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Made in San Juan: Meet “Project Runway’s” Puerto Rican Fashion Designer Margarita Alvarez

“Project Runway” finalist Margarita Álvarez was the first Puerto Rican woman to show at New York Fashion Week. Álvarez put on a spectacular runway show, delivering signature bold, mixed prints, and a major runway statement to remember: the moment her full-figured model ripped off her skirt, strutting the catwalk in a swimsuit as the audience applauded.

Marriott TRAVELER Español talked to her about the highs and lows of “Project Runway,” how she’s helping reignite the island’s fashion industry, and what it was like working with fashion icon Tim Gunn.

What inspired you to become a fashion designer?

My dad is an architect and I’ve always been curious about how things are built or made. How you draw something on paper and then it becomes three-dimensional–that was always so interesting to me. I didn’t grow up into fashion. I was a tomboy; I played sports and I was always in my uniform and sneakers. I think curiosity really was what kind of sparked my interest in it: Why are people so obsessed with Vogue? What is it about fashion?

I started reading about fashion, and how the old couture was really sculptural— architecture for clothes, almost. I liked drawing fashion illustrations because they were so fluid, and beautiful to look at. All those interests kind of morphed into this one career.

How did growing up in Puerto Rico influence your aesthetic?

Anyone that visits Puerto Rico will immediately understand why we’re so sensitive to color. Growing up in a really lush landscape like Puerto Rico, there’s always plants everywhere, wild birds, bright colors. Art imitates life or life imitates art. That’s super visible when you’re in Old San Juan and every single building is a different color. It’s like a beautiful box of crayons. Somehow all the colors mixed up together work, and I feel like my work is very much like that. Very unexpected prints or colors all combined together. And it works. It’s very much like life.

You like to make a statement. Tim Gunn was a fan of your statement pieces and used his “Tim Gunn Save” to save you from going home. What was it like working with him?

Margarita Álvarez
The designer with Tim Gunn atop a building in Old San Juan. (Photo: Courtesy of Margarita Álvarez)

Everybody was really starstruck with Heidi [Klum] but I was gushing over Tim Gunn. I have such respect for educators and that man to me is the epitome of a mentor. To be face-to-face in conversation with him on the daily was just the luckiest feeling. I honestly felt we connected after he saved me.

What were some other high and low moments filming ‘Project Runway’?

Winning the J.C. Penney challenge was such a high moment for me because I had worked in the company. But it wasn’t a great fit. I don’t think I’m cut out for the ultra-corporate world. So that win felt really great. I want to be accessible to a broader audience. So that was a really high moment: an original design of mine, put in 100,000 stores across America. I don’t think there could be a cooler prize.

Did Hurricane Maria change the focus of what you’re working on? You’re now working with Retazo, a startup focused on developing sustainable fashion manufacturing.

Margarita Álvarez
Álvarez at work. (Photo: Courtesy of Margarita Álvarez)

I’ve always had interest in reigniting the local textile manufacturing apparel economy in Puerto Rico. In the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, Puerto Rico was very buoyant in apparel and textile manufacturing. But when manufacturing became so expensive they started closing factories, outsourcing to China. The little factories that remain here are still active.

Retazo‘s goal is to help local designers connect with these factories and make sure that their patterns and manufacturing standards are up-to-date, and if they’re not digitized, help them get there. It’s a really cool nonprofit coming out of our need to manufacture locally. It might bring more job opportunities and make it less expensive for us to manufacture, making it less expensive to sell at retail price.

Do you want to also open a store in San Juan?

I’m selling online and that’s doing well, but I would like to open maybe a showroom more than a store. Retail is changing; if I want to open a store, I want it to be more of an experience. There’s a NYC store, STORY, and I love what they do. They curate a different look every few months, and they bring in different designers and artists. That’s kind of what I’m thinking of doing here.

It would be great to complement with other local designers, like this woman that I went to college with who is making handmade leather espadrilles. I would love to showcase her work, for example, or this designer who makes custom eyewear, so that the shopper can have a full experience — or if you’re a tourist, you can get a real sense of local design.

How would you describe San Juan style?

Margarita Álvarez
On the runway. (Photo: Courtesy of Margarita Álvarez)

Obviously, comfort is number one. It’s really hot here, and it’s really humid. People are in shorts and little sun dresses like cotton linens—anything natural breathing. People love to wear color and prints. It looks good on the beach; it looks good on the street. The fashion here for men is so cool. A lot of men are wearing old tropical looking shirts, Magnum P.I.-esque if you will, but in a really easy sort of summer vibe. Easy and casual, is the vibe here always.

At nighttime, women love to dress up. Maybe it’s because everything around here is so beautiful, you want to deck yourself out. Anything will look good here: whatever you wear, wherever you stand, if you take a picture it’s going to look amazing.