When it comes to the fashion mill, Victor Alfaro has seen it all. The 52-year-old designer, who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, moved to the United States at the age of 16 to study communications in Texas. He ended up pursuing his fashion dreams in New York. In 1987, he graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and after working with Joseph Abboud, launched his first collection in 1991, quickly establishing himself as a young master of seductive dressing. The late New York Times style editor Amy Spindler dubbed his collections "sex-kitten clothes." In 1994, Alfaro won the CFDA Perry Ellis New Fashion Talent award and earned his stripes dressing A-list celebrities like Madonna, Mariah Carey and Nicole Kidman. In 2000, Alfaro's business continued to blossom when he launched a diffusion line and a luxury sportswear line. But big business got the better of the idealistic designer and an unfortunate partnership with an Italian manufacturer forced him to shutter his label in 2003, temporarily losing rights to his name. The beleaguered Alfaro spent the next decade immersing himself in the worlds of art and furniture design. But in 2013, Alfaro managed to buy back his name and embrace his sartorial aspirations once again with a well-received spring collection. 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 Alfaro in Toronto recently to talk about his passion, his growing pains and the art of survival in the brutal business of fashion.
How have your hopes and aspirations changed now that you've been through so much in this business?
It was a smaller world. I'm not really nostalgic and I don't sit down and analyze things – I just go with them. 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. 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. The world of fashion has become this monster that's swallowing everything up. There are fewer and fewer people capable of sustaining it, and corporations are kind of draining us and killing the whole industry. We can't all be doing shoes and handbags and selling them in every airport in the world.
How has all that changed your approach to your own business model now?
Well, I struggle a lot. I ended my first line in a very bad way, even though business was on fire. I worked so many years and then it was all destroyed, not by me but by my partners. I was so unhappy and bitter and so it took me a lot of years to heal. I finally bought my name back by working really hard. 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 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 thought I never would want to be doing this again and now I'm here. 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 very toxic and 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 don't.
I think women appreciate that – we want some exclusivity. We don't want to see that fabulous dress we just got everywhere.
That's what I'm saying. Take this beautiful handcrafted piece of knitwear in my collection. I'd gone to Art Basel and seen this beautiful painting that inspired me, so I had a friend who's a hand-knitter start this little swatch. I was trying to duplicate the idea of the painting, like going to a gallery and seeing a limited-edition run, because we can produce small numbers of these sweaters and have them distributed to a limited number of women. So we tested the concept, selling one to Barney's, one to The Room, one to Net-A-Porter, etc. And it 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 when you're paying $5,000 for a stupid sweater, you don't want to walk into a room and see a woman wearing what you have on. You want to be special.
Have your experiences made you a better designer in your approach to what clothes we need – or want – in the world?
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 on clothes, but you have to think about what purpose they're going to serve. Who's buying the clothes? Who's this imaginary customer? I have to be very disciplined. But my fabrics and colours are the same. 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 happy. That's never going to change. There's such reward in having someone enjoy what they're wearing and creating with a purpose, because now there are a million things everywhere. Sometimes you have to have a sense of humour about it, because it's all so very silly. No one really needs anything.
You must have a great perspective, having stepped back and looked at the fashion arena and seen what fame in that world means and how hard people have to work.
I've never been the kind of person who chases fame. It just happened to me. It was very organic and it was a very small world. I won a CFDA award, and I'm so happy that I experienced that. But I didn't really process it until five 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. He sent me a book and I still have the note it came with. And I said, "That's an incredible moment for a guy from Chihuahua!" There were other moments when I met a lot of great people, but it wasn't real. I, as always, was just happy to go home…
To what do you attribute the fact that you've been able to always suck things up and keep on marching?
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." I have strong work ethics, and I have something built inside that lets me always pull myself back together in the interest of survival. Also, I like what I do a lot.
Your passion pulls you through.
Yes, because what else am I supposed to do? It's a great craft. I'm fortunate that I'm skilled enough now to still do it right.
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.
This interview has been condensed and edited.