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Esteban Cortazar: Young, Veteran Fashion Designer

At 20, designer Esteban Cortazar is already an old hand of the fashion industry. The Colombia native, who grew up in Miami, is presenting his fifth major show during New York City's Fashion Week festivities. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a profile of Cortazar as part of a Morning Edition fashion series.

Cortazar, whose father was an artist and his mother a jazz singer, emigrated from Colombia a decade ago and landed in the middle of South Beach's hot fashion scene.

"Coming to Miami was a culture shock because I was able to see drag queens, I saw designers, I saw fashionistas, I saw so many things," he says. "I was just a little boy, but that's all I could see!"

To Cortazar, the fashion world was a playground filled with fascinating adults. And it seemed perfectly normal to stage a runway show at his elementary school -- a nine-piece collection, with a Little Red Riding Hood theme, modeled by fellow students.

Rod Stafford Hagwood, fashion critic for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, says the world of fashion probably isn't the best place for most adolescents, but Cortazar was totally focused on his work. Cortazar strengthened those technical skills by attending a magnet high school in Miami that specialized in design and architecture.

Todd Oldham, who had a store in Miami Beach, is one of many world-famous designers Cortazar befriended as a child. "He grew up seeing bare breasts on the beach every day, so that's a different perspective than most people," Oldham says.

Oldham says the young designer's perspective is sexy but in a refreshingly unforced way.

"It’s not the pinched-up, pushed-up sexy look," Oldham says. "It's very breezy, and it's easy and it's young."

In fact, Cortazar is the youngest designer who has ever shown at Fashion Week. As Ulaby describes it, "his new collection is filled with Florida colors like blazing yellow and shimmering peach. His gowns of chiffon and beaded silk billow and drape over the mannequins in his high-rise studio."

After spending his youth designing essentially for himself, he now has to prove he's a mature designer interested in women and their needs.

And being a child prodigy has its limitations, Cortazar says. "Yeah, you're cute, you're young... At the end of the day, it needs to sell, it needs to work... for the customer."

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.