As the editor of Vogue Mexico, Karla Martinez de Salas brings what could be called an outsider’s insider eye to the fashion and design worlds in Mexico and Latin America. Born in El Paso, she grew up speaking Spanish at home and visiting relatives in Mexico every summer. Working as a fashion market editor at magazines such as Vogue, W and T gave her an international perspective on style. So when she landed the top spot at Vogue a year after she and her husband moved to Mexico City for his work in 2015, Martinez de Salas was determined to highlight not only the country’s incredible new talent, but its vivid and intensely held culture. Rather than feature the same light-skinned models and global celebrities as her sister titles, de Salas broke new ground in 2018, when she put the indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio on the cover, not to mention the striking Mendoza sisters (three generations of Oaxacan tortilla makers), and has continued to celebrate the diversity and depth of the country that she proudly calls home.
We caught up with her in her office, where she joined the call in a Vogue face mask, to learn more about her exploration of Mexican life and style.
Carlos Huber: To address Mexican style, I feel like we need to unravel some of the clichés, right? In my opinion—as a Mexican living abroad, and seeing how it’s seen from here—Mexican style has long been something of a caricature, extremely campy in a way. It’s either the Mexican revolution “Adelita,” or it’s an intellectualized pre-Hispanic interpretation by Diego Rivera.
Karla Martinez de Salas: Or Frida, right? That’s it. I feel there’s no in-between.
But then as Mexicans, we have our stereotypes of Mexican style as well. You have the bombastic look with the makeup and the hair and the flamboyant way of dressing, or you have the intellectual, austere type of woman with a rebozo shawl, something woven from Oaxaca. For a long time that’s what Mexican style seemed to be. It was big, it was bold, it was borderline tacky — and then it was also sophisticated and chic and informed as well.
I love seeing those women. If you go to Oaxaca you see the indigenous women walking around in their little blouses over their skirts, or the old ladies who wear those printed ‘50s dresses, and then in Chihuahua you see the Raramuri women in those big colorful skirts. I feel it’s too bad that the American influence came and [brought] T-shirts and jeans, because you see those people and their grandmothers are wearing the beautiful huipiles. It just looks so pretty.
How do you tie all of these styles together as Mexican?
I do think of color when I think of Mexican style. I think of artisans and, as you’re saying, the woman in the all-gray outfit—she might be wearing a rebozo, a shawl that has some sort of embroidery. It’s funny, I don’t know if you feel this too, but my friends from other parts of Mexico always say that the most casual people are in Mexico City. That in other cities, women dress up. They either will wear a dress or at least they’ll always wear high heels. They’re always done. I feel like Mexico City recently has had more of an L.A. casual influence.
When you arrived, how many Latin American designers were really being championed in Vogue, and what was your take on that?
There were a few Mexican designers. Now there are so many designers that have opened, started doing new things. Before, I remember it used to be, “Oh, you can’t find pajamas here.” You’d have to buy them at Zara. And now you have two different designers who are doing beautiful linen pajamas, and really great beachwear and swimwear. And people really started looking to see what they had here. I was always surprised that Coqui Coqui and Hacienda Monte Cristo were all expats who were working in Mexico. Even someone like Daniela Bustos Maya, who lives in Mérida—and she does these beautiful things with fringe and rope—she’s Argentinian. Now I feel like there are many more designers here. There’s a young brand of huipiles, which are the Oaxacan typical dresses, and she makes them in every color under the sun. There’s a young girl named Denisse Kuri who’s working with 20 artists and women in Puebla to make blouses and embroider them in a really special way. So, I do love wearing those Mexican designers that were a bit harder to find when I first got here.
What do you think has shifted the trend of people paying more attention to local designers, local crafts—of people being a little bit more proud of the Mexican-ness of things?
I feel like when I first moved here during the  election, when all the anti-Mexican sentiment was coming out of the U.S. thanks to someone that we don’t have to mention, there was an introspection in Mexico. It was a good time because people started to really produce things here. And not just fashion. You see it in the design world, in the beauty world. I think people started to say, “You know what? We can do really amazing things here.” And sometimes it takes the eye of a foreigner to see that. I grew up in El Paso and I would come to Mexico and my cousins would always be like, “What are you bringing from the other side?” And I would say, “You have such amazing things here.”
And so I think that there has been a rediscovery. In part, it was Mexicans wanting to promote things that were happening here. And on an international level, the brands started investing here, and it wasn’t any more expensive to buy Gucci here than it was in the U.S. So people started really saying, “We’re going to buy local and we’re going to support…” I know that at Vogue we’re doing it — it’s just this “support your local economy.”
What other Mexican creatives are you excited about?
