Mariel Rojo is sure her designer co-operative, US*U.S. (or US by U.S., as she calls it), features the best designers in Philly. After spending just a short time with her, I am not surprised it’s no surprise that she’s one of them. She makes a bold first impression with wild curly hair, a patch shaved just above her right ear. Wearing a pale teal sweater with baby pink pants, accessorized by neon sandals and an even brighter crossbody bag, she is clearly enamored with color. Rojo infuses that love into every collection, every season. “I have my Mexican background,” she explains, “which is like a lot of happiness and colors mixed together. It doesn’t matter if it goes or doesn’t go, you find a way to make it work.” Visiting fabric stores with her grandmother first sparked her fascination with fabric, and her passion only grew with time. Now channeling her cultural roots into two successful (and still expanding) collections, Mariel Rojo is definitely “making it work.”
Ten distinct designers share the Old City boutique where she is based. It’s a small space, overflowing with textures, patterns, and every color imaginable, from deep burgundy to electric blue. With styles from vintage to couture, gothic to ultra-feminine, each designer’s work is radically different and no two display racks look the same. Everything sold in the store is made in the studio downstairs by the talented designers themselves. There are neither deadlines nor requirements; the women work and sell independently within the umbrella of the shared space. The one rule is that equal time must be devoted each week to being the shop girl, completing transactions and familiarizing new customers with the concept of the store.
Rojo’s section sits front and center, making it the first a customer sees when walking in. A pair of blue ombre pants hangs next to a fiery pink, tribal patterned dress and a pale, sheer blouse with a studded collar. With skirts, blouses, pants, dresses, and outerwear, Rojo’s section isn’t organized by garment type or even by season But that’s exactly the type of mix-and-match Rojo loves and instills in her line. Each season she doesn’t just create a collection, she designs her own dream wardrobe.
She led me down a flight of stairs to the studio so we could talk. The single room epitomized creative chaos We squeezed between two of the sewing machines and the cutting table as Rojo began to describe her two lines. The ready-to-wear is “simple but colorful”, and the couture is simply her baby. “That’s the one that keeps me…good,” she gushes. She’s passionate about the artistic side of fashion, not the “sell, sell, sell” of American ready-to-wear. Her three years at Instituto Europeo di Diseno in Barcelona helped shape that attitude—couture was the only option at the Spanish school. She is a mélange of both worlds: “Over there, it’s like…to explode your artistic side and recreate something…And then I have my American side that is like, how are you gonna sell this? Ready-to-wear, you have to sell that. You have to make a profit. So it’s a nice mixture of things.”
The mixture is nice: vibrant but wearable, influenced abroad but made almost entirely here in Philadelphia. The store arose as a reaction to the inordinate amount of manufacturing done abroad and the poor quality that results. These designers have made it their mission to support the local Philadelphia economy and fashion industry. After sewing the samples in the downstairs studio, Rojo sends them to production so they can be sold at US*U.S. and Fred Segal in Los Angeles. RAW, an organization that holds state and national competitions for artists, helped boost her bicoastal success: Rojo won both. This launched her fashion brand in 2011, connected her to many LA stylists, and even secured her a runway show at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Yet, Rojo remains based in Philadelphia. Although she admits she might choose New York or LA if her husband could relocate, she has committed herself to changing the mentality surrounding Philly fashion and art: “Philly is just starting to get into art, fashion, music, whatever. It’s great and bad at the same time, but here…as a new designer, you can get more.” She knows that a complete attitude makeover is far off, but being at the forefront of the budding arts scene—knowing all the photographers, models, and artists—makes staying in Philadelphia worth it.
Upstairs again, Rojo showed off her most recently completed designs. She talks about the fabric with a sense of personal endearment. It’s the feel, the movement of each work that makes it special to her. “We have some customers,” she mused, “regular customers, that like our stuff. If you go to a big store, they make thousands and thousands of the same shirt, and sometimes it happens that you run into someone wearing the same shirt…so we try to make our customers feel special. And we do some custom pieces for them too.” She accomplishes this by continually applying her artistic approach. In addition to her refusal to use black—“I think I made one black dress, and it was for me and that’s it. Every time I see black fabric, I just get overwhelmed”—she brings her love affair with color and texture to life in both lines. Especially the couture. Rojo claims to become obsessed easily, and the three weeks she spends on each couture piece certainly attest to that. From the blouse covered in hundreds of tiny unique, hand sewn buttons to the billowing, lime green maxi skirt, she is proud of and responsible for every inch of her garments.
But Rojo is ready for new developments, too. She doesn’t want to abandon her aesthetic, but she plans to expand it. Rojo’s next move is to collaborate with an artist (the most recent RAW artist of the year, in fact) on a line of one-of-a-kind prints. The details are a little fuzzy—she doesn’t even know if it will debut this Spring or the next—but she’s confident it will be a success: “It’s funny, cause it’s gonna be just so different, but it’s going to be really me…It’s a surprise and I’m really excited.” She might even use black.