GREATEST: LUAR'S Raul Lopez
Hood By Air co-founder. Creator of the world’s newest It bag. Raul Lopez looks back on nearly 20 years of remixing personal influences into singular expressions of luxury.
When Raul Lopez was in high school, he used fashion as a medium to navigate different social circles. This chameleonic, DIY spirit lives on in his work at LUAR, the brand he founded in 2011. Tough, confident and about as New York as they come, his clothes are an ode to the city’s off-duty drag queens and corporate hustlers, the people he has always watched breezing across the five boroughs. Fierce power-suiting and dramatic tailored coats express a hard outer shell, but look just beneath the surface and you’ll find a soft, community-minded nature that is the very essence of Lopez’s fashion philosophy.
This ethos led first to Hood By Air, which he launched with Shayne Oliver in 2006. The pair met as teenagers in New York’s voguing scene and, in the early days, would silkscreen garments in Lopez’s childhood bedroom. But fashion moves fast and turning adolescent passions into a full-time career can be a bittersweet pill to swallow. In 2019, burned out and depressed, Lopez took a three-season hiatus, holing up in the Cayman Islands to reset and take stock. It made all the difference. In 2021, he came back reenergized. Since relaunching LUAR, he’s closed New York Fashion Week, won American Accessory Designer of the Year at the CFDA Awards, dressed supermodel Paloma Elsesser at the 2023 Met Gala, made the semifinals of the prestigious LVMH Prize and created the biggest It bag since Telfar’s viral “Bushwick Birkin.”
For Lopez, fashion has always been about the dream. Growing up, clothes became a way to escape and move between worlds, whether that was through different cliques in the high school cafeteria or encounters in the vast melting pot of New York. Fashion is all about world building, but it’s also rooted in reality. It’s one thing to indulge in rich sartorial daydreams, but quite another to have to get dressed to go to work each day. That’s why LUAR walks the line between high-end fashion fantasy and the gritty lived experiences of the communities Lopez grew up around, particularly New York’s immigrant population. The designer often references his Dominican heritage, valuing the way clothes connect us to past generations.
That’s where the bag comes in. Bold, briefcase-inspired and with an enormous round “statement” handle, the Ana rapidly became the It bag of the moment. When the first preorder sold out in just 15 minutes, Lopez raised a glass of champagne with fellow New York handbag prodigy, Telfar Clemens. His ambition is for it to become an heirloom, passed down through generations like fur coats or jewelry, connecting people and traveling around the world.
When LUAR closed New York Fashion Week in February, the show took place just a few blocks away from where Lopez grew up. This full-circle moment was summed up by the show’s title, “Calle Pero Elegante,” meaning “street but elegant.” Even as LUAR sets his sights on the LVMH Prize, he’s still grounded in the low-key quotidian glamour of the streets.
In conversation with longtime friend, collaborator and stylist Kyle Luu, Lopez recounts his chaotic year, learning to code-switch in social settings and how he created New York’s buzziest bag.
Hi, sis, how are you?
I’m good. How are you?
I’m good. Where are you at currently?
I’m in the Dominican Republic right now.
We all know you’re the queen of DR. It’s been such a crazy and chaotic year with you. How are you feeling about the CFDA [Prize], the LVMH [Prize] and everything in between?
It’s been a roller coaster because I’ve been doing this for so long and finally hit the ball out of the park. To be actually recognized for my work and what I do is kind of sweet and I love it. I feel really grateful. I think everything has fallen into place and aligned with where I want to go.
I know that I’m real and I just don’t know how to be any other way. I think also these spaces need to experience people like me and vice versa. We can both learn from each other.
We met in nightlife and it’s always so interesting and inspiring to see when people go from that world to this parallel universe of mainstream fashion. How are you still able to keep things so authentic without losing your identity in these corporate spaces or mainstream fashion spaces? How are you still keeping your integrity?
I’m a hardcore New Yorker and I’ve always been taught to keep it real. It’s also like: Fake it until you make it. Both of those things work side by side even outside of the corporate world. If you go into the ghetto, you’ve got to code-switch. I can’t come in with the same vibe as when I go into a corporate office. It’s about learning how to code-switch and be a chameleon.
How to move and shake in different spaces. You’ve taught me that for sure.
Even in school I was always shape-shifting to fit in with all the groups. For me, it’s kind of organic. I know that I’m real and I just don’t know how to be any other way. I think also these spaces need to experience people like me and vice versa. We can both learn from each other. It doesn’t always have to be like, “Oh, because I’m a POC I should be there, because I worked my ass off to get there.” I’m also learning from you. I’ve been asked, “Why are you so infatuated with rich white people?” For me, I want to know why they behave like this and why they dress like this. How did these people get to these places and how do they make their fortunes?
We’ve always been so interested in human behavior and a lot of that shows with how we style out the shows. When you say “rich white women,” we’re like, “Let’s let shit drag on the floor.” That’s the difference between Old Money and New Money. Old Money doesn’t care if their shit gets dirty.
