Associated Press Writer, Mexico City
Louis Verdad has come a long way from designing frothy ballroom dresses for 15-year-old Hispanic debutantes in Atlanta.
The Mexican-American fashion designer got his start with the quinceanera crowd, but now he designs for stars like Madonna, Cate Blanchett, Cher, Paris Hilton, Halle Berry and Oprah Winfrey.
Speaking to The Associated Press before a retrospective fashion show in Mexico City honoring his two-decade career, Verdad said he is at the top of his game, but refuses to sell out. While other designers beg Hollywood’s elite to don their designs, he won’t give away his creations.
"This is a dream," Verdad said, grinning widely as he relaxed before the show. "It’s the most amazing way to see how sometimes destiny has grand things in store for you."
Born in Chicago to immigrant parents, he returned to his family’s native Mexico at the age of 4. But he knew he would have to go back to the U.S. to make a name for himself in the fashion world. At 20, he returned to Chicago, where his first art school kicked him out because his English was poor. Eventually he graduated from the Ray-Vogue College of Design, and then moved to Atlanta, where he struggled to make ends meet.
So he moved to Los Angeles and took a job as a product developer for Wal-Mart. While the job wasn’t high-profile, the work gave him the basics he would need, the training to eventually create pieces that were both beautiful and functional.
He started a small workshop at his home, and tried to make a name for himself by starting a small clothing line. He got his first big break when actress Milla Jovovich showed up one day and purchased one of his designs. She had heard about him from a friend.
From there, other stars followed. His rise followed Hollywood’s so-called Latin Boom, and his first clients included Christina Aguilera.
"I became known as a guy that has his own ideology. I had something to say and people cared about it," said Verdad, whose clothes now sell in Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Verdad’s style has come to be defined as "sensually vintage", which he defines as "sensual, rather than sexual."
"I like it when a woman can show some masculinity through her strength, but feminine in her movements," he said.
Today, he is known for designing the two-piece cashmere suit Madonna wore during her famous kiss with Britney Spears and Aguilera during the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. After that, the material girl acquired a whole collection from Verdad.
He says he was invited to design the clothes for the "Sex and The City" film, but had to turn it down because of a conflict with another project.
He consults with Vogue editor Anna Wintour on a regular basis, he said.
"I know her well," he said. "I talk to her often when I have problems or when I need advice. She feels I am someone who has a voice as a designer."
Despite his success, he is one of the few designers who doesn’t give clothes away, he says. After all, his first clients came to him, and paid.
Now a favorite of Eva Longoria Parker, he has to compete with designers fighting to dress her for free.
"She is at a place where everyone wants to dress her, everyone wants to give her things, and I don’t give my designs away," he said.
Verdad, wearing simple, plaid bermudas, a pink T-shirt and a fedora hat before the show, said he always wants to be true to himself.
"I never boast about being the best," he said. "I boast about being authentic."
It hasn’t been easy. He doesn’t like to talk about his bad experiences. "I’m keeping those for myself and to learn from," he said.
Now, Verdad said he finds himself in a "moment of peace and incredible calm."
But despite his success in Hollywood, Verdad still sees himself as a Mexican, despite his U.S. citizenship.
"I grew up in Mexico, so my culture is what I bring to my fashion, my style," he said: "My name is Mexican, and I’m proud of that. Everywhere I go, I represent myself as a Latino. I’m not interested in representing myself as an American. In fact, to the U.S. press I always say: ‘I’m a Mexican designer.’ "