Cover photo of designers in
2013 Fashion Week San Diego:
1. Whitney Francis 2. Andre Soriano 3. Aida Soria
4. Kenneth Barlis 5. Camille Wood
6. Evelyn Aguilar 7. Sameerah Corporal
8. Stacie May 9. Syncletica Maestras
10. Jessica Faulkner 11. Alana Crain
12. Erin Fader 13. Paul Rico 14. Sharie Ellis
Image by Howie Rosen
San Diego has yet to churn out a world-renowned clothing designer. Our locals enjoy the freedom to wear flip-flops, sundresses, cut-off shorts, and Ugg boots, but high fashion? Not so much. We’re not New York, Milan, or Paris, but we do have Sea World, beautiful beaches, and Broadway-caliber theater. We have no Parsons School of Design or Pratt Institute, but there is almost perfect weather, and one of the most easily accessed airports in the country.
A group interview with the subjects of the story.
And so, with high hopes, the fledgling couture community of San Diego has decided to tackle our city’s casually dressed stereotype with an official Fashion Week. Starting October 1, and featuring fashion and beauty seminars by local insiders, the event ends with a runway show on October 7. In between, designers will present their spring/summer 2013 collections.
Many of San Diego’s breakout designers are young — but not all. Most need job-jobs to help pay their bills. They toil over sewing machines in workspaces from La Mesa to Hillcrest to Oceanside. A culturally diverse group with varying levels of training, they share a commitment to making Fashion Week San Diego a success.
Give the baby-faced Barlis a few yards of lace, pearls, leather, a big bow, a swatch of boldly colored fabric and some gold lamé, and he’ll create a dress to rival any other. Barlis’s gowns are almost sculptural, and they’re not designed for wallflowers. They’re receiving a lot of attention for a brave mix of unexpected textiles and over-the-top styling.
Barlis was born in Pagadian City in the Philippines. The family moved to San Diego in 2005, when Barlis was 16. Valedictorian of Good Shepherd High School, Barlis, in 2009, received an associate’s degree in biology with a nursing minor. He had a transfer in hand for the University of California at San Diego, to finish his nursing degree, when he changed focus from medicine to clothing design.
“My entire family freaked out, especially my mom. It’s a typical Asian story. Your family wants you to be a doctor or a lawyer, and if you’re not, they believe they’ve failed. They don’t easily accept an unorthodox career.”
To make matters worse, Barlis had never sewn a thing. His family thought he was throwing away all his opportunities on a flight of fancy.
Barlis’s mother and father own an adult-residential facility in San Diego. They never doubted that their bright son would follow in the family footsteps.
“Unknown to [my mom], I had already applied to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise and been accepted. I knew I was going to attend. I took her to see the school. In the end, she was kind of forced into accepting it. Today, my parents are completely supportive — emotionally and financially.”
Barlis won the “Scholar” student in the Project Ethos fashion show in 2011. Now 23, his over-the-top gowns have been featured in Vogue Italia online. Thanks to a connected stylist friend in Los Angeles, Barlis has dressed a couple of current Hollywood celebrities — Booboo Stewart of the Twilight saga and Kendra Wilkinson, former star of the TV shows The Girls Next Door and Kendra on Top.
Image by Gail Bowman
“In the fall, I’m taking my collection to Barbados for a fashion show. I’m showing off the newest collection at Fashion Week San Diego. I know I’m on my way to great things.”
Sameerah Yasmeen Corporal
Corporal is a doe-eyed, brown-skinned beauty with a warm and infectious smile. Her designs are flattering to women of all shapes and sizes. The funky patterned shift dresses, 1960s style, are comfy but sexy, simple, but with an edge.
Corporal is a self-taught designer. A San Diego girl born and bred, she started her SYC Collection with shoes and accessories.
It’s the shoes that put Corporal on the indie-design-community map. Her crystal pumps could be worn by a sexy and bold Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — there’s a whole lotta bling.
Local stylist Dean Hall saw the shoes and put them onto the feet of Royce Reed. Reed is the ex-girlfriend of NBA player Dwight Howard and the mother of his two children. She wore Corporal’s bedazzled shoes on the Basketball Wives Miami reunion show.
