In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Though he's had his namesake business since 2011, many learned the name Wilfredo Rosado on Jan. 20, 2021, when Vice President Kamala Harris stood on the steps of the Capitol and made history as she was sworn into office, wearing her signature, emblematic pearls.
On that day, she chose a necklace where each individual pearl was surrounded by a delicate gold halo, linked with small diamonds. It was custom-designed by Rosado and, naturally, it got a lot of attention. Pretty much overnight, Rosado had a new audience. And they were introduced to a fashion industry veteran who's worked alongside Andy Warhol and Giorgio Armani ("Mr. Armani," as Rosado calls him).
"The fact that I chose to do pearls comes from this guttural feeling I always have about things to come. And I feel like I've done that with many things — with the feathers, throughout my career," Rosado explains, noting how he had already been working on his pearl collection when he got in touch with Vice President Harris's team. "It was something that I really had a feeling for. It was all very coincidental."
That instinct has driven him much of his career, as he navigated an industry he had always admired but never really thought he'd be a part of. From his early ambition ("I was so focused!") to the people and projects that got him to where he is today — and where he's still going — we caught up with Rosado to talk about how he went from being a pre-med student at NYU to learning directly from creative legends to being a part of history. Read on.
Where does your interest in fashion come from?
I remember, as far back as a kid — my mother was very fashionable, actually. She always dressed us very well, and I was very trend-conscious very young. [In the] 70s, there were these huge shoes called the Marshmallows, with a white gum sole. I must have been in third or fourth grade, and I drove my parents insane — I had to have the Marshmallow shoes. They ended up taking me to Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn because it was the only place that had the Marshmallows in my size. This is how insane I was for these. My brother was also very, very much into fashion, so we had a subscription to W when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and a subscription to GQ. When I went to high school, I was obsessed with Italian Vogue. I was always going to the international newsstands and buying Italian Vogue and L’Uomo Vogue.
But the thing is, I never thought of a career in fashion. I come from a very traditional Puerto Rican family, where my parents were blue collar workers. They instilled in us an education and traditional careers — like, you become a doctor, a lawyer, a fireman. That was what I thought would be my path in life. That didn't work out, obviously.
Before you went to work for Andy Warhol, you were enrolled at NYU. What were you studying? And how did you end up in the fashion department at Interview?
I was a pre-med student — a biology major. I was always a very torn person. I had the traditional Latino upbringing, with the very traditional path, and that was really important to me. I really wanted to be a doctor. My father was an artist and when we were very young, as far back as I can remember, we were always in SoHo, when it was artist lofts and warehouses, and in Washington Square Park. As a kid, I told my parents, 'I want to go to NYU.' That was my goal. I got into NYU and other colleges as well, but my heart was NYU.
Anyway, I never completed school. I did two years, but I never graduated. While I was at school, I still had a passion for fashion. I loved being in the city and in SoHo. There was a really cool shop at the time called Parachute, and this is where it really all began for me, in terms of understanding my love for fashion. It was the coolest store in New York. I used to go in there when I was in school because I just loved all the salespeople — they were like gorgeous models, and I was in awe of everything. And I finally mustered the courage to ask for a job, they gave me the application and I ended up getting it. It really was like the creative center of downtown fashion at that time. Oribe was coming to do hair, Mario Testino would shoot the campaign, Jean-Paul Goude was always in the store. It was that circle of people that I got to become very familiar with while working at Parachute.
I was still at NYU, working weekends at Parachute, and one day, in walks the president of Giorgio Armani, which was Gabriella Forte at the time. Armani was opening his first shop in New York, and they recruited me to come work there. I decided, 'I'll work the summer at Armani, and then I'll go to school in September.' Well, that was a mess, because I never went back. One thing led to another, and I really learned what fashion as a business meant. I got to see the business side and the creative side of Armani, and I just really loved what I was doing. I decided to take what I thought would be a semester off from school to really immerse myself in that. One thing led to another, and my career just kind of unfolded that way.
What was that first job at Armani?
Sales. It was the first time Emporio Armani launched in America. It was meant to be like a younger brand of Giorgio Armani, so I was kind of that person for them. Actually, I worked with Elizabeth Saltzman — Elizabeth and I worked together at Parachute and then from there, we went to go work at Armani. And Elizabeth was the coolest chick in town... We went to Area like six nights a week. We were partying like maniacs. And then we would go to Armani and try to be all buttoned-up and professional. But it was complete chaos, always. We had such a good time.
