When it comes to having been through the fashion mill, Victor Alfaro has likely seen it all. The elegant, 52-year-old designer who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, moved to the States at the age of 16, first to study communications in Texas, and then to pursue his fashion dreams in New York. In 1987, he graduated from FIT, and after working with Joseph Abboud, he launched his first collection in 1991, and quickly established himself as a young master of seductive dressing, with powerful collections that the late NY Times critic Amy Spindler dubbed “sex kitten clothes”. In 1994, Alfaro garnered a CFDA ‘Perry Ellis’ award for New Fashion Talent and continued to earn his stripes dressing the likes of A-list celebrities like Madonna, Mariah Carey, Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore and Winona Ryder. His glamourous outfits were regularly featured on the covers of Cosmopolitan magazine, and in 2000, Alfaro’s business continued to blossom when he launched a diffusion line and a luxury sportswear line. When Oscar de la Renta stopped designing couture for Balmain in 2002, Alfaro was a top contender for the job. But big business got the better of the idealistic young designer and an unfortunate partnership with an Italian manufacturer forced him to shut down his label in 2003, and temporarily lose the rights to his name. The beleaguered Alfaro spent the next decade immersing himself in the art and furniture design world, and he even designed a lifestyle line for the American Bon Ton department store chain. But great fashion talent can’t be kept down for long: In 2013, Alfaro finally managed to buy back his name and embrace his sartorial aspirations once again with a well-received spring collection. After a decade, he was back. With an emphasis on luxurious fabrications, body-hugging leather, and modern, edgy ease, Alfaro is now hot on the notion of exclusivity and has proved to be a welcome addition to The Room’s swish line-up at Hudson’s Bay. I caught up with Victor Alfaro at The Room in Toronto recently to talk about his passion, his growing pains and the art of survival in the brutal business of fashion.
J: When you first started in fashion, you had such hopes and dreams and aspirations. How have they changed now that you’ve been through so much in this business?
V: When I first met, there was so much creativity going on in the west village… We were doing all these beautiful little shoots, and had all these great moments. That doesn’t exist anymore. I was just doing my own thing—kind of like what I’m doing now—but it was in a very naïve way, but in a beautiful way because it was so raw and so special, and it was such a small group of us. It was a smaller world. I’m not really nostalgic and I don’t sit down and analyze things. I just go with them. But then it all changed when I thought I needed a big company, big partners, big things, and big shows. That’s when it all fell apart. Maybe we are not all cut out to be those big businesses with global distribution. It was all working beautifully and I was selling a ton of clothes and making a lot of money. But I was so miserable. And that’s happening to a lot of designers now in the big picture, because creative people need incubator time. We’re not computers. We’re very sensitive people. We need to go through pain and pleasure and experience a lot of different things. And the world of fashion has become this monster that’s swallowing everything up. There are less and less people capable of sustaining it. And corporations are kind of draining us and killing the whole industry, because we all can’t be doing shoes and handbags and selling them in every airport in the world. It’s that kind of thing.
J: But what about for you now? How has all that changed your approach to your own business model, to the way you want to come out with collections?
V: Well, I struggle a lot. I ended my first line in a very bad way, even though business was on fire. But I was so unhappy and bitter and so it took me a lot of years to heal, because I worked so many years. And then it all was destroyed, not by me but by my partners. So it was painful. I finally bought my name back by working really hard. And now I promised myself that I would do my work with the same kind of integrity and passion…. Now I feel like I’m revisiting my career, and what’s great about it is that I’m getting the opportunity to take it all back. Nothing’s ever finished. You take it back and start again with a lot of wisdom and with a lot of pleasure. I’m having a good time, and the clothes are selling out. There was a moment that I never thought I would want to be doing this again but now I’m here. I wasn’t done. So that’s the lesson. But it is a different world and it’s very difficult not to be disturbed by it, because there’s nothing seductive about it. It’s ugly. And it’s very toxic and very confusing because there’s a lot of noisy social media that makes you feel that you have to be in every part of the world. But do you really want to sell to everyone in the world? I really don’t.
J: I think women appreciate that too, because we want some exclusivity. We don’t want to see that fabulous dress we just got everywhere….
