After years of gallivanting the globe and exploring art in different ways, former WWD fashion illustrator Pedro Barrios continues to draw and paint in his Miami home. Even though he is technically retired, he is occasionally commissioned to do paintings for residential clients.
Using all of his savings, Barrios left the U.S. in the late Seventies and spent years living in different countries — first Greece, then Spain, Italy and England. After a respite in the U.S., he relocated again to Puerto Rico to live in the Caribbean National Forest.
“I was never afraid to take a chance. Traveling to different countries is something that most people won’t do,” he said. “I even killed a boa constrictor in my house in the rainforest. The animal got in through one of the upper windows and was in a bookcase. I wasn’t going to sleep with her. Frankly, she was a little taller than I am — almost six feet long.”
A saber alone was not enough to solve the problem. Barrios added, “But when you live in a place like that you have tarantulas in the house, bats and stuff like that. But it was fun. I had this fantasy of being the Cuban Tarzan.”
Wherever the former WWD staffer was living, he said he met wonderful people, like the interior designer Angelo Donghia. Recalling how he went to his home for parties with a model friend, Barrios said once when Maxime de la Falaise learned he was born in Cuba, she practically interviewed him about that.
Wonderful designers like Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and fellow Cuban-born Adolfo Sardina were among those he encountered. “They saw that you were very young but they were amused by that,” Barrios said.
“I have done a lot of stuff in the time that I have lived, and anywhere I was. I don’t regret a minute of it. I mean, I should have saved money but that’s not the point. And I helped my family.”
Being based in the northeast area of Puerto Rico for five years, Barrios put down stakes there in one of six houses that were built when the rainforest was developed. Wanamaker’s and other clients would ship merchandise for Barrios to sketch via express mail to a nearby town. Models loved to work with him in the rainforest because they would leave “with their arms full of exotic flowers — heliconias and that kind of stuff,” he said.
With a brother in Mexico, one sister in Saudi Arabia and another in the Dominican Republic, he moved to Miami to care for his aging mother. Born in Cuba, the family left for the States in 1961. After studying illustration and advertising at the High School of Art and Design, Barrios went to night school at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 1967 at the age of 20, Barrios joined WWD and stayed for 11 and a half years.
“I loved it because it gave me the opportunity to do things that I wasn’t able to do with other people. The ads I did for Stern Bros. were straight advertising. At Women’s Wear, I could put in backgrounds and all kinds of crazy drawings,” he said. “I always tried to do my own style. Some people said it’s Art Deco-ish but it’s not. I just like lines with a lot of detail and lots of color. Everything is very stylized.”
Growing up in Havana in the Fifties helped to introduce him to fashion. His mother’s label of choice was Balenciaga, and ensembles cost $200 at that time. Affordable as that might seem today, it was comparable to a person’s salary. His mother worked at one time as a sample maker in a hat factory, and made some of her own. His grandmother, a chef, had her own restaurant in a hotel in Cuba but she worked however she could in the U.S.
During his days at WWD, Barrios would use items such as an Yves Saint Laurent scarf as a starting point, and he would draw a model wearing it on a balcony overlooking the streets of Paris. Drawing was something that he took to as a child, growing up in Cuba’s smallest town. Once he was asked by local officials to draw a mural there of a Russian flag and the Cuban flag. “I wasn’t too crazy about that but my mother said, ‘You’d better do it,’” Barrios said. “My mother’s stepfather was executed by [Fidel] Castro. He was a judge, but he was persecuted. My stepfather was in jail as a prisoner for years because he was a writer. That’s why we had to get out, which I am very happy about. If I had stayed there, I never would have lived in all of the places that I have, or have met all the people I have.”
In Athens, he rented a second-floor apartment above the Iranian Embassy from a Grecian designer friend. The 73-year-old said, “What an adventure, right? If I died tomorrow, I would not die unhappy. There’s not much more that I can do and I’m 73 now,” he said. “I did break my heel trying to save a cat. That is not bad though. A lot of people have harder lives.”
Unlike his friend and former WWD coworker Robert Melendez, who has saved a good deal of his work, Barrios only has some of his work. Having a solo show is still on his bucket list, although his art has been shown at FIT. Melendez, Robert Passantino, Glen Tunstull and Norma Kamali are among the fashion friends that Barrios keeps in the loop. They relate in many ways. Barrios said, “I don’t like laziness. In fashion art, you really have to work very hard.”
As for whether Barrios will write a book, he said, “I should. And I did hear a lot of gossip when I lived in New York. And I had friends in Paris. You just met people that you would never meet otherwise.”
Recalling how he went to school at night to financially support his family, he said it all worked out. “I did very well. I bought my mom a car. I bought my family a house. I put one of my sisters through law school and the other one through medical school,” Barrios said. “I’m the oldest of four so I took over what should have been my father’s place.”