Manuel Santelices is a talented Chilean artist and journalist who has dedicated his career to exploring the realms of fashion, society, and pop culture. Armed with a degree in journalism, Santelices has been at the forefront of covering fashion and culture for decades. Starting in Santiago and in 1992 making his way to the bustling streets of New York where he seamlessly transitioned into working as a foreign correspondent for COSAS, a Latin American lifestyle magazine. His unique perspective and deep understanding of fashion and fashion magazines lead him to work as a contributing writer and an editor for the Spanish editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ and Esquire, and later for Vogue Mexico and Latin American.
Manuel has not only made a significant impact through his words, but he has also captivated audiences with his exceptional talent as a fashion illustrator. He had a first exhibition at the Soho Beach House Miami, published a book “Drawing the line” (LAK, 2017) and collaborated with fashion brands like: Chanel, MAC, Tiffany & Co., H&M, etc. We had the honor of delving into Manuel’s inspiring journey, discussing the intersection of his two passions and uncovering the secrets behind his immense success.
Do you believe that fashion is a thing of beauty and dreams?
For sure. But I understand it is also a business – a big business -, so beauty and dreams are limited by the reality of commercial and financial considerations. For me, the most interesting thing about fashion has to do with creativity and aesthetics. I grew up looking at fashion and lifestyle magazines, where the beauty and dreamy part of fashion had the starring role.
Diana Vreeland at home (2022)
Who are your heroes when it comes to art/fashion design/fashion photography? Whose works do you find the most intriguing?
Three people really shaped my view of the world in my youth: Andy Warhol, Woody Allen and Diana Vreeland. I became obsessed with their work and their point of view. Also, with their love for a particular kind of New York life that has always seem very seductive to me. Everything I knew of New York at the time came from them.
You grew up in Chile. How do you remember that period?
Chile at the time was a very provincial place. To me, it felt like a black and white movie, while I imagined the rest of the world as a technicolor film, particularly New York. The country was under a military dictatorship, and the Catholic church had a lot of influence in everyday life, and we were a very isolated society. On the other hand, as Bill Blass used to say, there’s nothing better for your imagination that growing up in a boring place. I read a lot, and I listened to the radio, watched tons of movies and TV shows. I was daydreaming all the time. Now, when I think about those years, I see many great things that I did not appreciate at the time. Chile is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. My childhood bedroom had a huge window that looked over the Andes and some cherry trees. It was amazing. Chilean people are also very artistic – lots of painters and writers- so culture has been always rich, even if government has not been always very supportive of it.
Manuel Santelices in his livingroom
Do you think that your cultural heritage influenced the way you see and approach art and fashion?
Definitely. Growing so far from the main centers of fashion and art gave me an outsider’s view of it, and I think that has been to my advantage. I like being an observer.
How has your life changed since you moved to New York?
I moved here over 30 years ago, so it has been a long ride. I felt a lot of freedom when I got to New York. The first thing I did was to let my hair grow, something I always wanted to do, and that was just a sign of a new chapter of my life. To be in New York in the 90’s was glorious. It was a time of a lot of optimism in the USA, a youthquake. It felt like a constant, exciting and glamorous party.
Single and Fabulous (2022)
How did your career develop from that point? Do you remember the moment that was a real breakthrough in your career?
I came to New York as a foreign correspondent for COSAS, a Latin American lifestyle magazine, but early on I started to collaborate with other publications, many of them fashion magazines like the Spanish editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue Latam. There were many good writers that could write in Spanish in New York at the time, but my love for magazines and my interest in fashion helped me to get the attention of editors. Probably my biggest “get” was to do a cover and 10-page story on Javier Bardem for Esquire in Spain. I could not believe I was writing for the same title Gay Talese and Truman Capote did. I was so happy.
What was the biggest challenge of working in fashion in a city like New York?
It depends on what side of the business you are, but the common challenge for all is to have the strength, the stamina, the discipline and the resolution to continue working and stay on top, whatever “top” means to you.
