Julieta Zavala: Combining Culture, Heritage, and Environment in Fashion Design

At the Museum on May 13, Julieta Zavala will showcase new designs in a Fashion Show inspired by our spring exhibition, Estampas de la Raza. Below, Zavala shares about her residency at DelArt, her Chicano son, and the driving source behind all she creates: leaving a legacy that he will be proud of.

Julieta Zavala was born in Mexico City and started her long road trip to Delaware before turning 21. Her dad drove two days straight to get her and her sisters to their destination while listening to the Virus album and trying to learn English along the way.

Zavala’s story and her deep interest in artistic creation go back to when she was a child. In her youth, she was captivated by the magic of doll dresses discovered in a small, unclaimed suitcase at her mom’s. The fantasy world those dresses inspired has populated Julieta Zavala’s creations ever since. She grew up watching her aunt sew with patience and dedication. “She always looked so happy while sewing.” Zavala never followed big-name designers, instead believing that she has “a little something different” that sets her apart from the rest.

The emerging designer tried to attend the prestigious art and design school in Mexico, Jannette Klein University, but couldn’t afford it. Instead, she immersed herself in fashion design by taking as many free classes as she could in basic sewing, sketching, and design principles. This path led her to a job at a department store where big clothing brands, like Diesel, train employees in creating pieces of clothing. Zavala learned about design trends, how to choose fabrics and colors, and best practices for displaying garments. She got the itch, “Ahi ya se me quedó la espinita,” that would drive her to overcome language and cultural barriers to become a fashion designer at the Art Institute of Philadelphia many years later.

Once in the United States, not knowing the language lowered her self-esteem greatly. Learning English became Zavala’s main priority to accomplish her dreams. She took classes at churches and every free place she could find. She took night classes and graduated with honors from high school, then attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia, graduating with a degree in fashion design. In her road to success, nothing came easy. Three months before graduating, she gave birth to her son, but it did not stop her. Despite the logistical challenges that student moms face, including pumping in public bathrooms, finding childcare, struggling with postpartum depression, and facing societal judgement, Zavala kept going. A college degree was not just personally important, but an especially significant achievement because Zavala’s ancestors weren’t able to access higher education. She cites her family’s and husband’s support and encouragement as an essential factor in achieving her dream of becoming an independent designer.

Julieta Zavala’s business began when her sister suggested going to a Cinco de Mayo event to sell her creations. She started small by making fabric totes and cactus-inspired pillows. That was a revelation that led her to create something based on her culture that made her feel happy and fulfilled. Her roots became her source of artistic inspiration.

The originality of Zavala’s designs is key to her success. She sources unique fabrics and creates garments not available in stores. Her artistic creative process includes discovering material, touching it, and discerning what can be done with it. Rather than sketching, Zavala pictures her designs in her mind, creating a vision that she turns into a piece of art.

Aware of the fashion industry’s negative environmental impact, Zavala centers her design practice on reusing, recycling, and upcycling materials to make one-of-a-kind garments. For a Wisconsin Dia de los Muertos celebration, she created dresses with corn husks. While she stayed at a farm, volunteers helped her produce amazing catrina outfits (elegant female skeletons), as well as garments full of seeds for native dancers. The latter was planned to create a rain of seeds with every dance movement that, according to Zavala, “returned them to the ground, like sowing.” Zavala also uses plastic tablecloths “like the ones in every Mexican household and typical restaurant” to create dresses.Even though the material is hard to manipulate, the results are incredibly beautiful. For an LGBTQ+ Pride Parade, she fashioned a unicorn outfit from multicolored plastic springs sourced from a thrift shop. Searching through thrift shops and secondhand fabric stores, where other designers dispose textile leftovers, gives Zavala a way to practice environmental and financial consciousness.

Zavala’s current project is inspired by the DelArt exhibition “Estampas de la Raza,” showcasing the unique heritage, history, and experience of Mexican Americans and Latinos in the United States. She is excited that DelArt “brings culturally diverse art to the area and to the Anglo-Saxon community.” For the exhibition, Zavala created a one-of-a-kind version of a La Virgen de Guadalupe dress called “La Mera Mera,” which hangs in the special exhibition. This unique piece is a combination of religious iconography and the chola aesthetic to express the duality of their culture. On the one hand, it imbues female modesty and the norms of society, and on the other, it challenges gender norms by combining the masculine and feminine. For Zavala, the virgin is a symbol of Mexican culture, as iconic as mariachis, the Mexican flag, the prickly pear (nopal), wrestling (lucha libre), and Frida Khalo. Zavala admires Kahlo and has enormous respect for her work, considering her a woman ahead of her times whose art wasn’t properly recognized until recently.

Join Julieta Zavala at the Delaware Art Museum on May 13 for a Fashion Show highlighting her designs and celebrating her artist residency. Tickets available now.

Veronica V. Vasko

Photo by Manuel Flores from Dream Art Studio.