Corporal graduated from Point Loma High in 2001 and attended San Diego State University for one year. To earn money, she received a cosmetology license from San Diego City College in 2004. She was awarded an associate’s degree in art in 2008 from National University. For the past five years, she’s worked at the university in the International Department — she is a foreign-credentials analyst.
When Kenneth Barlis, who designed this red gown, changed his focus from medicine to clothing design, “My entire family freaked out,” he says, “especially my mom.”
Image by Emily Soto
Quick to smile, and difficult to pigeonhole, Corporal says she wishes African-American designers like herself had more visibility.
“If I were better known, I would mentor other African-American designers. I’m not a hoarder of information. I love to share.”
Lately, she’s been following the work of New Jersey leather-accessory designer Meca McKinney and her Jysea line. “I think there are more of us out here, other than just Tracy Reese, who is already super famous. But [others are] under the radar.”
Fashion Week San Diego will be a launch pad for Corporal’s women’s-wear line. She describes her designs as simple. Her aesthetic is “Americana,” à la Ralph Lauren, a clean look that gives accessories (such as her shoes) room to shine.
She hopes people will see the clothing as feminine and wearable, something women might find in a store like Macy’s.
“Even though 40 percent of American women
are a size 14, cute clothes in that size are
impossible to find,” Sharlene Borromeo says.
Image by Gail Bowman. Hair and makeup by Bellus Academy.
Corporal says she’s thinking of moving to Texas. “Maybe San Antonio. San Diego is a challenge for me, financially. I’d like to find a less-expensive place to start a new business and to live. Also, I’d like to be where customers are less concerned with name brands and more open to wearing indie designers.”
Thai might appear ghostly in a photograph, with her long dark hair, jet black eyes, and a full Angelina Jolie–like mouth.
A Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise grad, she is also a licensed barber and the oldest daughter in her Vietnamese family. Her father died of liver cancer when she was 12. The trauma left Thai with a certain darkness, a Tim Burton–like Halloween-freak aesthetic — it’s the reason she loves creating costumes, her emotional outlet.
“They said he had two years to live, and he ended up dying in six months. It forced me to grow up quickly. I had to take care of my younger sisters. One was two years old at the time, the other was six. I started studying different religions and how they deal with death. I was fascinated with the afterlife. I’ve always been a spiritual person. Creating costumes is my way of stepping into the world of death and dealing with it creatively.”
In 2008, Thai moved to Chicago to avoid marrying her first boyfriend. She wasn’t happy in San Diego.
“It’s not easy to break with the cultural tradition of being the oldest, and therefore the one who’s supposed to take care of everyone else. I also felt like San Diego was a materialist bubble. I needed to get away from the party lifestyle and my family responsibilities to find myself. Chicago kept me focused. It was a different world. The Midwest mentality felt more real to me. Chicago pushed the reset button and really helped me to appreciate San Diego and the culture here.”
She moved back to San Diego this year. She doesn’t plan on leaving again.
Erin Fader wages a personal war against traditional
jewelry. “There’s already enough unwanted and
unused jewelry out there. Why create more?”
Image by Gail Bowman. Hair and makeup by Bellus Academy.
Thai says that although designing costumes gives her tremendous creative freedom, her challenge for Fashion Week San Diego is to make the transition to clothing people can wear every day.
She is calling her spring/summer 2013 collection Fractured Kaleidoscope.
“It’s mostly fabrics in black and white, using geometric shapes to create a three-dimensional and patchwork look. I’m really into quilting right now. I’ll present ten pieces. I think it’s good to keep it small. I’m a perfectionist.”
Thai pays the bills with her custom costumes and themed party clothing. Customers find her through word-of-mouth, but the lion’s share of production work takes place around Halloween. As soon as Fashion Week San Diego ends, Thai will be back at the sewing machine, creating costumes that outfit the children of the night.
Bubbly brunette jewelry designer Fader is from Cincinnati, Ohio.
She came to San Diego in 2006 to attend the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad. She graduated in 2008 with degrees in gemology and applied jewelry arts. Erin understands the negative impact mining has on the environment and has decided to take “useless” products and transform them into something of value. She describes her Trashy Chic jewelry line as “up-cycled.”