What has changed in the fashion industry since you entered it?
Is a completely different business. Like everything else in our culture, is much more fractured and inequal. On one hand, you have mega groups like LVMH or Kering and fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M. On the other, so many talented designers can hardly survive. Fashion has become a global showbusiness, totally merged with celebrity culture. Another big difference is the progressive irrelevance of fashion editors and the raise social media stars and influencers.
Valentino hat (2022)
What’s one thing that has stayed the same?
The infectious enthusiasm of young designers.
What made you venture away from fashion in favor of illustration?
As I said, my work in fashion has been mostly as a writer for style publications. At some point I realized the world of magazines, as I knew it, was disappearing and that I had to find something else to do. I always loved drawing, so I started to do it more rigorously and finally I took it as a new career. The fact that I could show my work via Instagram was a huge advantage. Illustration also gave me the chance to continue being part of the world of fashion, art and design that I love so much.
You’ve been a fashion illustrator for quite a while now. How would you describe your illustration style?
I like to think that is refined but not stuffy, that is beautiful and has a sense of humor.
What are your current projects?
Right now, I am preparing a show that will open at the end of January in Bergdorf Goodman – a show done in collaboration with Chairish. I am also doing a wallpaper collection with Papel Pintado – a Latin American company that is expanding to North America and Europe. I am planning a show in Santiago, Chile, at some point in 2024, and I continue working with The Art Design Project, my gallery in Miami.
Backstage New York Fashion Week 2023
Given that you paint fashion personalities and high society parties that are often dear to people’s hearts, and your treatment of these subjects has deeply affective qualities, has anyone ever had an extreme reaction to one of your works?
Most comments I get are positive. People always say that my drawings make them happy, which, of course, makes ME very happy. But every once in a while someone criticizes me for focusing in the rich, famous and privileged, which is a fair assessment.
Nicholas Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftebury (2023)
What is the most memorable party that you have ever attend to?
The ball of the American Friends of Versailles at the Chateau of Versailles. It included a dinner in the Orangerie and fireworks that really felt like a dream.
You live in Rhinebeck N.Y., a historic and lively community north of Manhattan with lots of galleries and book shops, but also it has been known for the Astor family estate, among other things. What attracted you to this place so you decided to make it a home?
We did not know anything about Rhinebeck when we moved here. At the beginning it was supposed to be a weekend place, but shortly after I started to spend more and more time here. Is so beautiful. The natural landscape is spectacular, and is a place, as you said, full of history and tradition. Is also a very welcoming town and we have created a great group of friends here.
How would you describe New York art scene of today?
The New York real-estate market, with its crazy prices, has affected the creative life of the city. It is very hard for artists and dealers to live and work there, so the field is reserved for art stars and powerful galleries. That said, New York is a real treasure when it comes to galleries and museums. I love to visit them, and I do it constantly.
What are you passionate about besides your work?
My family and my friends. My cats. Film, books, podcasts. Nature.
What is it like to go back to Chile these days?
Is such a different place now! I absolutely love it. I have lived away enough time, so now it feels intriguing, fresh and new to me, but I still understand the codes and the way of living. Santiago – were we keep an apartment – is a great city. Very vibrant, very sexy and mysterious.
Since we are approaching New Year, let’s do something fun. Okay, now some “this or that.”
New York or Paris?
Naomi Campbell or Linda Evangelista?
Anna Wintour or Diana Vreeland?
Peter Lindbergh or Helmut Newton?
Cecil Beaton or Horst P. Horst?
That’s a difficult one. Cecil Beaton is one of my heroes, but I get constant inspiration from the interiors photography of Horst. His images of Cy Twombly homes are my favorites.
Irving Penn or Richard Avedon?
They are both quite cerebral, but I think Penn has a bit more romance in his work.
Yves Saint Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld?
Lisa Fonssagrives or Dorian Leigh?
Coco Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli?
Elsa Schiaparelli (2021)
Vesna Filipović for Fashionela