Grad Israel Valencia Dresses Mahershala Ali and Chance the Rapper
We recently connected with fashion designer Israel Valencia, a graduate of the Merchandise Product Development program and native of Redwood City, California, who has dressed and designed custom pieces for stars such as Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, singer Miguel, and Chance the Rapper.
How did you hear about FIDM? What made you decide to attend? I was studying creative writing and English at Foothill Communty College in Los Altos and they had College Day on campus. There were representatives from all types of schools and I saw FIDM there. I had never heard of it before, nor did I know fashion schools existed. I wrote my name down and the advisor called me numerous times and left messages. She said she was about to give up and decided to make one last call.
I went to the San Francisco campus and was blown away by the projects I saw. I was instantly hooked and intrigued by what I could learn. I thought to myself, do I want to be a teacher or make clothes? I chose clothes.
When did you launch your self-titled collection? The initial idea began in 2013. I had two previous lines with a friend before but my focus wasn't designing. I wanted to learn about garment construction and run the business. The first line was called IN MY AIR and the second was called Happy Hour Collection. We were featured in numerous magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Nylon, and InStyle, and we attended trade shows in Vegas, New York, and Chicago.
Happy Hour was in about 30 boutiques all over the U.S. and a few stores overseas. The experience was monumental and it taught me so much. But the business was a never-ending cycle that didn't fulfill me creatively so I shutdown the lines and stopped doing them. I reevaluated what I wanted to do and how I wanted to continue. I then started to create pieces and work on the process so that I could learn more. I never stopped asking questions; I was around sewers, cutters, graders, and fashion designers all day, obsessively watching because I loved it so much.
The first piece I ever made with an actual Valencia label in it was the custom Chance the Rapper jackets. I didn't even know if he was going to wear it but it was a great experience and I learned so much from that project as well. I remember not having labels because the line didn't exist yet and I ordered them hoping they would make it in time for the jackets. A few shows into his tour and there he was in Boston wearing it. I've never listened to his music before and the thought of thousands of people seeing it on him made me burst into tears.
It was on stage in front of of all his fans and it fit him perfectly. I never met him nor did I get a "chance" to do a fitting and there it was. You work so hard on theses pieces, I had like 50 hours in the whole process you get one try to make it right, it's so nerve-racking and by the end you're exhausted and hoping everything goes smoothly. I had so much fun making those jackets. They almost killed me but I did it and hit the deadline.
After this I decided to make more pieces. I wasn't quite sure where I was going with it. I just knew it made me happy. Then I got a phone call that my father was in the hospital and to come home that he might not make it. I dropped everything and went home to find my dad in a coma. After four days, he passed away. He was only 56 and I was completely devastated. I thought about moving back home. I came back to LA and the first night there I was a wreck. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was crying hysterically, sobbing, and yelling. I was in so much pain. That's when I went to the studio.
I grabbed some fabric and I started cutting a pair of trousers. I felt calm and after that I decided to make a matching reversible jacket. I started working like crazy, every day, the hours didn't matter. I relentlessly went in and I have made around 95 pieces. All while I was being hired to do development at the same time. I would get hired to help people start their lines and when I was working on samples and productions for others, I was making stuff for myself.
I didn't stop; I used fashion as a distraction to take me away from the pain. Starting with nothing and having an idea I could turn into something saved me. I still didn't know what I was doing with any of this but I had always wanted to do menswear and by this time I had five years of experience and it came naturally. I was terrified of it but I refused to stop creating and here I am now.
How did FIDM help prepare you for designing and running your own brand? I knew nothing about fashion until I attended FIDM. It gave me the basis of knowledge in multiple areas that I use now to create. A lot of it didn't click until I started applying the functions in the real world. FIDM taught me about color theory, sketching, line development, planning, trend research, forecasting, themes, textile science, pattern making, tech packs, sewing, and really organizing my thoughts so I could create a cohesive idea and really execute it. Before FIDM, I didn't understand what it took to create a line, and I really feel like the course assignments and projects prepared me for the real world and gave me the tools I would need to really work in the fashion industry.
When did you start dressing Mahershala Ali? How did your relationship come about? The first pieces I made for Mahershala was a matching twin set made of 100 percent recycled cotton denim in Black Rainbow. I made him a jacket and matching pants for a Complex interview he was doing on FUSE TV. It was a custom piece especially for him and for this interview. I met him through my friend Van who is the best stylist in the world.
I had worked with her previously on other editorials and we became good friends over the years. I love her; she's beyond creative, and has worked in the industry for years with multiple talents and when I found out she was going to be working with him I instantly told her I wanted to dress him. I had been a huge fan of his for years and knew who he was in his early career. He too is from the Bay Area and that made me feel more connected to him.
I told her I wanted to make him something custom and then a few years went by and she finally hit me up and said I want you to make him something for this interview. This was right after Moonlight. He was about to film Green Book and True Detective and she told me he would not be around and this was my chance to make him something before he left for filming. I remember being so scared to do it and I almost said no because the timeline was very short and I wasn't sure if I could make it in time.
I felt the pressure and it was fear taking over my brain. I thought to myself, this is what I've wanted for years and because I was so scared to drop it I told her yes and that I would do it. We designed the outfit together. I remember showing up to the fitting terrified and exhausted I had been working on it for days. I walked in met him, he tried it on, and it fit perfectly. I was so happy and he was super happy with it. He was very appreciative and told me how much he loved my art. He could feel how special it was and we bonded instantly.
He's such a charismatic and humble person. It's an honor to work for the both of them. There are so many talented people here in LA and I'm so fortunate I got a chance to be a part of something so amazing with people I really admire and respect. I honestly just never stop practicing, making mistakes, learning, creating something new, and stepping out of my comfort zone. I love challenges and I say yes to everything no matter what it is. I always see a new project as opportunity to learn.
I've made lingerie, baby clothes, yoga gear, my best friend's wedding dress, flower girl dresses, and anything anyone has ever asked me to make. I always thought if I do the work and expand my knowledge in construction and learning when an opportunity came I would be ready for it.
You were recently mentioned in a NY Post article on men's red carpet style. How does red carpet exposure help your brand? All exposure helps me because it allows people to see what I do and create. For this I am more than grateful. There is no better feeling then putting your heart and soul in creating these pieces and seeing them on person when your done with them. That means more to me than anything. Every piece, every project, and every person is special to me.
GQ wrote a full article on the these specific pieces and when I saw that I wept in tears. Celebrity or not, red carpet or not, all that matters is I'm happy creating and people look good and feel good wearing something I specifically made just for them. So much time, effort, and thought goes into every piece. It's really a group effort by everyone involved. All I want to do is make people happy because it makes me so happy to put all my love and life into the creation process.
Follow Israel on Instagram @iamisraelvalencia