That’s my study. It’s that type of stuff.
We love a human case study over at LUAR enterprises. How would you describe the way that our team communicates with each other and what the process is like? I think for one, there’s zero filter.
I think unfiltering creates a better space and I think it’s what gets people’s guards down. At the end of the day, they’re on my team and yeah, they’re working for me, but I can’t do all of this if I don’t have all of that. I want to create a family. I like to create spaces where people can belong and I think it starts from the office.
You’ve created such a timeless bag, the Ana, which flawlessly goes with everything. I’ve seen so many people out and about wearing this and it gives me chills every time. What do you think made the Ana bag such a hit?
I think when you buy something, you want to belong to a world. When I made the bag I wanted to create an heirloom that could be handed down from generation to generation. It was also a way for me to give back to all these immigrants and women who worked in these factories and paved the way for me. It was a way of making the heirloom be a piece that can travel around the world and kind of connect people in a weird way.
You’re so right because I understand all of your influences and I can see the bag being worn by the drug dealer, the high-end escort, the Hasidic Jewish person going to work; all of these different characters that make up your inspirational DNA. It’s a bag that means business. It’s saying, “I’m here to work, and I’m here to stunt.”
I think it’s a bag that commands power. I wanted the bag to be able to be propped up so people can see it when you walk in and it’s in your face and it becomes a conversation piece. Even if you’re in a sweatsuit you can put the bag up and they’re like, “Oh, this one’s dressed down but that bag is fire.”
Not only is it in your face, it could definitely slap you across the face, too. Who are some of your biggest sources of inspiration?
I’m inspired a lot by my family and the people who came before me. I’m intrigued by what they perceive as fashionable and how they wear it. I really love how resourceful people can be with very low means—how they can look luxurious. That inspires me more than someone who actually dresses in full head-to-toe designer. Someone who can go to a thrift store and mix it up and still look good has a lot to say.
We’re not even upset if you pull out the glue gun.
Oh, I love a glue gun.
We love to spook girls with a glue gun. I love that. The current state of New York fashion, it’s so Y2K. We talk about this a lot because we’re like, well, what is beyond Y2K? Because truly and honestly we were the generation that did Y2K and created Y2K.
[Laughs] And here we are eons later and it’s still Y2K. Why haven’t we been able to move past that and why can’t kids get beyond that? Do we just need to go: “It’s now about the Roaring Twenties?”
I mean, I love the Roaring Twenties. Everyone is so obsessed with the Y2K thing, it’s actually kind of embarrassing. Even designers are just copying and pasting to accommodate this trend. It literally just looks like they cut out pieces from a magazine from 2001 and put it on the runway. Why do you need to make that again? Why do I want to pay a thousand dollars for the same skirt that I can get at the thrift store for $8?
There are so many decades to reference. Why can’t we reference 2000 BC or something? Jesus needs to be on the mood board.
Bring Mother back.
Is there anything that you feel is missing [from the fashion narrative] that LUAR adds to the conversation?
Piggybacking off of what I was saying, what is luxury now and how can it be perceived? It’s not always about how much it costs to make the garment or how much the fabric costs. It’s more about, how do you create this world of luxury and queerness and bridge these gaps from all these different social settings and bring them into one place? I feel like LUAR [is meant for] someone who’s comfortable in their own skin.
Anybody who knows you knows that you do not limit yourself to social crowds. You have always mixed and mingled with every type of character and I think that is what LUAR brings to the table that nobody does. You talk to rappers, they want to wear LUAR. You talk to trans women, they’re so enamored by the brand and your ballroom background. You have a lot to offer to so many different social circles that I think people really just live to support you.
They see that it’s real.
I have my family and as long as you respect them, you’re good. You can come in. If not, then just keep it cute and keep it mute.
They see that it’s real and that is something that is really hard to come by these days.
I feel like all these brands now are just kind of riding this wave of inclusivity, but what I really want to know is, are you actually breaking bread with these people? Are you actually sitting at the table with these people that you’re having in your shows? If you’re not, then don’t do it because then it’s a gimmick. It really bothers me that the industry forces people to do this, but then when the door closes, they’re tearing them down. And for me, that’s even worse, you know?
On a day-to-day basis, honestly speaking, we do not get into identity politics and all of that stuff because we just live it. We are living in the motion of being marginalized people in a space that generally doesn’t invite us to the table. We’re skipping over that conversation and just doing what needs to be done in order for us to make a greater impact. Because if you can’t move past that conversation, then you don’t even need to be part of our sphere.
What I always say is, if you want to come into my world, you’re more than welcome. I have my family and as long as you respect them, you’re good. You can come in. If not, then just keep it cute and keep it mute. You don’t need to be in this world. There are other spaces to be in. I don’t care if you’re straight, gay, queer, trans. It’s about how you treat people.