V: That’s what I’m saying. Take this beautiful handcrafted piece of knitwear in my collection….. I’d gone to Art Basel and saw this beautiful painting that inspired me. So I had a friend that’s a hand knitter who started hand knitting this little swatch, and it was the side panel. And then it became the front. I was trying to duplicate the idea of the painting. And I’d been dealing with the art world a lot these past few years…Many of my friends are curators. So it’s like going to a gallery, and seeing a limited edition run. Because we can produce just limited numbers of these sweaters, and we can have them distributed to a limited number of different women. So we tested the concept…selling one to Barney’s, one to The Room, one to Net-A-Porter, etc. And it all just grew like that. Of course we can’t approach the whole collection that way, because you have to have a certain number of sales to survive. But women don’t want to see themselves and these pieces coming and going when they’re paying three or five thousand dollars for a stupid sweater. You don’t want to walk into a room and see the same woman wearing what you have on. You want to be special and you want a limited edition.
J: So how does that bode for the rest of your collections? Are you still going to limit them, since you don’t want to be everywhere?
V: It’s like you just want to make sure that when you put up your kid for adoption, that you get the right parents… that someone cares as much as you do. That when you go and visit your kids, they’re going to be well taken care of as opposed to being dumped into some dark alley with the hope that someone’s going to value them. I don’t know if that makes sense…
J: It does because I know how much you love your work and how much you’re passionate about it….
V: Because it’s hard, it’s so hard…. But what was I doing? I got really interested in home design and the arts and the art world. I started a website called Vista Art and Design, that was the first global source of buying art and high end furniture design. I was really happy and I did that for three years. But when I got the opportunity to buy my name back two years ago, I knew I wasn’t done. So I thought maybe I’ll just put ten dresses together, and then I tried to sell the line. I think if you’re in business, you have to be in business and you have to be disciplined and I think by now I’ve learned a lot.
J: How do you think all your experiences made you a better designer, in terms of your approach and figuring out what clothes we need—or want—in the world?
V: My aesthetic has always been very minimalistic, but now even more so. I think it’s so easy to throw buttons, or pockets, or certain details in the clothes. But you have to think about what purpose they’re going to serve. Who’s buying the clothes? Who’s this imaginary customer? Even the Canadian customer. I have to be very disciplined. But my fabrics and colours and all of it hasn’t really changed. I still like pretty clothes. I still like pretty women. I got into this business because I love the idea of making women feel beautiful and feel happy. And that’s never going to change. There’s such reward in having someone enjoy what they’re wearing and creating that has a purpose, because now there are a million things everywhere. So you really have to think of function and what’s useful. Unfortunately the cost of making clothes is so expensive and so the clothes are expensive. So there has to be a little more value in them. Sometimes you have to have a sense of humour about it, because it’s really all so very silly. No one really needs anything.
J: You must have such a great perspective, to really have been able to step back and look at the fashion arena and see what fame in that world means, and how hard people have to work, with all the ups and the downs…
V: I’ve never been the kind of person who chases fame. It just happened to me. But it was fame in a very different way. It was very organic and it was very small world. I won a CFDA award. And I’m so happy that I experienced that. But I didn’t really process it til 5 years later. There were so many moments, like when I was in Paris. I’d flown there on the Concord, with Anna Wintour on the same plane. And that night I was invited to Karl Lagerfeld’s house. And now it’s like a big thing but to me. He sent me a book and I still have the note he sent me. And I said, ‘That’s an incredible moment for a guy from Chihuahua!’. And there were other moments when I met a lot of great people, but it wasn’t real. To me, I as always just happy to go home….
J: To what do you attribute the fact that you’ve been able to just always suck things up and just keep on marching?
V: I think in the end it’s that I had a really big dream to be in New York. I wanted to be a designer and when I came to New York from Mexico. I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes, no matter how hard it is to work.” I’m a really hard working guy. And I have strong work ethics. And I have something built inside of my system that lets me always pull myself back together and get it together in the interest of survival. Also, I like what I do a lot.
J: Your passion pulls you through.
V: Yes, because what else am I suppose to do? It’s a great craft. I’m fortunate that I’m skilled enough now to still do it right.
J: Any regrets?
V: It’s a monster of a question. I battled with it. You know coulda, shoulda, woulda… but I’m not that person. I’m happy. I’m in control. I’m healthy. I have a job.