Can a fashion brand that chooses to stay small on purpose survive? Is a designer able to inspire policy change? Sergio "Celestino" Guadarrama and Kade Johnson, the duo behind Celestino Couture, wouldn't just say a quiet 'yes' to those questions — they'd shout it.
As a contestant on the 18th season of Bravo's "Project Runway," brand founder and designer Guadarrama brings a unique perspective to fashion, emphasizing sustainable materials, inclusive sizing and a willingness to use clothing as a way to talk politics and identity.
"I hope to inspire people that you can use your creative vehicle to change the world," he says on the phone. "It's going to take creative people to create conversations for the betterment of humanity."
That's something Guadarrama has already sought to do in a number of ways, from dressing Billy Porter in a suit meant to inspire conversation about abortion laws to partnering with non-profits that use apparel to raise money and awareness about issues like sex trafficking.
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Johnson, his partner in business and life, explains that these initiatives all flow from the couple's desire to leave the world better than they found it.
"We can't take a fortune with us when we're gone," Johnson says. "But the legacy? That's the footprint that we can leave."
Ahead of the "Project Runway" premiere on Thursday, we chatted with Guadarrama about dressing a red carpet icon, defining success in terms that don't involve becoming a billionaire and changing the narrative around who gets to be described as a "couture designer." Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
How did you find your way into design?
I knew that I was going to be a designer from a very early age. My family didn't have much money, but they always told us we could do things. My father was a professional soccer player and both my brothers ended up being professional soccer players. But I had a different direction.
Once I realized that you could be a fashion designer, I spent all of my time sketching and trying to figure out how to sew. Nobody in my family knew anything about it. I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising for my first degree and to the Fashion Institute of Technology for my second degree. I started my line while I was a junior at FIT.
I knew that I needed to start my line as soon as I could and try to learn everything on my own so I could always think of fashion in a positive light. I never wanted to become jaded with something I love so much.
How did your partner Kade first get involved?
Kade and I started dating four years ago and it worked out that he's really good at doing the things that I'm not good at. He took on a role of translating my inspiration and the stories that I want to tell into a visual world of photoshoots and social media.
Was eco-consciousness a tenet of the brand when you started in '05?
Most of the textiles that I used, even in 2005, were upcycled materials. I wasn't as sustainable then as I am now, but it was a natural progression because all the materials I had been sourcing were leftovers of the fashion industry.
How do you go about finding upcycled materials?
Mood is a big place that buys leftovers from the fashion industry and resells them. There are quite a few people that sell fabric in that model, and that's mainly where we source our materials from.
Because we use only use upcycled textiles, we might only make one or two of anything in that specific textile. All of the couture stuff is made-to-measure. We make everything from scratch in our studio here in New York.
What about when you're looking for things like dyes or embellishments?
Beads are something that we do purchase new because they're very difficult to source. Still, we use a lot of upcycled beaded materials. What we have not been able to get around in terms of sustainability are things like thread. It's hard to recycle thread because you can't take it off of other garments. We're trying to figure out how to be more sustainable with it.
We're trying to become as close to a zero-waste company as we can. We don't really throw away anything. We actually started creating these really beautiful murals with a lot of the materials. It furthers the conversation of not having to purchase things that are new to create beautiful things.
Beyond your sourcing, how else do your values find their way into your business practices?
We do a lot of social programs. Denim Day, for example, was created because of this court case in Italy in 1998 where this woman was raped and her assailant got away with the rape because he blamed her for wearing tight jeans. It had to go all the way to the Supreme Court in Italy before finally getting overturned and the man was convicted. In remembrance of that day, people come together to talk about being respectful to others.
We created about six looks for L'Officiel with celebrities that have been affected by human trafficking or domestic violence. We used scraps of denim that were hand-painted by former child slaves in Ghana. We created these looks to further the narrative of this day. I feel like we can tackle the most difficult topics through beauty. If you don't talk about things that are horrible, you're never going to really solve the issues.
We worked with the High School of Fashion Industries to create those pieces. After we mentored kids at the school, the looks were auctioned off by Beauty for Freedom, an organization trying to end human trafficking. We try to be 360 with not only what we create, but anything that we do for charitable organizations so that the narrative is carried beyond a famous person wearing a piece.
Speaking of celebrities wearing Celestino Couture, you and Billy Porter have a really great relationship. What do you think that has done for your brand?
Billy was over having all of these weird standards for being a man in movie or theater roles. He just wanted to be himself. When he finally started putting all those puzzle pieces together, his recognition went to the next level and he became an advocate for all of these different things.
We created a look for him with the curtain from his 2013 Tony Award-winning show "Kinky Boots." There's a charitable organization called Scenery Bags that purchases all of the leftover curtains from a show when it closes and it gives marginalized kids the opportunity to have theater classes.
I asked Billy if we could put a female reproductive system on the back of the train because of the really strict abortion laws in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Not only did he have that conversation on the red carpet, but we donated the look to a museum afterward so that conversation can keep going.
What is it like to know that you're making couture-like pieces, without the acknowledgment of being "real" couture?
That's one of the barriers we want to break down. We want to make garments at the highest level. The couture houses have a lot of very strict rules about who can be considered a couturier. That's great that they hold themselves to such high standards, but there are a lot of people creating beautiful things at those high standards.
Right now the business seems very direct-to-consumer. What's next?
We want to redefine success. We feel like you compromise yourself when people only look upon billionaires and millionaires as successful. When we had mom-and-pop stores all around the United States, they were small and they were still successes within their community.
We want to bring back the sense of small being considered successful. A lot of businesses grow to a certain level and start doing things that are not responsible. We want to create a conversation with people that success should not be measured by money, but by how you make a difference in the world.
What has securing funding been like as a brand that's not defining success with dollar signs?
I've had my ups and downs in terms of finances. Sometimes we're eating rice and beans; sometimes we can enjoy what life has to offer. But it's all a cycle and I'm seeing most of it's dependent on how the economy is doing. A lot of designers and retailers are going out of business right now. But because of the support we have, we're getting by. As long as we're able to survive and make a difference in the world, we truly feel that we are successful.
Are collaborations or capsules something that you're interested in doing with e-commerce retailers?
I think Moda Operandi would probably be the closest thing to our model because they really do made-to-order. I feel like when you have things in stock that kind of kills our industry because you have to have sales to get rid of the things that were the wrong purchases in terms of retail in the first place.
I think the future of our industry is educating the consumer on not purchasing fast fashion that's killing the planet ,and making them focus on fewer things that are of quality. That's why we feel the smaller brands are going to be the future, because you can't sustain an everlasting expansion — we only have one planet and trying to get two to five percent growth every quarter is not a reality.
What does the future of Celestino Couture look like?
I want to set a standard not only for the fashion industry but for all creative people. We can all make a change if we come together with the facts. When you know what's going on in the world in its true light, you can make a difference in the world. And honestly, we just want to make the world a better place. That's what success means to us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.