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"It was 2008, and Valentino had just come out with his documentary. I knew Valentino before. I had seen pictures before, and I loved the work, but when it came out and they actually showed the process…" That's when Paulino Romero knew that she wanted to be a designer. She explains, "There's a part in the documentary where he was asked, 'Why do you do fashion for women' and he says, 'I do fashion for women because I want to make women feel beautiful.' That's when I said, yes, I want to make women feel beautiful."
On the verge of graduating from Academy of Art's MFA program, Paulina —like many students— is hoping to find a job doing what she loves: creating garments that make women feel beautiful. Thousands of fashion students around the world share Paulina's dream, but the reality is that many of them will never make it in the fashion industry. So what makes this student different? Why does she stand a chance? Paulina has an opportunity that many designers only dream of. She's presenting a collection at New York Fashion Week in February.
Before we start talking about her future, let's jump back to the past; to the moment she saw the Valentino documentary that would change her life. Paulina had just graduated high school and was pursuing her bachelor's degree in graphic design back home in Mexico. The next step would be grad school for fashion. She had grown up visiting her uncle in San Francisco, and loved coming to the city. When she decided to pursue fashion, she knew she wanted to come here. "It was my second home. California, for me, is a great place. I've been to New York. I respect New York, but there's nothing like San Francisco."
One of the draws of Academy's School of Fashion is the opportunity to present a collection at New York Fashion Week, but only a few students are selected each season for that honor. Eighteen months ago, Paulina told Simon Ungless, the school's executive director, that she wanted to be one of those students. "He said, 'I can't tell you yes or no, but you can keep working,'" she recalls. So she kept working.
Eight months ago, she submitted her proposal for her collection. Her idea? The most complicated fashion field of all: couture. Paulina wants her pieces to be unique. For this collection, that means heavy embroidering and applying new quilting techniques to textiles like leather. "It's completely different from what Chanel and everybody else usually does," she tells me.
When I met Paulina in November, she had received permission to cut her fabrics —a vote of confidence from the school— but she was still waiting for the final decision about fashion week. "If it happens and I get accepted, I'll scream until my lungs can't scream anymore. I'll call my mom first, and tell her thank you for the support, thank you for the love, and thank you for pushing me." At the end of the semester, she received the news she had been hoping to hear: she had been selected to show in New York.
There's still plenty of work ahead. Paulina spends most of her time working on her collection. She arrives at the fashion school at 7:30 each morning, when the doors open. She stays until 10:30 each night. "Sometimes I get here at 7:15 or 7:20, and I don't know if [the guard] is going to let me in. The good thing is that he knows me." At home in the evenings, Paulina continues embroidery work on her collection until about 3 am, streaming Netflix to pass the time. She says she's completed "Eastbound and Down" and "Game of Thrones" (her HBO phase), "Family Guy", "Orange Is the New Black", and "The Office". "I do sleep," she assures me. "I sleep around four hours a day, which is good. And I might take 10 to 15 minute naps on the sewing machine."
Through the hours, days, weeks, and months, Paulina wants to make a name for herself. "I love my ideas, I love my work, but it would be nice for someone outside the school to see it. Just to know if it's a good thing, or not such a good thing. Not everybody's going to like it." (So far, Paulina's audience outside of AAU has been her mother, who tends to enthusiastically respond —as mothers are wont to do— "It's beautiful. I don't get it, but it's beautiful!") But she wants more. "It's having the opportunity to get out there and have other people see. That's my main goal: To be seen, to be heard. For someone to have an opinion."
But what about the fashion student's dream? The Proenza Schouler moment where Barney's spots a thesis collection and makes an unknown fashion student a household name? "It is everybody's dream," she agrees. "Or if not buying your collection, somebody who would just come in, and you know that person, and they're like, 'We want you to work for us.' For me, that would be my dream. That's the Cinderella moment. 'We want you. We need you. Come on.'"
Just in case her Cinderella moment doesn't happen in February, she's sending out résumés, too. "I do want to start my own thing," she admits, "but I believe in the work experience. I see myself working five years, saving up, paying bills, being a responsible person. Then I'll find enough investors to kickstart the company. But working —for me right now— is my number one priority."
With that plan in mind, she interviewed with Abercrombie last semester, and followed a promising lead with BCBG. And, of course, she sent her résumé to the label that started it all: Valentino. "If they don't answer, I'm just going to send it again. And again. And see what happens."
Though it's a long shot, perhaps fashion week will culminate in that fairytale moment. The label of her dreams, saying "We want you. We need you. Come on."