From Baja to Barney's

Velasco Couture founderRogelio Velasco hastraveled far from hischildhood in northernMexico. Today, hisstunning dresses sell for upwardsof $12,000 USD in his Manhattanatelier and at toney retailers likeBarney’s. They’re worn by celebritiesand socialites like Janet Jackson,Tribeca Film Fest director JaneRosenthal, Elisabeth Johnson (ofJohnson & Johnson), and actressAmérica Ferrara. A recent Velascosmash was Meryl Streep’s 2006Academy Awards gown, which gother on People magazine’s bestdressedlist: before Velasco, her outfitswere routinely labeled dowdyand sexless.

He lives the fashionistagood life: awards shows, firstclasstravel, and rooms fullof breathtaking models. Thebest part might be that he’sstill just unfamous enough to liveuntrammeled by too much hype—gadding about New York with noncelebrityfriends and sticking withthe cozy East Village apartment heloved when he was “nobody.”

It all began in Baja California.Rogelio is the thirteenth of sixteenchildren, born in 1960 to a traditionalMexicali family. Mom wasa mom and Dad ran the companythat brought garrafones for drinkingwater to the region in burro-drawnwagons.

The sewing began in the 1970s.One of his sisters was attempting tofashion some “designer jeans,” whenRogelio, then 13, asked to give it ashot. He hasn’t stopped designingsince, and at 18 he was doing his ownfashion shows (a line of rather briefswimwear was a hit). He became thedesigner to Mexicali’s grandees, whocalled on him for everything fromgala formalwear to first communionfrocks. Commissions also includedthat most Mexican of fashions, thequinceañera dress, the “haute couture”moment almost every Mexicangirl experiences no matter howhumble her background.

With a degree in civil engineering—good for cantilevering a straplessor hanging crinolines—Rogeliostudied fashion design in the DominicanRepublic and hit New Yorkin 1986. After years as right-handman to Isaac Mizrahi during thatdesigner’s glory days (a long-hairedRogelio is everywhere in the Mizrahidocumentary Unzipped), he startedVelasco Couture in 2003.

In the Mexicali Rogelio remembers,people looked north. “If youlived on the border in the 70s and80s, you had a special passport”—long since eliminated—“and crossedback and forth with no hassles. Noone locked their doors or worriedabout drug cartels.”Was it difficult being the Mexicaliboy with a talent for dressmaking?Characteristically sanguine, Rogeliosays no. Machistas bullied the “artistic”kids with the usual epithets andaggressions, but the designer remembersthat after dark many of thosesame toughs would come looking forless typically macho tenderness.

Rogelio’s mother never demandedexplanations or confessions; sheseemed simply to understand. “Shewould have all my friends to the houseand cook for them,” he recalls. “Everyonewas welcome and everyonewas equal.” In those days the “gang”included transsexuals, lots of dancers,and even some really sweet straightkids. In Mexicali, glamour and entertainmenttrumped moral punctilio.

While Velasco remembers his hometownwith fondness, he says it’s a longway from Baja to Barney’s. “Mexicaliwomen also demanded a lot more sexand color in their clothes,” he chuckles.When I suggest that a Manhattansocialite carries a bit of quinceañeraon her back when she wears Velascoto her brilliant event, he denies it. “Mytastes have changed—refined—unrecognizably.And you won’t find thestudy and craftsmanship I put intomy work at the local dressmaker’s.”He disavows nothing, but his tasteand technique have moved beyondthe bikinis and bridesmaid dresses oftwenty-five years ago.

Upon reflection, he does say thework in Mexicali helps him today.His early days as dressmaker to itsgrand señoras—no less demandingor interested in social triumph thanNew Yorkers—attuned him to theimperatives, both spoken and unarticulated,of his clients. Understandingthese nuances, Velasco createsthe dress he knows is right for thewoman. “But the client walks awaycertain she was always in control,”he says, grinning good-naturedly.

Life on the border has always beenprovisional, raffish, and informal.Having grown up where social distinctionswere less rigid than they arein Mexico City (in Mexicali familyand servants ate at the same table,for instance), he feels no need topreen or sneer. “You have to respecteveryone,” he says, “fromthe poorest immigrant seamstressto Queen Rania of Jordan(one of Velasco’s customers).”In a milieu known formegalomania, jealousy, andjust plain bitchiness, Rogelionever mentions rivals or enemies.

And he remains patiently politewhen pressed on the quinceañera influence.How can you get away fromMexico’s eye-popping bridal shopculture? In next season’s dresses,how about more sequins, or feathers,or a less subdued palette? Maybematching parasols…

“There’s absolutely nothing wrongwith feathers or sequins or color.You just have to know how to usethem,” he replies.He says nothing about the parasols.

Michael Parker-Stainback can be reachedat