Working out of her living room in Encinitas, Fader creates chunky, layered chains and signature big-baubled jewelry using fair-trade gemstones, conflict-free diamonds, and ethical metals.
Fair-trade gemstones are stones mined, faceted, and manufactured from responsible and ethical sources, with limited damage to the environment. Workers are paid a fair wage, and conditions are humane.
Conflict-free diamonds come from sources with strict environmental standards and labor laws, places where child labor is prohibited. The conditions under which they are mined are free of violence, and the profits do not fund rebel movements.
Ethical metals are metals that can be traced from their source. Fader believes that the most ethical metals are recycled.
Her favorite vintage periods are Deco and Disco. Fader reworks older pieces to create something new — it’s a personal war against traditional jewelry.
“There’s already enough unwanted and unused jewelry out there. Why create more [from scratch]? My pieces are timeless, one-of-a-kind treasures. I pride myself on the craftsmanship, knowing that attention to detail and the quality materials I use will ensure a long life for [the pieces] and keep them from ending up in a landfill. Ultimately, my dream is to create a complete line of environmentally and socially conscious jewelry.”
Stacie May wandered the streets of San Diego to
find inspiration. “I found a rich culture, beautiful
architecture, and great geometric shapes.”
Image by Gail Bowman. Hair and makeup by Bellus Academy.
For Fashion Week San Diego, Fader will launch a new, higher-end line called the Erin Fader Collection. She’ll continue to find used jewelry and remake it, but will work directly with wholesalers to locate additional cast-off pieces.
“Everything will still be limited edition, but if a design becomes popular, I’ll be able to create more than one. For example, if I find 100 old watches online, all made in the ’70s by a company going out of business, I can buy them and create my own version of something wonderful.”
Hat designer Wood regularly changes her look with dramatic shifts in hair length, color, and style. Wood loves neon lipstick shades, which she pairs with matching neon lamé tops. She is the kind of woman who once would have danced the night away at New York’s Studio 54.
A Jane of all trades, in 1971 Wood was “Suzy Snicklefritz, the dumb blonde,” on a live morning chat show at KTUF in Phoenix, Arizona. She worked for Ronald Reagan his final year in office. She drove the press around San Diego during president George W. Bush’s 2007 visit. She has painted portraits and owned galleries and managed a 400-acre ranch in Escondido. But, she says, “I always wanted to be a dancer.”
Two years ago, while Wood was working on the ranch, she needed a hat. She couldn’t find what she wanted, so she made one herself. She started with a baseball cap and moved on to fascinators, fedoras, and evening chapeaux.
Wood calls her line Dazzlme. The first public showing of her collection was Los Angeles Fashion Week, for which she designed hats and clothing inspired by Japanese “Harajuku” style. All her hats have names: “Diamonds and Pearls,” “Affair to Remember,” “Gatsby,” and “Hepburn.”
Wood’s newest enthusiasm is her ready-to-wear clothing line for women over 40. She’ll be launching it at Fashion Week San Diego.
“I see a need for those women. I like unusual things. I’m adventurous, and I’d like to design clothing that is both fun and also hides those parts that most women over 40 don’t want to show to the world. For example, my tops will have a high neckline to hide ‘saggy neck syndrome.’ Or sleeves that cover but still have an opening to show a little skin.”
Wood is also working on a metallic-fabric swimwear line for the older set. Again, she will offer high and bedazzled necklines to distract and disguise.
Wood recently launched “Dazzlme for a Cure.” For every hat sold, she’ll give away a military-style hat with a crystal cancer pin (designed by Wood) to a cancer organization; these organizations will in turn pass the hats on to patients.
Alana Crain and Sharie Ellis
Crain and Ellis are best friends and business partners. They met as students at Fashion Institutes of Design and Merchandise in San Diego. Both graduated in 2004. In 2011, the two launched their Love is a Devil jewelry line.
“It’s a lower-priced line with unique pieces,” Crain says. “We got the name from a Shakespeare sonnet. As soon as we saw it, we knew it was the one.”
Crain is a no-nonsense woman. Her husband is a Marine, and they have two children. Military families have to budget within a fixed income, so Crain focuses on keeping the jewelry affordable. She believes she has a leg up, having lived around military wives. She’s in touch with the everywoman and wants to offer those customers one-of-a-kind pieces without breaking the bank. “[These women] shop for jewelry on base. And it’s not that interesting-looking.”
