Designer Esteban Cortázar on Finding Acceptance as a Gay Teen in Miami: 'Empathy and Love Creates a Happy Life'
Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more
In 2002, at age 17, Esteban Cortázar was the youngest designer to introduce a collection at New York Fashion Week — launching a career which has led him to head the House of Ungaro, create collections for Net-a-Porter, and design for icons including Beyoncé, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna and Lady Gaga under his own label. Cortazar, now 37, resides in Paris, where he designs clothes that combine Latin flair and culture with French sophistication and sensibility. He recently visited Miami to launch his sustainable spring/summer collection in collaboration with Desigual. As part of PEOPLE's Voices for Change series, Cortázar shares his experiences with being gay, growing up around older, creative people, appreciating who he is, and why these conversations matter. Below is his story, as told to PEOPLE.
I grew up with an artist father and jazz singer mother, so I was surrounded by creative people. Even though they separated when I was 1, my life was filled with love and encouragement from both of them. By the time I was 3 or 4, I was allowed to visit my dad, who had moved to Miami.
It was a golden age in Miami Beach, where I met drag queens, supermodels, iconic photographers, and performers including Gloria Estefan and Madonna. I was lucky to experience this creative world when I was a young kid, because it shaped me.
When I returned to Bogotá for school, I knew I was different in a naive way. I had a sensibility and sensitivity that other boys around me were not attracted to. I was repeatedly bullied and teased so my mom changed me from school to school. I was fortunate to live around art, nature and elegance, and had tastemakers in my family who inspired me. I loved to play with my mom and grandma's clothes so I developed my own little world.
When I turned 10, my mom was brave enough to send me to Miami to live with my dad where my eye wandered to the male spirit. I knew then that I was attracted to men. We lived on South Beach, near a gay beach.
I became friendly with older people, some were gay, but during those years in Miami people didn't judge if you were gay or straight. It was about who you were. By the time I was becoming a teen, I had a lot of drag queens working around me which helped normalize my desires—especially to dress and put makeup on them!
For my 13th birthday, my dad took me to a Miami Beach restaurant/club known for drag queen shows, because that is where I wanted to go. I never felt like an outcast, even though I experienced more bullying in Miami, but by then I had learned to create my own life.
I even hosted a fashion show at school. Since I knew what I was doing, the bullying and jealousy stopped once kids saw my confidence, and that I would not put up with it. The fashion show solidified who I was.
The first people I told that I was gay were two older female friends in Miami who I met when I was young. One was a vintage clothing retailer, and the other was a fashion producer who did photoshoots. I was surrounded by artists and interesting characters all of those years which gave me a worldly and inclusive perspective.
And I was personally inspired by performers Ricky Martin and the late George Michael when they came out. It must be hard to be gay and have to hide it. I can't imagine how it would be to Iive and not be who you are. It hurts me to see those who feel as though they have to live like that.
If you are gay, it is important to grow up with love and support in your house like I did. Both of my parents encouraged me to come out of the closet when I was ready. That happened on the day of my high school graduation. Dad got up and toasted, and mom was happy I did it. I am so lucky that being gay didn't seem abnormal at home, but for years I had lived in fear of how others would feel once I came out.
I was 22 when I had my first boyfriend. The relationship lasted for seven years. My family embraced him, which was great. I continued to design and knew my background and personal life were unique. I wanted to share it all through my work. It is very important as a creative person to be authentic and true to my own voice. I believe it helps bring soul to my work.
I remember always being obsessed with the red carpet, so when I dress iconic women like Lady Gaga, Cate Blanchett, Beyonce and Rihanna, it makes me feel proud that my story and creative journey are part of pop culture. I was so young when I started: the Drew Barrymore of fashion!
I believe we still have a way to go in accepting gay people. We seem to move forward then we go backward. We see fear in the world, and fear creates hate. It stops harmony and it stops love. We all want to be loved and feel safe and accepted for who we are. But some people live in a different reality.
Still, in some ways, we have gotten more aware and progressive, but we need to get even better. Tragedies like the 2016 shootings at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando are horrible. But we need to understand it, then move ahead.
We need to be optimistic that this won't happen again. We can do that by having conversations about our differences. We need to connect and hear all stories and struggles. Good can come from open communication about our differences.
I hope to see changes that include more dialogue, acceptance, and question asking instead of reactionary rejections. We need to have empathy and love. This is what creates a happy life. We need to give ourselves love, and then it is easier to give it to others. We are all capable of this but we get caught up in fear, darkness and challenge. Right now the world is upside down.
My current collection with Desigual speaks to all of this. The fashions offer brightness, color, hope, diversity, drag culture, and gender diversity. From the moment I started designing clothing through today, my style evolves from my surroundings and feelings.
I am inspired by the different cities where I have lived: New York, Bogotá, Miami, Paris and Cartagena, where my dad lives now and my mom is planning to relocate. I am most happy there because of its beauty, color, flavor, energy and unusual mix and match of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. I plan to spend more time there.
In everything I do there is a common thread. I try to put out a message of love and unity in my way of being. I am personable. I use my global platform to inspire people and make them feel good. It is my responsibility to lift people up and bring them together. I hope to continue doing this so we can all live in a more inclusive world.
Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more.