Rolando Santana knows more than a thing or two about the business of fashion. Educated at Mercy College in New York, where he studied International Business, and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where he honed his design and construction skills, the Mexican-born designer is as savvy with forecasting and retailing as he is with a needle and thread.
To Santana, operations are just as important as inspiration. He informs his design choices with data about what is working well, how it can work better, and what needs to be left in the dust. His focus is not on which starlet will wear his next collection to the red carpet, but how he can better serve his customers—the women who flock to stores to find his latest designs.
Santana learned the basics of design, patternmaking, and construction by watching is mother make custom clothing in their home in Cuernavaca. Finding himself increasingly drawn to the colors and textures of the fabric she used, he left home in 1991 with the dream of becoming a fashion designer.
Now in his ninth season, Santana reflects on what it means to be not only a standout creative, but also a businessman. We caught up with him after his runway show at Fashion Houston last night.
You learned to sew in your mother’s shop, how did you transition into a career as a designer?
[My mother] has been the foundation since I was very young—there I learned a lot of what I know today, all put in practice by my mother and her business. But eventually I had to get an education and I went to university, which complemented the knowledge I gained at home.
Your design education was at FIT?
Yes. It’s an amazing school. It’s focused on the technical more than theory and it prepares you for the industry. I was very lucky to be part of that. I did my bachelor’s degree in International Business and I wanted to round out my education with something design-based, so this was a great move for me to round out my resume.
You’re known for mixing textures and having impeccable tailoring. What else is important to you when you design a garment?
I always think abut the fit. I see my collection with a highly commercial side to it. The success of the collection is based on fit and on retail. I take in mind the success we have in retail as well as the failures we may experience to really learn every season’s clothing from that perspective so that we put out collections that reflect both the ideas that I have and also what makes sense in the world of retail.
Every collection is a learning curve—every season we learn something new, whether that’s design, retail, production, importing and exporting, or working with stores internationally. In a sense, there’s always something new. Everything can be a challenge, but instead of making it an obstacle we make it a goal we have to achieve. All the challenges become something that moves us forward and helps us grow as a brand. We want to take strong steps to help us stay in the market for a long time.
How do you conceptualize the theme of a collection?
The pure inspiration that sets the tone for the collection, like in this case, is Frida Kahlo. The essence of who she was as a woman, not what they expect to see when they think of her. She was not just flowers on someone’s head and traditional [Mexican] clothing. She was a really inspirational, strong woman—she was also a very sensitive and very delicate human being. You try to extract those pieces of her life and make something that translates to the woman without screaming “FRIDA!” The root of it is Frida—but it’s an interpretation of what it means to be that kind of woman today. She as all about femininity and color. It was a challenge to work with [so much] color because my collections tend to be very neutral, very dark.
Any favorite pieces in this collection?
The closing looks were made of neoprene fabric. It’s very high-tech—very modern, but has e a floral design that masks the neoprene look. The fit is comfortable and it’s a conversation piece. I’m really excited about those pieces.
What is your proudest moment so far?
That’s a tough question. I set very high standards for myself. When we have high selling reports, that feels amazing. I’m very happy.
Who inspires your aesthetic?
I think of the women that wear my clothes. Those are my true muses. They’re the women I design for. Everyone always asks me what actress I want to wear my clothes, but for me it’s about the women that buy my clothes. They inspire me.