Unbuttoned: The Political Awakening of Fashion’s Newest Power Player

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Unbuttoned

By VANESSA FRIEDMAN

American fashion has never been afraid of declaring its political allegiance, at least in an insider kind of way. During the last two presidential elections, for example, numerous designers created pieces to raise money for the Obama campaign in initiatives called Runway to Change (in 2008) and Runway to Win (in 2012), and Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast, is a famous bundler.

But even by those standards, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump have galvanized the industry to an extent never before seen.

Two weeks ago, American Vogue offered the first endorsement of a presidential candidate in its 124-year history, urging its readers to vote for Mrs. Clinton because of “the profound stakes” and the “history that stands to be made.”

Last week, Patagonia announced that for the first time it was closing all of its stores, as well as its headquarters, distribution center and customer service center, on Election Day to encourage everyone to “head to the polls and engage in civil society” instead of shopping, according to a company announcement.

And just before that, Condé Nast announced that as part of a reorganization, it would consolidate all 21 of its creative departments (all the magazines, websites and 23 Stories, its native advertising arm) under the leadership of Raúl Martinez.

Wait, you say: That’s not a politics story. That’s a media story.

Which it is. Except for one thing: Though his promotion (he is officially called head of the creative group) was intended as business strategy, it had the unplanned effect of casting Mr. Martinez as not only the leader of almost 200 Condé Nast employees at the country’s most influential glossy magazines (like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour and GQ) but also as the most powerful Latino in glossy publishing.

And that has put a spotlight on someone in the throes of a personal transformation ignited, albeit unintentionally, by Mr. Trump.

While the story of Mr. Martinez is in many ways representative of a number of stories from this strange and twisted election cycle, that he can now tell it from 22 floors up at One World Trade Center gives it a certain reach. Which he intends to use.

“I never really labeled myself ethnically or in terms of sexual orientation,” Mr. Martinez, 54, said a few days after his promotion. It was his first interview on a subject that was not his new group at Condé Nast, and he spoke of a new sense that it was also now his job to put himself above the parapet as the representative of an alternative narrative for a group of people.

Though he grew up in a political household — “A very Republican one,” he said, noting that this was the first year since his mother could vote that she would not be voting Republican — he was not particularly active.

“I was always very focused on my career and just thought I should do a good job, and if someone gets inspiration from that, fantastic,” he said. “But at this point, given all the negative discussion around a specific group of people, I thought our stories have to start being told.

“In a way, getting this job was already a statement. But now it is my responsibility to my community and my children to start to talk about myself, because I’ve been shocked at some of the conversations I have had to have with them.”

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The son of Cuban émigrés who came to New York in 1970, when he was a young boy, Mr. Martinez has been a fashion-world insider for years. There are some well-known Latinos in the industry; many, like the designers Carolina Herrera and Narciso Rodriguez, were featured in “Nuevo New York,” a recent book on creative Latinos and their contributions. But few have reached the top tier of mainstream glossy publishing.

Among them were Paul Cavaco, whose family has Spanish and Cuban roots, and who was a founder of KCD, the fashion production and public relations megalith, and the creative director of Allure; and Karla Martinez de Salas, who was a W fashion editor before taking the helm of Vogue Mexico and Latin America. But Mr. Martinez’s remit extends to all Condé Nast platforms, an unprecedented position.

Mr. Martinez became the associate art director of Vogue in 1988 (his tenure dates from Ms. Wintour’s first issue), and the art director in 1990. He left Vogue in 1995, and in 1996 started AR New York, a creative and branding agency, along with his life partner and business partner at the time, Alex Gonzalez, currently the creative director of Elle. They created campaigns for Valentino, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Lanvin and Givenchy, among others, before selling the agency to Publicis in late 2012.

In 2009, Mr. Martinez went back to Vogue as a consulting design director, and last year was named the corporate creative director of Condé Nast. Then came what Mr. Gonzalez sees as the cracking of the great glass ceiling.

“Raúl Martinez is that rare thing in our business: a prodigious talent who is as approachable as he is brilliant,” Ms. Wintour said. “In his many years at Condé Nast, he has shown himself to be someone with an unerring eye and a remarkable generosity of spirit. He is the perfect choice to unify our creative teams.”

But until now, he had never spoken publicly about his ethnicity. (In a way, Mr. Martinez was the anti-Anna, who wears her politics on her back, literally, appearing during fashion week in a Made for History T-shirt.) Neither he nor Mr. Gonzalez, for example, was in “Nuevo New York.”

“For me, the breaking point was the first speech,” Mr. Martinez said, referring to Mr. Trump’s speech announcing his candidacy in 2015. “I found it almost unbearable, from the walls to the rapists. And the rhetoric just continued from there. It was unacceptable.”

He started talking to Mr. Gonzalez, he said, and both decided it was time to make the private public.

“We realized we had to contextualize whatever achievements we had,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “We’ve always been intensely proud of our roots but also very private. But when Donald Trump started attacking Judge Curiel, I realized if he could do that to someone who was so much a part of civil society, what could he do to me and my legacy? And it dawned on both of us that the way to counteract that was to get our stories out there.”

Just as so many women have been provoked into action by the sexism debate incited by the campaign, so, too, was Mr. Martinez activated by the debate on immigration. The question for him now is how to most effectively combine his new power position and a new sense of purpose.

“I’m not sure where all this will lead or what I can be,” Mr. Martinez said. “But I feel very personal about it. I want to do the right thing.”

Mr. Gonzalez is already in talks with New York University about creating a symposium on Latinos in the media.

The election, Mr. Martinez said, “is just the beginning.”

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