From there, Gabriella gave me more of an opportunity to do visuals and windows. That was my next step at Armani, doing visual merchandising and display. Once I did that, I met Andy Warhol and my life changed, again.
Tell me about your time at Interview and what your role was there.
I came from a very traditional background. I used to read all the stuff — I had a subscription to W and all that — but I didn't really know a lot. I was very naive.
I met Andy and went to Interview, to work in the fashion department. There were only two people, and I had to do photoshoots. I had no idea what a photoshoot was. I remember going to my first photoshoot — it was a portfolio of five emerging artists. The photographer was David LaChapelle. We were in the back of the taxi and we both had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. That was the beginning.
From there, I started doing all the photoshoots — covers and editorial stories — but again, learning as I went along. I remember going to a shoot with Bob Dylan, and I had no idea who he was. I come back and someone says to me, 'Who did you shoot?' I said this guy called Bob Dylan. And they're like, 'Bob Dylan?! He's a legend.' I had no idea. I was super, super naive… Going to Interview was such an amazing learning experience, and oftentimes very intimidating. Suddenly I was working with Robert Mapplethorpe, Herb Ritts and legendary photographers. I was learning on the job about photography, styling and who a lot of these people in the art or music or film world were. Coming from the background I came from, it was very, very intense and very intimidating.
What would you say are the big lessons that you took from that time?
I learned a lot about the power of imagery. The power of photography. Andy was an amazing communicator, and I was very close to Andy. I had the fortune of learning a lot at Interview from being on the job and working, but I also had the great fortune of learning from Andy directly. After work, I was with Andy six nights a week — we would do everything together, like dinners and parties, for many years. The only night I had off was Sundays, when I would go see my parents.
With Andy, I got to learn a lot about communicating through visuals. Andy was a very observant person. One of the things that people misunderstand about him was that he was a voyeur. He was a sponge. He would take me to the best party in the world and he would just sit quietly and observe everyone, just absorb so much information about what was going on in fashion, what was cool in music, what people were wearing, what was the hot topic of the moment. I mean, that was one of his amazing talents. He was also a big documenter of the time. He was always photographing everything. That's one of the things I feel I learned from Andy — to be an observer, to understand what's going on in pop culture and to somehow interpret that into the things that I want to create or project as my work. Oftentimes, I will say I'm very influenced by pop culture and urban culture, and I think that's the direct link to my experience working with Andy.
I was also very, very fortunate to have an amazing experience working very closely with Giorgio Armani, Mr. Armani himself. The ability to observe and to extract, I learned from Andy, and through Mr. Armani, [I learned] to take what I had extracted and create things of an elevated taste level and things that reflect my personality and my brand.
Going into your second stint at Armani, you ended up staying at the company for two decades. How did you get recruited back? And at what point did you start working directly with Mr. Armani?
After Andy passed away, I stayed on for a little bit at Interview magazine. Then I went with the ex-editor-in-chief of Interview, who started a new magazine called Fame. It didn't really make much of a blip in the world, so I don't really talk about it that much, but it was a good magazine. During my time at Fame, I got a call from Gabriella Forte again at Giorgio Armani. And she said, 'All right, Wilfredo, enough of you being outside of our house — you need to come back.'
While I was at Interview working with Andy, I was continuing my work with Armani as well. I was creating these monthly 'Trend Reports.' There was so much going on in New York at the time — it was the '80s, it was a creative explosion — so I became this kind of reporter to Mr. Armani on what was going on in music, film, books, emerging actors and musicians. Being at Interview, I had my finger on the pulse really, really intensely.
After Andy passed, they called me to come back to head the PR for Emporio, and that's what I did for a year, maybe two. I feel like I did a very good job there. I created a really cool image for Emporio that involved the art world, Kenny Scharf… And when Mr. Armani saw what I was doing in New York with Emporio, he was like, 'Come to Italy and create this kind of excitement for Emporio in Europe.' Again, it was more about PR and creating this buzz [there]. I did that for a few months, and then Mr. Armani asked me to join the design team — no design background, pre-med student — and this was at the height of Giorgio Armani… I of course never say no to a challenge, and decided to do that.
