Rochester Fashion Week is an opportunity for Rochester residents to dip their toes in the world of haute couture while also making a charitable impact on the community, but it’s also a chance for the local fashion community to show their talent off to a much larger audience than they usually enjoy.
That opportunity is especially important for designers who are still getting established in the industry.
Here are three Rochester-based designers who are hoping to make an impact and expand their brands when they show their work at Rochester Fashion Week next month.
Struggling to find work in his native Puerto Rico, Josean Vargas-Rodriguez relocated to Rochester in 2011, shortly after a friend offered him a place to stay. Almost immediately, he learned that rule breakers and risk-takers often thrive here.
“Everything big in my life has happened in Rochester, so I can’t complain,” Vargas-Rodriguez says. Milestones he has experienced in the Flower City include meeting and marrying his husband, Mikey Vargas-Rodriguez, and launching fashion label J. Vargas.
Vargas-Rodriguez’s interest in design began bursting at the seams in adolescence, when he began toying with a sewing machine he had bought for his mom. In his 20s, he decided to wade into a sea of sequins and become a gown designer for pageant contestants in Puerto Rico.
Eager to expand his knowledge of the fashion industry, Vargas-Rodriguez—who studied elementary teaching at the University of Puerto Rico—took a fashion design course in his hometown. Among his classmates was his mother, who is now the designer’s right-hand woman.
“My mom moved here with me two years ago, and it’s great because we have the same terms, and we know how each other works,” Vargas-Rodriguez says. “So I can start a dress and just leave it in the morning and say, ‘Mom, I need you to do ‘xyz.’ And when I come home, I can pick (up) from where she left (off) and keep going, which makes the process even faster than if I was working alone.”
Since its launch in 2012, J. Vargas has grown from focusing on bowties and skinny ties to showing runway collections. In particular, a chat Vargas-Rodriguez had with Rochester-based drag queen Darienne Lake, a finalist on the reality TV series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” helped the label advance.
“I have a sewing machine tattooed on my arm, and she noticed it, and she asked me, ‘Do you sew?’” Vargas-Rodriguez recalls. After seeing the dress the designer whipped up for Darienne Lake, Rochester-based drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis—another contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—also became a J. Vargas client.
Yet despite his experience designing for drag queens’ close-ups, Vargas-Rodriguez plans to show menswear at this year’s Fashion Week.
“So it’s going to be something a little sporty, a little casual,” he says. T-shirts with patterns made from hand-carved wooden-block stamps, as well as jackets and kilts, will be key parts of the collection.
He adds: “I’m going to try to keep it casual and comfortable but also keeping a little bit of that drama.”
When Erin Nesmith debuts her designs at this year’s Fashion Week, one of her favorite things will flutter down the runway.
“I love lace,” says Nesmith, owner of Rochester-based fashion label E’rouse by Erin Nesmith. “You can’t go wrong with a nice lace pattern.”
Besides working with delicate fabrics she finds in Toronto and New York City, the self-taught designer and oil painter enjoys stoking her customers’ confidence.
“I just love seeing beautiful women and thinking, ‘Oh yeah, this dress will look perfect on this body shape’ or ‘This woman will look really good in something like this,’” she says.
History also inspires Nesmith: The lingerie collection currently featured on her label’s website takes its cues from 16th-century Elizabethan fashion—tassels, lace trim and even an occasional high collar.
That sense of tradition will be evident in what Nesmith plans to show at Fashion Week.
“I started off designing lingerie, and now I’m venturing off into eveningwear,” she says. “So for Fashion Week, I’ll be showing my first bridal collection of lingerie as well as bridal dresses.”
In some ways, spending money on other lingerie brands before becoming a designer herself cleared the path that Nesmith is on today.
“That’s what (the business) really started from—just my own personal desire and love for lingerie,” she says.
With the money she earned working part time at Tops Friendly Markets, Porshia Diaz bought her first sewing machine at age 15. Under other circumstances, sewing might have been just a pastime, but Diaz found comfort as the machine whirred.
“I didn’t know how to use it (the sewing machine) at all, so I had to teach myself,” says Diaz, who dealt with depression, a father being incarcerated and other challenges as a teen growing up in Webster.
Thirteen years later, Diaz owns fashion label Porshia Collection. Appliqués and luxurious red fabric are among her favorite materials to work with, but she also designs swimsuits and fitness apparel.
“I love comfort stuff,” says Diaz, who is enrolled at Monroe Community College and volunteers at a local shelter for women.
Besides keeping her label’s social media presence fresh, Diaz uses FaceTime to show clients how to measure their waists, hips and busts correctly. With that information in hand, she then gets busy at one of her four sewing machines.
At this year’s Fashion Week, Diaz plans to show dresses, gowns and a T-shirt line. She feels confident that her designs will convey how she has evolved professionally.
“As a designer, I became more patient in my work,” she says. “And I used to look at the quantity, and now I look at the quality.”
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.