At Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, Mariela Zapata was a trendsetter.
“I won ‘Best Hair’ and ‘Best Dressed’ and my clothing was always, always embellished with accessories,” Mariela recalls, laughing.
She made a statement during her teenage years, but soon college came around. Mariela decided to enroll at BMCC as a Liberal Arts major, hoping to improve her grades before pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
“I really liked BMCC’s diverse student body,” recalls Mariela, who is still in touch with her former Professors Roger Foster of Social Sciences and Human Services, and Hilario Barrero, of the Modern Languages Department. “I even studied abroad in Spain during my time at BMCC.”
The budding fashionista worked as a makeup artist and in retail for Estee Lauder and Tommy Hilfiger during her BMCC years.
“I learned about sales, design and how to be a team player,” she recalls.
After graduating from BMCC in 2006, Mariela enrolled at FIT where she studied Accessories Design.
From BMCC to FIT
“The course of study at FIT was extremely intense. I remember designing day and night…” recalls Mariela, who worked closely with fashion designer Nanette Lepore during her FIT years.
“I helped with fashion shows and learned how to combine print and color,” she says. “I learned so much from Nanette, including how she started and operated her company.”
Mariela’s major at FIT focused heavily on pattern-making, which wasn’t an issue for her.
“My mother taught me how to sew at a young age,” she says. “When I was thirteen, I made myself a birthday outfit."
After graduating from FIT, Mariela worked as a footwear designer, and in product development for a footwear company.
Mariela Zapata debuts
Then, in 2010 Mariela made a life-changing decision. She wanted to launch her own signature fashion line.
“It was time,” she says. “I wanted to start my own company armed with the fashion knowledge I learned over the years. I knew how to work with buyers, how to tell if something is factory quality, how to source your materials,” she explains. “I love going to different parts of the world to acquire materials."
Today, Mariela works out of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, design studio.
“I love what I am doing and am happy to do my own thing, from the business end to product development,” says Mariela, who hand-makes all her handbags and is involved in every aspect of production.
With so many handbags out there, what makes a Mariela Zapata bag so unique?
“The embellishments are hand stitched and every chain is detachable on the bags, so it can be used a clutch as well,” she explains. “Monaco black is the most popular clutch because it has caviar print leather with unique handmade ornaments.”
NY1 News Anchor Roma Torre, Broadway actress Kate Baldwin, and 30 Rock writer Kate Cannon are some of the celebrities who own an authentic Mariela Zapata handbag.
Mariela Zapata handbags are currently available for purchase online, and Mariela is working on getting them into local boutiques.
“I'm soon debuting a more casual handbag line made of stones and leather,” says Mariela, who is inspired by music, colors, jewelry, traveling and her Dominican heritage.
“Handbags are the final touch to any outfit,” she says. “And what I love about fashion in general is the creativity, the art and the beauty, all occurring in one place. I just love it all.”
Fashion culture at BMCC
Mariela is impressed by the fashion culture of today’s BMCC students.
The college is home to a Fashion Club, which recently hosted a fashion show in the lobby breezeway. And, this spring, the Daily News featured three BMCC students in a fashion-themed spread.
“Aspiring designers should know anything you believe in, and have a passion for, is possible,” says Mariela.
Staying on top of the biz
Additionally, Mariela encourages fashion-forward students to sign up for Web blogs.
“I like the Business of Fashion, style.com and stylebubble.com. You can also register for Daily Candy emails, Women’s Wear Daily emails, and more,” she says. “It’s important to know the current industry trends.”
Mariela also encourages BMCC students to “keep dreaming.”
“Keep sketching, believe in yourself, know what school you want to go to, and realize that obstacles just make you stronger,” she says. “You must have focus and discipline to be successful. Find your calling and get busy living it.”