I moved to Italy, to Milan. It was very, very, very challenging for me. Because Milan at the time — I love Milan now, I still love Milan, I loved Milan then — was very provincial to me. I came from New York City, [immersed] in the art world, street culture, fashion, music. Suddenly, I go to Milan and it's the Sunday walks with family and the cashmere sweater tied around your [shoulders] and your gelato. So I was like, 'What did I get into?' But learning from Mr. Armani, I always equate it with having a Harvard education in fashion: the taste level, the way he worked, his vision of fashion and of everything, even his home. Everything was just immaculate. That was an amazing experience for me. I toughed it out for two years.
I used to wear Armani suits with like, Birkenstocks. Now it's chic, but I used to walk into restaurants and they would laugh at me. I went through a period where I used to wear Armani suits with puffer jackets that were short, so the suit jacket would come out underneath, and it was a scandal. Then I went through a period where I would wear Merrell hiking boots with Armani suits. I used to wear Jordan with Armani suits, and I was the laughing stock of the town. So finally, I'd had enough, and I told Mr. Armani I needed to leave. And he offered me the position to be the fashion director of Armani in America. And so I came back to New York and did that.
I would go back four, five times a year to Milan to work on the styling of the show with Mr. Armani. Then that became annoying to me, and I was like, 'I’m not doing that anymore.' I was a spoiled brat! So after that, I stayed in New York, and I would go for the fashion shows.
Now that you're a designer full-time, what would you say, looking back, were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you were on that design team?
One of the brilliant things about both Armani and Warhol was that an emphasis on creativity was paramount, the most important aspect of the job of a designer. But both Armani and Warhol were very conscious about business: Everything we designed always went back to pricing, production, how it will perform at retail. Even with Andy — yes, he would paint in the studios and was always about trying to do new, cool things, but at the end of the day, it was about business for him. That's what I learned from both. Even today, as a creative person, I always try to think about, yes, I want to design new things, I don't ever want to have a reference of a design that already exists, I try to be unique and original. But I always try to bring that back to business. What does that mean in terms of retail, in terms of pricing, in terms of building up my clients? Who will this appeal to, that will bring in a new client?
What made you want to leave Armani?
I turned a certain age, and I just felt it was time to do something for myself. My mother was so disappointed that I didn't become a doctor, she would always say to me, 'Wilfredo, you have to be very, very conscious that fashion is for young people. It’s always about youth.' So I got to a certain age and I was like, 'Okay what happens now? I'm not as young as I was anymore, I'm not so plugged into the street scene anymore. I need to reinvent myself… I need to do something for myself.'
At the time, the economy was booming. I had an amazing experience in the art world and the fashion world, and I also had great relationships in the music business. I figured, let me start my own business where I can marry all of these experiences to build the image of a brand. My first client was LVMH's spirits division. I took on a project with them to promote Krug Champagne, and I had this idea to introduce that champagne into the art world. This was in 2007. I found this great building in Williamsburg and designed this tour where Krug Champagne would invite their top clients and guests to do these studio tours with artists [that would end with] a sit-down dinner and champagne tasting. It was an amazing thing. I think about it now, and I was very intuitive at the time.
Then I went on to do something with Versace jewelry. This is where I kind of got my first experience with jewelry. I had friends who worked at Versace, because a lot of my friends from Armani had gone on to work other places, and someone who ended up at Versace called me and said, 'We're doing this thing with the Whitney Museum in New York and we're re-launching our fine jewelry collection. Can we come up with an idea that brings all the elements together?' So I started thinking about it. The theme was 'Past, Present and Future,' so my proposal to them was: Why don't we collaborate with contemporary artists to design a unique piece of jewelry for Versace? They would also render the piece of jewelry as a painting, then we would auction off the painting and the piece of jewelry to benefit the Whitney. They love the idea. I selected three different artists: Julian Schnabel, Marc Quinn and Wangechi Mutu... That kind of got my appetite going for jewelry.
What do you think it was about jewelry that resonated so much with you in that moment?
I always had a love for jewelry. Before I did the Versace project, I used to design jewelry for myself — I found a piece recently in my vault, a 22-karat gold cross with a ruby — but I loved it. Maybe it's a Latin thing — we grew up with jewelry.
I met someone who had an online business with watches, and they hired me to come up with a way to redo their site and make it more appealing to the consumer. But I had a bigger idea: I thought, well, these people have such an amazing platform — what a great way to give young jewelry designers an opportunity to sell online. This was in 2009. The internet was still very new and very expensive then, and these designers didn't have the money to build a platform that made sense. My proposal was to build an online jewelry boutique to give these designers an opportunity to sell online globally. And they loved the idea.
