By Megan Erickson/Arizona Sonora News
Those worn-out dishtowels you’d find at the bottom of any household pantry were anything but trash to artist Arturo Valenzuela.
When he was 8 years old and still at home in Hermosillo, Mexico, Valenzuela sat beside his mother, stitching and patching fabrics to create the quinceañera dress that would be worn by his older sister.
Picture-perfect from the outside, no one suspected the traditional ball gown received its voluminous shape from the family’s tired bedsheets, hand-me-down clothes, lace curtains, and mangled dishtowels.
Looking back on his journey to becoming the successful designer he is today, Arturo Valenzuela recalls his many challenges. From a young age, he faced criticism for his interest in fashion and art. What his father had hoped was “just a phase” would become a passion that Valenzuela still upholds.
His twenties brought a new way of artistic expression: He performed professionally as an actor in musicals and theater, and he hoped to direct a musical of his own one day. A serious fall in 1989 left Valenzuela with a physical disability and in a wheelchair, stealing his mobility and career as a performer. Twenty-five years old, Valenzuela began his new life from a chair. Refusing defeat, he continued to express himself. “The injury brought me a new purpose,” says Valenzuela.
It’s not the wheelchair that you notice first when meeting him: it’s his style. A fedora sits over his full head of hair complementing the always pressed shirt and dress pants. The fashion designer introduces himself without having to speak.
“Being in a wheelchair is not what makes me different—my creativity and identity is what make me different,” says Valenzuela. “Or at least that’s how I see it.”
Two years after his fall, in 1991, he enrolled in fashion design classes at Pima Community College. He realized that when it came to applying design, aesthetics and natural beauty to clothing, Valenzuela was a natural. Taking inspiration from his Mexican roots, Valenzuela has created a style that’s a mix of European fashions and bold Mexican colors. His designs were unique to Tucson, and his collections of men’s and women’s pieces quickly grew in popularity.
His designs range from wedding and evening gowns, cocktail dresses, and sport and casual wear to formal, lingerie, bikinis—and everything in between that’s required for a special occasion.
Continuously growing, Valenzuela says his process of bringing a vision to life has always stayed the same. “Fashion is personal,” Valenzuela says, explaining his way of creating relationships with customers. Being involved throughout the entire design process is what makes him stand out that much more as a designer.
As an artist, he sees sketching his own designs as just as important a step as threading the needle. But as his physical disability has worsened over time, he’s lost strength in his hands, making simple tasks like holding a pencil to paper difficult. Yet Valenzuela continues to test his strength by sketching basic designs. “I am defiantly a stubborn designer,” he says, chuckling.
“Arturo Valenzuela Designs started as a one-man brand but all its success is thanks to the help of several designers working with me and challenging ideas of mine,” says Valenzuela. “My right-hand ‘man’ is Angelica, and without her… Who knows if there would even be a brand.”
Around a long rectangular office table Valenzuela and his team of 12 designers begin the design process. Bouncing ideas off one another, they create a theme which sets the foundation to each of his collections. Then the team members assume each of their responsibilities: whether it be fabric hunting or trend forecasting. Everyone’s role is just as important as Valenzuela’s.
“I have the privilege of working alongside Arturo for most of the design process,” says Valenzuela’s right-hand woman, Angelica Ramos. “Some days are more glamorous than others. He’s (more) stubborn than my 5-year-old when being told ‘no’.”
Together, the two often collaborate by sketching potential pieces the collection will carry. While technology provides an easier alternative for sketching designs, Valenzuela has vowed to keep the original process he started out with: by hand. With their biggest season being prom season, the sketches began back in May and June.
The team reassembles around the stack of sketches, and one by one, each sketch is paired with a fabric, price, and ideal model. Many of those sketches fail to make it past the first stage, leaving a select few to go on to the production stage. That’s where the vision comes to life, as the team of designers hand stitch and size each gown. Rarely is a piece approved during this first production. After a great deal of critiques and cuts the dress is sent back to be transformed into Valenzuela’s vision.
“These gowns haunt me in my dreams, I can’t escape prom season,” says Valenzuela. “The fashion industry is so competitive—especially with prom dresses—there are so many brands specializing in this event. So attracting the girls in southern Arizona to choose our design—instead of the hundreds being sold at Macy’s—is a challenge.”
Whether it’s a prom dress or a bikini, the piece receives the same amount of attention. While Tucson is not a fashion mecca like Los Angeles or New York City, it’s unique to designers like Arturo Valenzuela.
“I am so proud of my Mexican influences,” says Valenzuela, who has presented collections in major shows such as New York Fashion Week. Unable to travel like he once did, he recalls the time he spent studying at Istituto Marangoni in Milan. “Each city I have traveled to had some influence on my style,” he says.
Finding free time between designing and travel is not easy, but any time he can, Valenzuela spends it helping others. After being treated for his injuries back in the 1990s at the University Medical Center in Tucson, he began volunteering as a translator there.
His most recent volunteering effort took place this year with Tucson’s version of New York Fashion Week, at the second annual Impact Fashion Show benefitting the Tucson-based nonprofit, Beads of Courage. The event highlighted artists local to Tucson and featured 10 gala pieces designed by Valenzuela.
“I love supporting charities,” says Valenzuela. “And when they support those in my community, it’s no question.”