Louisa Rechter ’05 excitedly opens a package full of beautiful handwoven fabrics by the Habi Philippine Textile Council, where women are weaving beautiful fabrics that will eventually adorn patrons attending a gala, a wedding, or perhaps just enjoying a night on the town. As Louisa, along with business partner Alessandra Perez-Rubio, shuffle through old photos of their mothers and grandmothers from Manila and Cebu during the 1960s, the women from the Habi Philippine Textile Council find inspiration for their fabrics.
Launching Mestiza New York
Together, Louisa and Alessandra recently launched Mestiza New York, a dress line inspired by Louisa and Alessandra’s Filipino-American heritage (Alessandra hails from Manila, and Louisa’s mother is American but spent most of her life growing up in Cebu). They are already well on their way to becoming a fashion icon. Now in their fourth year of business, Mestiza—which means mixed ancestry in Filipino—has made big headways, in stores such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Shopbop, Moda Operandi and Revolve. In addition, their pieces have been worn by celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen, Ashley Graham, Kate Walsh, Molly Sims and more. A central part of the brand’s identity is to offer elevated and accessible dresses, but without the couture price tags.
“We were both living in New York and were invited to events and weddings that required black tie attire. Invitations were piling up, and everything we wanted to wear we couldn’t afford” Louisa said. “That’s when we decided to launch a line that offered elevated, reasonably-priced dresses that are well made and unique.”
“A lot of people said, ‘You’re starting a retail business in the worst retail climate. Why does anyone need another dress brand?” Despite that, we kept trudging on.”
Friends from college, Louisa and Alessandra took the first leap into business partnership while still working their respective full-time jobs.
“We would meet up in New York’s garment district to try to find fabrics and then spent long hours working on samples and designs. It took a year before we quit our jobs to go full-force,” Louisa said.
From there, Louisa and Alessandra began cold calling small stores and boutiques that they thought might carry their line. According to Louisa, “that was a failure.”
“No one had heard of us nor wanted anything to do with us,” she said.
So, they switched gears and tried a direct-to-consumer sales model, where they took their pieces to trunk shows. In just two weeks, they sold 100 units from their collection and were eventually picked up by Anthropologie’s wedding arm. It was the perfect match, as Mestiza’s brand is all about a “fun and flirty” look featuring tassels as one of the signature components of the dresses—also inspired by their Filipina roots.
They were starting to see some success, but there was still a lot to do. In order to truly become the big brand they’d always dreamed of, they’d need to raise funds to scale-up.
“We did a lot of fundraising at the beginning and received pockets of money from investors here and there,” Louisa said. “We used those funds to invest in a pattern maker, a production team, and a photo shoot that would truly capture our inspiration and brand identity.”
Sustaining the Traditional Craft
Certainly, Louisa is proud of the success she’s experienced so far, but she said she’s perhaps prouder of the way her business helps sustain a more-than-century old craft—traditional Filipina fabric weaving.
“By employing women through the Habi Philippine Textile Council, we are helping preserve the traditional craft of these women. It also gives them a steady paycheck and helps sustain the cotton industry there. It is such an inspiration behind our brand,” she said.
Mestiza carries a line of “Habi by Mestiza” styles a few times a year. For Louisa, allowing the women the freedom to create their own designs and on their own timeline is an important component of the relationship.
“We never push deadlines or try to over-insert our own ideas,” she said. “We want this to truly be authentic to the women and their works of art.”
An Entrepreneurial Spirit Shaped By MICDS
Louisa comes from a family that has historically been in the retail business, so it seemed natural for her to take a similar leap. However, it was MICDS—and especially the community—that further nurtured her.
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I knew I wanted to find success in my life somehow, but I didn’t know at the time that this is what I’d be doing,” she said. “MICDS was such a nurturing environment. From fellow alumni to teachers and parents, everyone in the community is so supportive.”
Louisa learned a lot at MICDS, but one of the most valuable things she learned was to be resourceful and self-reliant, but unafraid to ask for help when needed.
“MICDS made me excited to learn, because it wasn’t an environment that was overly competitive. Students were genuine friends, and teachers made themselves available,” she said. “MICDS taught me to reach out for help and ask for help. When people were supportive, it inspired me to keep going.”
Louisa also shared that, when first starting out, she heeded advice from alumni/ae and parents of alumni/ae who were in the same industry. She said she ultimately values the strong network MICDS has provided her, and she would be more than welcome to give the same support in return.
“The MICDS network extends beyond graduation. I would always welcome someone who wanted to talk to me for advice or encouragement. MICDS gives us a special connection. There’s a special place in my heart for anyone who graduated from MICDS.”
MICDS Continues to Nurture Fashion-Minded Students
Louisa is not the only MICDS alumna/us who has been successful in the fashion industry. In fact, there are several, including Devon Windsor ’12, Emily Brady Koplar ’98, Hillary Olk Dutcher ’97 and others. Some current students and young alumni are also dipping their toes into the world of fashion. Abigail Werner ‘19 is one such student, who was chosen to participate in a competitive week-long internship this past spring during New York Fashion Week. There she worked for designer and fashion icon, Dennis Basso. She was the youngest intern chosen to participate and worked closely with college students and recent college graduates.
Similar to Louisa, Abigail, whose parents are also in the fashion industry, hopes to own her own business one day. During fashion week, she took a taxi every morning to Basso’s studio in Long Island, where she worked long, 12-hour days.
“I got to help choose the gowns for celebrities to wear during the week,” she said. “I had a lot of responsibility to make sure all of the gowns arrived to the store without any issues.”
Abigail also credits MICDS with cultivating her passion for art. While in Brad Heinemann’s sculpture class, she had the chance to channel her creativity and take the projects in whatever direction she wanted.
“We did a lot of sketching before projects in Mr. Heinemann’s class,” she said. “It was always great to see how our sketches came to life. In addition, it helped me with organizational skills—learning how to set up a project and see it to completion.”
During fashion week, Abigail also used the time-management skills she learned as a student at MICDS.
“Everything that week was extremely fast-paced, and I had to do a lot of tasks in a certain time period. Knowing how to manage my time proved valuable.”
Next year, Abigail plans on applying to intern at LA’s Fashion Week to get a feel for the coastal, more everyday and casual fashion industry to compare to her high end New York experience.
For Louisa, Abigail and others, it’s clear MICDS helped lay a firm foundation in providing the skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit needed to chase your passions. We are excited to see what’s ahead as MICDS graduates lead and shape the fashion industry with purpose.