Pop culture would have us believe that being a fashion designer is one of the most glamorous jobs available. Thanks to Project Runway we know it’s not true. The aspiring designers experience nervous breakdowns at Parsons The New School for Design making every moment count because, as Heidi Klum has taught us for some time, in fashion one day you are in and the next day you are out. This was the case of Desirée Velázquez, who did it all off-camera and with no pay.
“I moved to New York with $1,000 and a credit card. That was it”, recalls the 28-year-old freelance fashion designer, while sitting at Astoria Coffee, wearing her signature cat-eye and red lipstick.
Desirée is a CAD designer for Carolina Herrera and was part of the launch of Katy Perry’s shoe collection with Global Brands Group last year. The break came after she experienced her first layoff at Ohne Titel, a small fashion company founded by Parsons alumni Alexa Adams and Flora Gill that closed last spring.
She took the opportunity to move on from her first full-time job to focus on exploring new areas of the industry. As a designer for Global Brands Group, she had the chance to travel to China to tour and negotiate with factories. In addition, she has honed her skills in computer aided design at Carolina Herrera designing the house’s spring 2017 collection.
But, her career, certainly, did not start with household names.
Desirée grew up in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a town on the western coast of the island, where fashion was not a known industry. Still, she found a way to immerse herself in the world of high fashion through her mother’s magazines (Vanidades, to be precise), where she recalls finding a Bill Blass dress that made her consider a career as a designer for the first time.
Her career in fashion would start later, after attaining a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Puerto Rico. “I enjoyed fine arts so much because of the freedom it allowed me to explore a variety of materials and themes”, she explains.
After working in the arts for two years after college in Puerto Rico, Desirée set her mind on New York’s fashion industry. Her background in fine arts and a long family history of female artists gave her the confidence to apply to Parsons The New School for Design.
Yet the decision didn’t come easy. “It’s very difficult to be a fashion designer in Puerto Rico, so I was fearful of it at first”, she admits.
The industry seemed untouchable to a young Puerto Rican artist, yet the possibility of making it in one of the most ambitious cities in the world thrilled her enough to follow her intuition. It wasn’t until her first internships when she realized that other people could respect her work as much as she did.
Furthermore, those experiences gave her a glimpse of what a real-life fashion business is like: a constant adrenaline rush that fuels only those who thrive on ambition and hard work. “It’s very rewarding when you see a garment walk down the runway knowing you helped create it”, she says.
After years working in the industry at multiple companies, she admits that a degree in fashion is not necessary to be successful. On the other hand, she recognizes the value of her education at Parsons. “The knowledge acquired through fashion school lets you understand the industry much better,” she says. “There is much more thought put into the work done.”
Amidst a consuming city and an industry infamous for its stressful working conditions, Desirée remains certain that her profession is fun. Her design process starts with a theme and follows hours of strenuous research of images, textiles, colors and cultural references that often are inspired by lines and movement, the strongest influences on her work.
For now, she remains certain that her layoff last spring was a big blessing leading her to work on projects that have allowed her to grow, not only as a designer but as a business woman and leader.
Still, it’s not a sign that she might launch her own line soon. “Maybe in ten years”, she says.