Ellis’s style is edgier. She’s the saleswoman on the team. She works in Los Angeles at the showroom, designing the seasonal collection.
“We sell mostly through our website, and at one local boutique in La Jolla called Shabby Chic. But we’re ready to step up our prices for Fashion Week San Diego. We’re calling this next collection ‘Vegas Showgirl.’ It’s inspired by the 1950s, but we want to make sure we stay timeless. Trendy fizzles out. We want to be progressive.”
Aguilar, a small woman who moves like a hummingbird, looks younger than her 23 years. Her family is from Spain and Mexico, and she mixes European poise with a Latina’s fervent hand gestures and direct eye contact.
Aguilar’s designs are Forever 21 meets Ibiza, Spain. Mini-dresses and skirts in bright colors, tastefully seductive tops, jackets detailed with girly flowers and ruffles.
She owns one of the few boutiques in her hometown of Tecate, Mexico. Known for the famous beer and a tasty brick-oven-baked bread, Tecate isn’t thought of as a home for trendy boutiques. Six months ago, when NOia Noia (the name of both Aguilar’s store and clothing line) opened, local fashionistas were thrilled.
Aguilar completed her undergrad work at Fashion Careers College in Tijuana. Two years ago, she received a master’s degree in design from the Instituto di Moda Burgo in Milan, Italy.
Tecate is a small town, she says, one where running a boutique provides an opportunity to design, sell, and manufacture her own designs — unlike in a big city.
“For Fashion Week San Diego I’m designing for women 15 to 25 — my age group. It’s vintage-inspired, with lots of bright colors, very playful, and very casual. Latinas like extremely feminine clothing. Similar to Europeans, we don’t go out of the house underdressed. We always want to look good. I design for my people.”
Borromeo is a plus-sized woman in a size 8 world. She has long, thick hair and is fearless about wearing bold patterns and bright colors.
“Just because you’re not small doesn’t mean you have to hide yourself.”
Borromeo calls her line Shades of Love. It features a variety of casual styles in knits and polyester blends, separates in silk, and floor-length gowns. The color story is black, white, and gray, with a pop of yellow. She says the color yellow represents “love,” the ability to see beyond the color lines of black and white, to include shades of gray.
“I’m hoping my A’doreus line is more ‘function before form.’ [I’m working] in a not-so-niche market of larger-sized women who want sexy and great-fitting outfits. In the beginning, I wasn’t interested in being a clothing designer. I went to Fashion Careers College and got a fashion business and technology degree in 2007. I saw a problem in the apparel market and thought I could solve it. As soon as I finished my degree, I went right back into school and two years later got the fashion design degree.”
Borromeo has worked off and on for the past eight years as a barista and assistant manager at Starbucks. Since 2007, she’s also worked as an assistant freelance painter with the well-known designer Zandra Rhodes. The two jobs, plus the sales of her custom designs, enable Borromeo to stay afloat.
Her passion goes beyond presenting a clothing line at Fashion Week San Diego and hoping to get it into stores. She wants to use her clothing to change women’s attitudes about themselves.
“Even though 40 percent of American women are a size 14, cute clothes in that size are impossible to find…. I think of myself as a lifestyle coach. It’s about self-esteem and giving plus-sized women a place they can shop other than Ross or Lane Bryant.”
Borromeo is determined to have models size 12 and up for her Fashion Week San Diego runway show, though they are hard to find.
“I’m praying one from L.A. will do the show. Everyone involved keeps saying size 8 models are plus-sized. And I’m, like, no way.”
Andre Soriano and Stacie May
Andre Soriano’s idea is “is to have an army of
fashion designers all working on their designs
and [creating] an exclusive San Diego line.”
Image by Gail Bowman. Hair and makeup by Bellus Academy.
Soriano is a small, soft-spoken man with a chiseled chin, sculpted eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and a fashion-forward hairstyle that still keeps it classic.
Soriano has a generous attitude, and his designs exude a retro-Hollywood feel. The glamorous and feminine gowns seem to have been made for a time when women wore form-fitting satins with a fur stole and feather accents.