It’s funny because the same thing has happened with home design this year. You have this girl that’s doing the huipil line. You have this store in Valle de Bravo called Pronto Muy Pronto, and they’re selling those beautiful candles that they make in Oaxaca with the flowers. And then you have the art scene. People like Eduardo Sarabia and Gabriel Rico. As far as photographers, at Vogue we’ve been working a lot with Dorian Ulysses Lopez, and he’s so creative. He shot a cover for us last year with this relatively unknown Oaxacan model named Karen Vega. She’s holding her grandma’s rooster, and it went viral. It was crazy. And he did that from his house.
There are really interesting stylists, like Nayeli de Alba, but I also feel like there’s this whole new generation of people that are working on cool, interesting things like Sánchez Kane, who’s this really awesome girl named Barbara. We actually shot her when Tim Walker came to Mexico because her designs are really, really creative. I feel like not only were there new designers popping up, but they were really giving new proposals. Instead of trying to look Gucci, they were doing something that was completely unique. And I also feel like the younger generation, they want those cool things. They don’t want to look like everyone. They have a different appreciation for local artisans and local designers.
Speaking of models, you’ve made an amazing decision to feature more Mexican and Latin American models—obviously, when you did the cover with Yalitza Aparicio, but also you featured the incredible Muxe of Oaxaca, who are gender non-binary and indigenous. You’ve moved the needle in a direction that is very positive and previously very hard to move toward. Can you talk more about that decision?
When I first came to the magazine from New York, I was very immersed in the fashion world and what everyone believes to be cool. And then I came here and I would ask for certain models and they’d be like, “Oh, no. Well, I can’t give her to you yet. But what about this girl?” And I would always say, “Okay, that does something for them, but what is it doing for me?” You know what I mean? What is it doing for our magazine to have someone with 30 million followers that doesn’t resonate with the women that I’m talking to, or the women that I want to know who they are? And so I took this approach of, “Okay, if I’m not giving Lineisy Montero — who’s a Dominican model — this platform, who is giving it to them?” Because she’s not going to be on the cover of American Vogue, or she’s not going to be on the cover of French Vogue.
So we changed our mindset and were like, “Why don’t we find those cool, interesting models, musicians, actresses that are doing really interesting things in Mexico and Latin America?” Before Yalitza, we were doing it quite a bit, and then after Yalitza, that game changed. I think you see the face of Latin America and Mexico changing. If you think about Netflix a few years ago, we weren’t watching all these series that were being produced here.
Being from El Paso and moving to New York, you were American but were maybe considered “Mexican.” Now that you live in Mexico, do you see yourself as a hybrid, or do you now feel you’re more Mexican than anything else?
I feel like no one has ever asked me that question, and it’s so true! Sometimes when I was in New York, you know that feeling—everyone’s just international. And in Mexico I do feel I have a lot of American things in me, but I always think that I’m in the middle. I always just say I’m from El Paso, because El Paso’s very much both cultures. You have the madness, the chaos of Mexico, but you have the order of the U.S. It’s the best of both worlds because you can cross to Juárez, have good food, come back to El Paso and everyone obeys the stop signs. I feel really bicultural, and I feel that’s a real blessing.
Where will your next vacation be?
Yucatán, I think!
The thing you can’t travel without?
Besides my phone, I would say a good book
When were you happiest while traveling?
I was so happy this past December driving to Puerto Escondido: It reminded me of driving to San Luis Potosi 18 hours each summer growing up.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
Hotel Esencia in Mexico. The Mark in New York.
The place/trip that challenged you most?
Last March in Paris, traveling for the [fashion] shows and dealing with the beginning of the pandemic. I am pretty laid back, so I was not in a panic, but everyone else was!
The most memorable meal you’ve had while traveling?
The food in Peru! In 2019 I went to Lima for two nights and had the best chufa (Chinese food a la peruana) and went to an amazing local food tavern.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
A motel in Rio de Janeiro the night before New Year’s Eve because we couldn’t get into the apartment that a friend loaned us.
What is your favorite market in the world?
I love the markets in Marrakesh.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
I love Contramar and Entremar, San Angel Inn, Rosetta, Bakea in Mexico City. Walking through La Roma and Parque de Chapultepec to the Museo Tamayo.
Stores: Onora, Lago DF, Pronto muy Pronto, Don Lino, Uriarte.
Galleries: Kurimanzutto, House of Gaga, Ago Projects, Nordenhake, OMR
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
Paris during La Belle Époque
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
Weekend: Careyes. I love the Jaliscan coast – it’s so beautiful. Week: Jose Ignacio, close to Punta del Este. I visited Uruguay last year and loved it! Month: I am looking for a place in Oaxaca City - hopefully I can find one. Year: I love Paris. I lived there after college
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Carlos Huber is the Director of Membership at PRIOR. An architect, preservationist and fragrance designer, his experience in architectural history and design led him from his native Mexico City to Italy, France, Spain and the United States, based in New York since 2006. This diverse background, and his love of travel, is represented in the evocative fragrances he’s created for the ARQUISTE Parfumeur collection as well as for other world-renowned brands.