You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl,” quips Gabriela Perezutti, the stunning designer behind the haute bohemian label Candela. Known to friends as Gabi, Perezutti is referring to her native Uruguay, where she grew up on an estancia surrounded by horses and gauchos, an upbringing that had an indelible effect on her and one that infuses both her collections and her personal aesthetic.
Take, for instance, the name of the brand, which is Spanish for “light,” and, for Perezutti, epitomizes the warmth and vividness of Latin American culture. “In the Caribbean, when they say ‘qué candela,’ it’s when they’re celebrating,” she explains. “It has a warmth to it, a lightness, which is part of what I try to do.”
Minimalism is a major theme in Perezutti’s life and that of her line. She started Candela in Brooklyn in 2004 with only $700, and her original collection was made up of T-shirts silk-screened with an image of a winged woman atop a horse. (The illustration was based on an old photo of her mother that hangs in Perezutti’s dining room.) In 2006, she expanded into a full collection of ready-to-wear and shoes, and this winter she’s relaunching her online boutique, which features all of her own designs as well as pieces from a curated selection of labels, South American and otherwise, that capture the Candela ethos. “We’ve lined up a lot of designers that are established in other places of the world but are not as well-known in the U.S.–things that we like and things that complement Candela,” Perezutti says. The roster includes such South American stalwarts as the Argentine lingerie line Juana de Arco mixed with U.S. labels like Pendleton and Bing Bang jewelry.
Then and now, the concept of ease is paramount, inspired partly by her childhood dress code from the British school she attended and by the clothing of the Uruguayan campesinos. “Every day, every year, I wore the same uniform,” she recalls of her school days, adding that “in the countryside in Uruguay, the gaucho has kind of a uniform too–the boots and the hat and the belt and the shirt. I feel very comfortable having certain staples. It’s the way I dress still.”
It shows in the pieces she designs for Candela, which marry femininity with a rugged sensibility. Light, flowing dresses are paired with cozy knits and riding boots, the ultimate in gaucho chic. “I always like to have a very soft interior,” she says, “like a silk chiffon dress, something very delicate, with a chunky sweater or maybe a tougher outerwear piece–a leather jacket and more masculine shoes. I like to play with the contrast.” That said, her four-year-old identical-twin daughters, Mia and Olivia, are not feeling the garçonne look at the moment, Perezutti reports. “They’re extremely feminine,” she says. “I don’t know where they got it. Around six months ago I gave up on the idea of even picking out their clothes. They won’t wear anything unless they choose it.” The girls are enamored of all things pink, she adds, and when Perezutti wears a shirt and pants, they’re quick to ask her why she’s “dressed like a boy.” “They want me to look as close to Barbie as possible,” she says, laughing, “and that’s not happening anytime soon.”
Pants or not, Perezutti is still very involved in ranch life (she now co-owns the family estancia with her brother, Federico, and visits every two months). “It will always represent what we do because it is such a part of me,” she affirms. “You know, like the way you wear a handkerchief on your neck, the way you wear denim, the way you wear a belt, your choices of shoes, your choices of boot.” On that note, Candela’s boots have gained quite a following for their fashion-meets-functionality, which is not surprising given their provenance. Says Perezutti, “I know what boots are for.”
The country life is a strong part of Perezutti’s intuition–it’s just as natural as riding a horse, which she says she doesn’t remember learning but always knew how to do. “I am very proud of it now. I understand how special and magical, in a way, it is to grow up in a place like that, seeing your parents on wild horses running around having to herd cattle.” How does this translate to the urban life she leads the rest of the year? Seamlessly, it appears.
Perezutti’s West Village apartment is a study in spare indulgences. “There’s a mentality on the estancia that things are always needed. You don’t throw anything away,” she says, citing this as a guiding principle in her decor. It has nothing to do with amassing clutter–quite the opposite, in fact, as her home is impeccably kept.
“I choose wisely the objects I live around, things I feel comfortable with,” she explains. “I prefer an austere sort of scenario, like just a bed in a white room, to something that’s too much.” (She gravitates toward antiques culled from 1stdibs and eBay, as well as the occasional find from ABC Carpet & Home, and enjoys such juxtapositions as a Victorian marble piece beside a farmhouse bench, two fixtures at the estancia.) Her minimalist aesthetic helps maximize her surroundings: “When you grow up in open spaces, you need a lot of space,” she says, and notes that her answer to New York crowding is lots of white and a few carefully chosen furnishings and accents. The latter includes an assortment of Cire Trudon candles (“I believe they change the atmosphere of a room”) and an impressive collection of Latin American art, which runs the gamut from masters like Fernando Botero and Joaquín Torres-García to contemporary talents like Diego Gravinese and Magela Ferrero, who represented Uruguay at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
“I’m a very messy person by nature who has recovered from being messy,” Perezutti insists. “I think the secret is not owning a lot of things.” To that end, she revises her closet often and weeds out underused items. Her daughters are on board as well. “When the girls have too many toys, we give things away or donate them. Mia doesn’t always want to, but we convince her to go along with the project,” Perezutti says. “Mostly I try to own things of quality that I’ll want to have forever.”
Her zest for life and her curatorial instincts are traits that have been passed from generation to generation in the Perezutti family. “My mother was this really beautiful, sort of wild woman. When she was 18 and 19, she used to compete in rodeos, which in the early ’70s was quite astonishing, to have a young girl who was so pretty to be riding these wild horses.” And while Mia’s and Olivia’s definitive fashion sense may have little in common with the ranch look, they’ve clearly inherited their mother’s and grandmother’s sense of adventure and discovery. On a recent rainy evening, Perezutti and the girls embarked on an indoor camping trip, setting up tents in the living room–the twins were particularly excited about the prospects of herbal bug spray.
Whether camping in the urban jungle or riding horses across the pampas, Perezutti remains preternaturally warm and grounded, true to Candela’s name. “I had the brand of my father [a heart] tattooed on my wrist when I moved to New York,” she says, “because I did not want to forget where I come from.”
credit: Harper’s Bazaar article