The world of fashion is quite alluring yet seems unattainable. For Nasheli Juliana Ortiz, the road to become a fashion designer has not been easy but has been very successful. She is the Chair of the Fashion Design Department at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, and is now getting ready to present her designs at Paris Fashion Week next month.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, she overcame health-related obstacles which ultimately lead her to this world thanks to her persistence, hard word, and talent. After completing studies in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, she held several positions as a university professor and worked with multiple well-known designers. I asked Nasheli about her childhood challenges, misconceptions of the fashion industry, and how famed designer Oscar de la Renta gave her the first break. She gave great advice which can be applied to anyone in any industry.
Why did you wanted to be a fashion designer?
I had developing problems went when I was growing up: I had meningitis when I was 2 years old so I was in a coma. I’ve always had (learning) problems in school and my mom forced me to be in painting, drawing and dance to help me develop fine motor skills. The only thing that I knew how to do was doing clothes for my Barbies. I spent hours and hours doing clothes for my Barbies with paper towels or whatever I found around the house. When the time to select my high school came my mom said ‘you’re going to the vocational school.’ I didn’t want to go to the vocational school because none of my friends were going. But she enrolled me and I remember the first task was to do short pants and a waistband. It was the first time that I understood something completely. So I think my mom forced me to be a fashion designer. It was because she saw that something in me that I didn’t discover it until that moment.
How do you know that you could make a career out of fashion designing?
I did not knew that, really. We do not have a lot of Latino fashion designers to feel represented. I was very ignorant about the fashion industry. I started as a seamstress and then when I went to the university was when I learned that fashion design is a whole industry. I went to the Dominican Republic and studied at Altos de Chavon. I learned there all the things that you can do inside of the industry. That was the moment I said ‘oh I can still make a living being a fashion designer and not die,’ because in Puerto Rico there is still the idea that if you are in the fashion and art industries you are going to starve. That has not happened and I am happy as a fashion designer (laughs).
What do what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the industry of fashion design?
That is glamorous (laughs). Fashion design is not glamorous at all. Its very mean, classist, sexist, and as a Latina it has been very difficult to achieve anything. I’m not in any way what people think about of a fashion designer: I am a Latina with a very strong accent and I am even fat; fat people are not allowed in fashion. It’s a very mean industry. Even though I love it I am very aware of all these sad parts of the fashion industry.
What are two or three key things a person needs to make it in the industry and be successful?
You need to be disciplined. It is very hard to make it and you need to be very disciplined, be open to feedback and you need to be willing to work with other people. This is a collaboration field.
How do you describe your designing style?
As a fashion designer I work two sides: I work ready to wear, daylight wearing clothes. I like to use a lot of stretch bands; these are very comfortable clothes. On the other side is the most conceptual side. I present social problems in my conceptual work which I present in the runways. My work is very conceptual and political.
What are you communicating through your designs?
I just want people to understand that fashion has a lot of power. Fashion is seen a lot of times as very vain, but we communicate who we are and we make statements through our clothes. Clothes have been in power in the political aspects, how to use uniforms, women liberating themselves from the corset as empowered groups. even the people that are anti-fashion are making a statement and that is fashion. I want to keep that message right. Clothes have a message and that is very powerful.
Can you describe example of a failure that you learned from that turn into something successful?
My career started when I was graduating and during my final presentation one of the critics that came to see my work was Oscar de la Renta. It was a critique in front of all my classmates. I was pregnant with my first kid at the time and Oscar de la Renta said ‘you are going to be a great designer.’ Nobody in my classroom knew that I was pregnant, only my professor. When Oscar de la Renta said that, she (the professor) said in front of everybody, ‘first she needs to be a mom.’ Because it was so mean and Oscar de la Renta heard that he said, ‘well I am going to give her her first internship.’ That is how I landed the first job. People want to get you down but karma is instant (laughs).
What would you recommend to anybody who is thinking about being fashion design or in a related field?
I believe in academia. I believe is very important to have that formal education, that safe space to make mistakes and to have a group of people there are searching for the same goals that you are searching.
I think education is very important. A lot of people think that because they know how to sew that they are fashion designers and its a very big step and very big path to get from one to another. Education is one of the biggest things that we’re missing now in the fashion industry because fashion is a reflection of society. You need to have an anthropology context, a history context, a psychology context to understand what is design, it’s so unique and you can only have that in academia.
Are there are any two or three resources you recommend?
I am reading two books now: The Latin American Fashion Reader and Liberated Threads, Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. With all the things happening now in the United States, I think its very important that we understand about appropriation and empowerment of black women and Latin American women through fashion.