Zoe Damacela just might be the most famous fashion designer you've never heard of.
The Northwestern Student has posed with President Obama in the Oval Office. She has been featured on Oprah's Angel Network. And last month, the editors of Seventeen magazine splashed her across the cover of the October issue. She counts Tyra Banks of "America's Next Top Model" fame among her mentors and clients.
But at 19 years old, Damacela has been in the game for fewer seasons than "Project Runway," which, for the record, caps its ninth cycle Thursday with a very special "Behind the Seams" episode.
A Whitney Young High School grad, she sold her first dress to a classmate when she was 14 years old. Now, her custom dresses are priced in the $300 range—although she sometimes sells pieces like wedding dresses and formal couture for up to $3,000.
"It started small, but it spread a lot through word-of-mouth," Damacela said. "I was making clothes for my friends and my classmates, and then I was making clothes for their older sisters, and their parents, and then their parents' friends. Then I was making clothes for more strangers than people I knew, and I think it just got around Chicago."
Today Damacela is president of Zoë Damacela Apparel, a custom designs business she operates out of her dorm room at Northwestern University and at zoedamacelaapparel.com. She'll be featured Thursday as part of Latino Fashion Week, which runs through Sunday. Now in its fifth year, the week features fashion events, designer talks, art displays and an expo.
Damacela spoke with RedEye—after finishing her Russian Literature midterm, natch—about her inspiration, her Latino heritage and the juggling act of balancing business with college life. ERIN VOGEL IS A REDEYE INTERN.
What trends have you been inspired by lately?
I am a really big fan of mixed patterns and mixed colors. I like to describe my own style as being very eclectic. People would describe it as being really bright and a little bit flamboyant.
You've said you hope to eventually open your own store. Where?
I'd like my first store to be based out of Chicago. I kind of grew up in California, but I definitely feel like a Chicago girl. People always tell me that I need to move to New York City, but I think Chicago is amazing, especially for upcoming designers.
Chicago is awesome because there are a lot of people here who are excited about artists who are up-and-coming. I think that the fact that there's not a ton of designers in Chicago makes you really stand out too.
How does your Latino heritage affect your work?
My mom is from Ecuador and my dad is half black and half Mexican—being a Hispanic person is a really big part of who I am.
I went to Ecuador for Christmas last year, and seeing all the fabrics, buying clothes that were made in Ecuador and seeing firsthand what some of the culture was like – that was a really big influence on me.
Has working as a young designer resulted more or less in your favor?
I think it's kind of both. I think that people who are not in the fashion industry or people who are already veterans of the fashion industry are really excited.
But people who are just starting out in the fashion industry don't take me as seriously as a designer, especially when I was in high school competing with people who had spent thousands of dollars going to fashion school.
I try not to focus on that. There are so many more people who are enthusiastic about what I'm doing than people who have negative things to say about the fact that I'm really young.
What is it like trying to balance your college life with your business?
It can be really hard because I want to be a regular person, but I don't have time to just hang out. My schedule is so crazy that I'm usually booked 14 hours a day. It can be hard to be a normal college student when I'm so busy all the time.
I didn't have a normal high school experience because I was starting up my business, so once I got to college, I was trying to rectify that. I chose Northwestern instead of a fashion school because I had studied fashion in high school. I live on campus, and I joined a sorority.