"Project Runway": Latino Contestants Talk about Their Experiences

In the diverse group of designers competing on Project Runway this season are three Latino contestants with very different backgrounds, styles and levels of experience, vying to make their mark on the fashion world.

The elder statesman of the bunch at 43, Emilio Sosa, a New Yorker who emigrated to the U.S. from Santo Domingo when he was three, brings years as a costume designer for stage and music videos and couturier for private clients like Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson to the show, which he saw as a shortcut to instant exposure. "I was tired of being a starving artist," he confides, convinced that his seniority, experience and versatility gave him an edge on Project Runway.

"With age comes knowledge and self-awareness. In this competition you're pulled in a million directions so if you don't have a sense of who you are as a designer you can make the mistake of trying to please people,” says the Broadway vet, who got his start as a gofer at a theatrical costume house while studying fashion at the Pratt Institute in New York, and is well accustomed to having his work critiqued. Stage costume design also taught him how to make a statement with clothing, so a woman's personality "can shine without it being about the dress."

Sosa's design won the season’s first challenge, which he took as "a validation that I can do this, that I don't have to worry that everyone here is half my age. I can be current, relevant and design for a client of today." Not that Project Runway was easy for him, the deadline pressure in particular. "You have to be able to edit yourself while under the gun.  Fortunately I know how to manage my time, and that's what I relied on."

Faring less well, at least initially, is Jesus Estrada, a Mazatlan, Mexico-born San Diegan who landed in the bottom two twice so far and concedes that his lack of experience may have hurt him, but remains passionate about his commitment to fashion. Having modeled a bit with his identical twin brother as a teen and studied design at Fashion Career College in San Diego, he was the type of kid that painted his bedroom walls black. He applied for Project Runway as soon as he turned 21.

More influenced by punk music and Hollywood film and fashion than Latino culture in his design, Estrada nevertheless recognizes that "as Latinos we like to be over the top and step outside of the box and wow people.  I do like to work with a lot of texture, take different types of fabrics and put them together and cut them and shred them."

Maya Luz, a Santa Fe, a 22-year-old New Mexico native, patiently waited till she graduated from Boston's Massachusetts College of Art and Design to apply for Project Runway, for which she initially prepared by watching old episodes and sketching madly. For her, the hard part of the show was not being able to do research or draw inspiration from life and pop culture. "We were locked in a bubble. I had to pull inspiration from nothing," she notes.

The daughter of a Puerto Rican photographer (dad) and a Portuguese-Cape Verdean painter (mom) who encouraged her artistic ambitions, Luz has lived in the southwest, northeast, southeast and London and believes her mixed heritage and vagabond lifestyle have provided a wealth of cultural experience that influences her design. 

She lives in New York now and designs clothing and accessories for her own MayaLuz.com but wants to gain even more experience by working for other designers and possibly returning to London to get her Masters in fashion design next year.

"It was not what I expected, but more than I could have imagined," she says of her Project Runway experience.  "I think I learned a lot about myself and what I want to do as a designer."

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