I started meeting with young jewelry designers — Pamela Love, Jennifer Meyer… The guy who owned the platform said to me, 'Why would I want to invest in these young designers when I have you? You're a creative guy, why don't you launch your own collection?' I thought, 'That's insane, never gonna do it.' I said no. He approached me again, said, 'Think about it, you have the Armani, Warhol... Do your own jewelry line.'
I agreed to do it under certain, very strict conditions: I would design a collection that felt genuine to me as a person, and to my point of view on fashion and luxury, and I would only work with the factories and the level of craftsmanship that I was used to. My comfort level was, obviously, working in Italy, because I'd done that with Armani for so many years. And my understanding of quality was high-level luxury. They agreed to those terms, and I set out to do my jewelry. And I just went to the top: I went to work with Maison Lemarié in Paris, in the Chanel atelier, and with a workshop in Milan that produces Cartier jewelry. I went to the very, very top. And I needed to have creative freedom. I started my first collection using feather work and gold, and it evolved from there. I really, really love what I do now.
How would you describe the aesthetic and the direction of your jewelry design?
It's very bold. I think it's a marriage of fashion and high jewelry. Everything to me that resonates in fashion is filtered in through my jewelry. And I would say it's a collection that's really defined by an amazing level of quality. Those are the elements to me that really describe what I do. Obviously, it changes all the time — one day it's feathers, today it's pearls… That's part of the process of any creative person. I could sit here today and give you ten ideas of things that I want to do in the very near future. Again, I'm a sensible person and I try to filter everything through a sense of business. Not that I tend to be a great businessman, but it's just how I work.
Speaking of pearls, so many people were introduced to your brand on January 20th. Tell me a bit about the piece you designed for Vice President Kamala Harris.
That moment on January 20th was... I don't even know how to describe it, honestly. It's one of those life-changing moments, on many levels — me as a person, you know, how do I top this? Do I just become satisfied with knowing that I've done it already? I hope not. I hope there are other moments like this.
From a business point of view, it obviously created an awareness for my brand that was unprecedented. It was like, suddenly, it's a well-known brand. I wouldn't say it's Cartier or Bulgari, but I think it's definitely gained a lot of recognition in the market and from the consumer. And also, it's really helped my business. It was an incredible moment for my business and for me personally. And I'm super grateful for it.
I got so many messages from strangers telling me how happy they were for me. I even went to my doctor's office, and I don't talk to them about it, but I walked in and the receptionist was like, 'Mr. Rosado, we're so happy for you, congratulations. You so deserve this.' That's very moving. It's like, you work so hard your whole life, you wait for moments like this.
What have been other impactful moments for your brand since you started the company?
I launched my collection in February 2011. Two weeks later, Elizabeth Saltzman put Gwyneth Paltrow in my feather earrings for the Grammys, when she performed with Cee-Lo Green. And that was like, who would have ever thought… It's like beyond a dream come true.
Before I set out to do my jewelry, I had this dream — I set this goal for myself. There were five or six stores I wanted to be in: Bergdorf Goodman, Harrods, Maxfield Los Angeles, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Tsum in Moscow. Within a month, I was in all those stores, plus some. That was incredible for me. And of course, there was Mariah Carey's engagement ring, which made history in terms of Hollywood engagement rings.
Looking forward, how do you want to continue to grow your jewelry business? What goals do you have for yourself now?
I feel very torn and conflicted because there's a side of me that's very, very meticulous and careful as to how I want to build a brand. It's about exclusivity. It's about creating the most unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that are like treasures — haute joaillerie, high jewelry. But I'm aware that that's a very, very, very limited audience. I've done that before, I was successful with that. But with Pearl ID, I've seen another world. And it's new to me. It's a world that I'm not really familiar with, which is the designer jewelry world for a wider audience. But it's something that I'm loving now, because I see how excited people are.
I was watching Rachel Maddow at midnight and I got an alert on my cell phone that someone sent me a message, actually, from Puerto Rico, wanting to buy a pair of earrings. She's very successful, but this is a person who wouldn't have access to the high jewelry from me. The fact that I can get someone really excited to buy a piece of Pearl ID is very satisfying... I want to continue to develop and build this designer jewelry world and my presence in that world without giving up my love and my passion for things that are one-of-a-kind and handmade, that live in the world of high jewelry. My challenge is trying to find successes in both those worlds.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.