Born and raised in the Columbian City of Cali, Cardenas moved to Co. Down eight years ago with her husband Leo Cullen, and has been based there ever since.
Next month, however, Cardenas will set her sights on the U.S. market as she travels from her Co. Down studio to Boston. There, she will represent Irish fashion as one of only four non-American based designers to exhibit at the prestigious CraftBoston show, which takes place from March 31 to April 2 in the World Trade Center.
Born into three generations of clothing designers, Cardenas has worked in the fashion industry or almost 25 years. Starting out in Columbia, she moved to London 10 years ago, where she met Scottish-born Cullen, whose parents hail from Hilltown originally.
The couple decided to move to Co. Down eight years ago when the house Cullen’s father grew up in became available.
“I learned from my mother — as a child I used to stand beside her, watching what she was doing,” Cardenas recalled this week during an interview with the Irish Echo.
Cardenas specializes in occasion wear for women and as such, works primarily with fine fabrics such as lace, silk, satin and velvet and Harris tweed. However, the abundance of her favorite fabric, linen, was a big enticing factor when deciding upon moving to Ireland.
“The linen is very high quality and I think Irish linen has that great reputation for quality,” according to Cardenas. “I think it’s a shame we’ve seen less of it in recent years.”
Cardenas’ designs breathe a new life into the fabric, which has come to be regarded as somewhat outdated. Using nature as the main theme in her work, Cardenas finds the Irish setting and people very inspiring.
“I like to design from here,” she said. “I think Irish women are very stylish. Their clothes are very nice, very smart.”
Though it s charms may be numerous, Northern Ireland can hardly compete with fashion centers such as London and New York and Paris as a design base. Working as a designer in the North does pose challenges, according to Cullen, who recently left his own job to work with his wife on a full-time basis.
“It’s a nice place to live but design wise we’re really having to make our own networks and links,” according Cullen.
Nevertheless, He thinks that Irish fashion is coming on in leaps and bounds in terms of its international appeal. Dublin Fashion week, which begins next week, will undoubtedly help to showcase some of Ireland’s emerging talent in the clothing industry.
“There’s a lot happening down South,” he said. “Dublin is becoming a big fashion center. There are lots of interesting things happening there.”
This will not be Cardenas’s first venture stateside; last year, she visited New York and Boston as part of a team put together by Belfast Creative industries.
In 2004, Cardenas was part of an Irish Group juried for the well-known Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.
In Ireland and to some extent, the UK, Cardenas has built up a reputation as a classic yet high fashion designer. Her designs are becoming increasingly popular among Irish models and fashionistas alike. At present, some of her regular customers include models Andrea Roche, Nicki Bonass and “Blue Peter,” presenter Zoe Salmon.
In 2003, she was commissioned by the Irish Linen Guild to design an outfit for Ms. Northern Ireland Gayle Williamson, who later went on to become Ms. UK.
Her clothes have appeared on RTE fashion show “Off the Rails,” TV3’s “Ireland AM,” and BBC Northern Ireland’s “Inside Out,” as well as “Irish Tatler,” “Image,” “Irish Wedding” and “New Home” magazines. Her clothing line is available in outlets in Northern Ireland and the Republic, Edinburgh and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Among her dream muses, Cardenas counts Bianca Jagger and director Sofia Coppola, whom she once described as having “subtlety, intelligence and a deep confidence in what works for her.”
“My clothes are about simple, subtle shapes, they are simple but smart and tailored,” said Cardenas, now in her forties (although her husband is quick to point out that people often think she is much younger).
Ultimately, Cardenas wants New York to become her fashion base. She hopes her exhibition in Boston will pave the way for her to take part in some trade shows throughout the U.S. next year.
“New York is a bigger market than Paris or London, and in ways it’s as easy to access,” according to Cullen.
“We think there will be a big market for Maria’s designs in the U.S. Maria will also identify deeply with the Latin-American community.”
Amongst her favorite artists, Cardenas counts designers Narciso Rodriguez, John Rocha and fellow Irish resident Joanne Hynes, who is based in Galway.