Born in Manila, Philippines, in 1986, Soriano’s family moved to San Francisco when he was 15 to escape civil war. As a teenager, he already knew he wanted to be a clothing designer. He was in the fashion club in high school and attended Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in San Francisco.
After graduating, he opened a small boutique in San Francisco called Andre Soriano. He closed the store when he relocated to San Diego in 2006 and now lives in La Mesa with his partner, selling his couture gowns both online and in the East Village boutique Dianne O.
Soriano swears by collaboration: he does all the design work himself but believes that designers should work together to make a greater collective impact on San Diego. He and designer Stacie May both occupy a space on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp called Industry Showroom, and they are convinced there’s power in numbers.
“My idea,” says Soriano, “is to have an army of fashion designers all working on their designs and helping each other to eventually create an exclusive San Diego line. People are skeptical, but it’s a small community, and we believe that if we work together we can all find success.”
Stacie May recently dyed her hair platinum-blond and cut it in a “Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby” style. She says that her Fashion Week San Diego collection is inspired by the city she loves — San Diego.
“Instead of looking outside of my world, I decided to wander the streets, taking pictures, and really looking at where I live. I found a rich culture, beautiful architecture, and great geometric shapes. I even designed a dress inspired by our convention center.”
After completing her design degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1995, May moved to San Diego. She’s hoping Fashion Week San Diego will show designers that they don’t have to leave the city to find success.
Syncletica Maestras and Aida Soria
San Diego natives Maestras and Soria met 15 years ago while working at the San Diego Zoo gift shop. They will launch their swimwear line Dos Caras at Fashion Week San Diego.
Soria is a voluptuous Latina. She often sports blond hair, high-waisted fitted skirts, girly tops, and platform pumps. A communications grad from San Diego State University, she’s worked for eight years as the morning-segment booker for KUSI TV — Soria is a self-proclaimed social butterfly.
Maestras is a petite, oval-faced Frida Kahlo–like beauty. At San Diego High, she once made a dress out of AstroTurf. She attended San Diego State University and eventually transferred and graduated from the Parsons School of Design.
The two women describe their Champagne Ladies swimwear line as vintage-inspired with a funky, modern twist. Suits are non-traditional, with more coverage than the usual teeny-tiny Brazilian or California styles. They’re made in heavier-weight fabrics. Dos Caras doesn’t shy away from using off-beat details such as fringe, sequins, and beads.
“If you think about Logan Heights and the Chicano bridge [murals] mixed with the sophistication of Coronado, you’ve got the idea,” Maestras says. “Like San Diego, our designs are a great mix of cultures.”
Faulkner wears her auburn hair in bangs. She’s often seen in over-sized sunglasses and loves shirts that allow a shoulder (or two) full exposure.
When she was nine years old, her family’s rented house in Campo exploded and caught fire; the accident was a result of a propane leak and an improper remodel. Her seven-year-old sister died. Faulkner had second-degree burns over 33 percent of her body. She can’t remember the number of surgeries she’s had. The case was settled in 1992, and the family was awarded an undisclosed amount.
“I don’t like to focus on the accident. I’m a happy and upbeat person. But I still have scars and medical issues. I’ve always loved fashion, and, originally, I wanted to design clothing because I was looking for things to cover myself up with — something pretty.”
Her parents didn’t encourage Faulkner to enter the fashion industry. They thought it would be too judgmental about her looks. They insisted that she pursue a business degree. Faulkner attended San Diego State University and graduated with an international business degree in 1999. Seven years later, Faulkner decided to be honest with herself about what she wanted to do with her life.
“I’d had the friendly reminder that life is short. So, at 26, I decided to pursue fashion as a career. I left San Diego and enrolled in the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco. It took time, I had to work, but I graduated in 2011 with a BA in fine art and fashion design.”
Working out of her studio apartment in Los Angeles — she also keeps a place in Mission Bay — Faulkner will preview her first clothing line at Fashion Week San Diego.
Despite the initial desire to create clothes to cover up, her designs are form-fitting, somewhat revealing, and very sexy.
“The stereotype that San Diego style is only laid-back isn’t all true. There are some women who want higher levels of fashion. The internet has globalized fashion in San Diego and everywhere. I hope I can fill a small part of the void.”