s own grandmother to sew.) She pointed to designs that she liked, by high-fashion designers like Valentino, Chloé and Dolce & Gabbana, and asked for clones of them in her size. The sixty-year-old Contreras, who was accustomed to sewing classic styles for women in the small town, argued that people “don’t wear things like that.” Women, he said, normally wear more conservative styles, without “flourishes,” bold designs or bright colors.

But Agudelo pressed on, offering whatever money it would take. And slowly, Contreras began to warm up to the idea. He sewed her a beautiful long wool jacket with navy and beige color blocks that looked exactly like the Dolce & Gabbana version she’d seen in a magazine, and a Valentino knock-off denim jacket with white lace detailing on the lapel. They fit perfectly.

Thus began a long working relationship between the two, which continues today. As he began exploring the new materials, patterns and designs Agudelo requested, Contreras too began to modernize his business, advertising high fashion tailoring as an offering.

“Finally, I could dress like I wanted,” Agudelo says. “Not in old lady clothes, not in garments without cuts or cinches. Maybe that’s what I was supposed to wear, but that’s just not me — that’s not Laura Agudelo.”

With Contreras’s help, Agudelo fell back in love with fashion, befriending local designers and attending fashion events across Bogotá. She began speaking out about a lack of plus-sized clothing in Bogotá, and the media took notice. In 2005, Colombia’s largest newspaper El Tiempo published an unprecedented story about the issue, accompanied by photos of Agudelo.

In 2010, at the urging of friends and colleagues, including Diego Alejandro, who’s now a fellow fashion blogger, she began to document her grievances publicly. On La Pesada de Moda – a clever play on words that loosely translates to “The Fashionable Heavyweight,” where heavyweight is used literally, for her weight, and figuratively, for her importance – Agudelo writes about her personal struggles and creative fashion solutions. In her earliest posts, she published pictures of some of her own favorite outfits, reviewed fashions from the “Sex and the City” movie and vented about what to wear while taking a new photo for her license. The tone was humorous but bitingly honest — for what she assumed was a small circle of friends and family.

But not long after launching the blog, an email arrived from Peru. The sender told Agudelo of a life spent wearing sweat suits due to being overweight — until recently.

“She said she was inspired to see me wearing dresses and skirts and scarves on the blog, and so she had started to copy the designs,” Agudelo says, “and that she felt good.”

Now in its fourth year, the blog has been featured in media across the region, on television and radio and in print. It draws tens of thousands of readers and followers from across Latin America. And it breaks every beauty stereotype in the region. On it, Agudelo models outfits and recommends brands, stores and designers for plus-sized ladies. She spotlights textured, colorful fashions, from jeans to stilettos to lingerie. And she cuts through the myths about what plus-size women should and shouldn’t wear.

I almost never wear black, I use large prints, I cut my hair at different lengths, I use sailor stripes (yes, horizontal), I wear bright colors, and many people tell me I look good, she writes.

Thirty-three-year-old Andrea del Rocío González Rodríguez says Agudelo — known endearingly as “Laurita” by fans — has helped her embrace her curves.

“I’ve robbed ideas from Laurita,” she says, laughing. “I’ve learned to use accessories, like long necklaces or feathers. I wear a lot of color contrasts now, and jeans — things I didn’t use to feel comfortable in.”

To celebrate the blog’s fourth anniversary last year, Agudelo invited Andrea del Rocío and nine other dedicated readers to meet for coffee in downtown Bogotá, in celebration of the blog’s success. There, the women gossiped and lamented in person, finally meeting the woman whose words have changed their lives.

Agudelo says most of her readers say they appreciate her honesty — that she shows herself and other women as they really are in the streets, and not airbrushed in a studio — and that she doesn’t pretend the journey is an easy one.

Agudelo openly discusses weight loss, health and exercise — celebrating when she loses and lamenting when she gains. For many readers, the topic of weight loss is a sensitive one. Recently, after announcing she had signed up for salsa classes as a way to be active and healthy, readers responded bitterly, declaring Agudelo had betrayed them by wanting to lose weight.

“My blog is far from being an ode to fatness,” Agudelo says in response. “Yes, I hope we can all lose weight one day, in a healthy, reasonable way. My message is just about feeling good however you are now.”

And that goes for anyone who doesn’t like how they look, she says — whether they’re overweight, have glasses, a big nose, wrinkles or gray hair.

Last year, after a trip to the United States, where she was able to purchase a number of plus-size options (in stores like Torrid), Agudelo invited readers to compete to win two stamped T-shirts she brought back. Readers had to send her photos of the “look” they would use with the t-shirt, and she’d select the winners. Earlier this year, she gave away 500 “FATshionista” calendars she had designed for her fans, with original illustrations by local artist Angélica Moreno.

“Fat,” Agudelo says, “has never been a bad word.”

“It’s like we’re forgotten by the culture as larger women,” says forty-nine-year-old Rocío Castañeda Canelanix, who’s been following the blog for two and a half years. “But Laura is bold, and takes the risk.”

On behalf of her fans, Agudelo continues to seek an answer to the simple question of why more stores in Colombia don’t stock plus-sized clothing. Certainly, curves come at a premium in Colombia, but only when they’re in very specific parts of the body. “The female phenotype here is big busted, with a round butt and a super small waist,” Agudelo says.

In an open letter to Zara founder Amancio Ortega, Agudelo questioned why the store doesn’t devote a small corner to plus-sized options. “With more than thirty years in the business, and with all his financial and logistical muscle, why not plus sizes?” she asks. Two years ago, at Cartagena’s Ixel Moda fashion event, Agudelo met Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and asked her the same.

“She told me, ‘One day it will happen,’” Agudelo says. “That there will be plus sizes eventually in Latin America like there are in the U.S.”

“With the amazing designers we have in Colombia, with such good raw materials, with so many compulsive shoppers and people who know fashion,” Agudelo says, “it’s amazing that dressing well as a fat woman remains such a hard task.”

Late last year, Agudelo was sought after to take her message to an even wider audience, on stage.

In Colombia, where finding pretty, modern and trendy clothing is no easy task, especially for us, you’ve got to be creative.January 12, 2012

On a cloudy afternoon in December, Agudelo picked out a comfortable, cute and “signature” outfit: wood-soled platform shoes and her favorite jeans, a white designer tee, a furry black jacket and a shiny necklace.

Then she stepped onto a stage in front of 2,000 people at Bogotá’s TEDx event. She smiled big and announced she would be presenting a series of “anti-tips,” or advice that goes against every rule that the fashion industry says curvier women should follow to appear slimmer.

You know the drill, she said: No horizontal lines, no ruffles, no prints, no big necklaces; black, only black.

On a mega-screen behind her, she showed dozens of pictures of curvy, glamorous, fashionable women in bright colors, horizontal lines, patterned pants, peplums and prints. The women in the pictures smiled and glowed.

“They say never wear horizontal lines, because they make us wider. But do they look good, are they pretty?” she asked, pointing to the screen. “They say don’t use flowers because they will make our legs look thicker. But if it’s a nice print, who cares?”

“The rules are made to be broken,” she said, as the audience rose to their feet, roaring in applause. “The idea is not to dress to be skinnier, it’s to dress to feel pretty — fat, but pretty.”

Gorda, pero linda.