June 22, 2024


Trailblazing shopping quality

Houston fashion designer Luisa Nadarajah finds ways to use discarded materials in her collection

It was early 2015, and Luisa Nadarajah, then a first-year fashion student at Houston Community College, knew she didn’t yet have the technical skills to win the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Fashion Fusion design competition. So she ventured where few fashion designers would have gone: a junk yard.

Scanning the mountains of discarded car parts, Nadarajah selected bicycle inner tubes, speedometer needles, fuses and headlights — materials “not one single mechanic was looking for,” she said.

The resulting designs resembled something Wonder Woman might wear to an intergalactic cocktail party: A trumpet-sleeved bodysuit adorned with a chest plate necklace of orange and yellow speedometer needles. A belted grayscale mini-dress composed of recycled seatbelts. A peplum skirt made of fiery red headlights.

Nadarajah’s designs won the audience’s choice award at the competition and were displayed at the MFAH. The early success gave her the confidence to pursue an unconventional approach to fashion, one that puts recycled goods at the center of the design process.

“I started recycling, and then I thought, ‘Maybe this is how I should present my fashion,’” she says. “It took me time to understand that was my cutting edge.”

Seven years after the award-winning car part collection, Nadarajah is still finding ways to use discarded materials in her designs. The Houston-based mother of two will present her latest collection, made with donated items from people lost to COVID-19, at a fashion show on April 1. The show, funded in part with a grant from the city of Houston, is about “celebrating the good things we still have, even in this uncertain time,” she said.

Nadarajah lost both her grandmothers to COVID-19.

Nadarajah’s focus on repurposed materials is not just savvy business. It also puts her at the forefront of a reckoning over waste in the fashion industry. Analysts estimate the industry is responsible for 10 percent of all global carbon emissions, and produces more water and plastic pollution than nearly any other sector. Overproduction is rampant in the warp-speed world of fast fashion exemplified by retailers like H&M and Gap, with up to half of unsold garments relegated to landfills.

All of Nadarajah’s items are made to order, in accordance with her eponymous company’s zero-waste policy. At her Houston home studio, Nadarajah oversees a tight-knit team that includes fashion designer Cyndi Obasi and fashion assistant Giuliana Castillo. Together, the trio brings each sketch to life.

Nadarajah knows that her clothing is more costly than the average retailer, and aims to keep each item within the $200 to $300 range. But she also knows her clients want quality.

“People are willing to pay more for something that is well done,” she says. “They love the mission behind it.”

It’s a lesson Nadarajah learned growing up in the volcano-flanked city of Arequipa in southern Peru, where she would visit her mother’s clothing factory. Her mother was known around the city for producing expertly tailored pants that fit “the squareness of the Peruvian butt,” Nadarajah says, laughing. Later, when the family moved to Buenos Aires, she absorbed business acumen from her father, who operated a leather goods store.

As a teenager in Buenos Aires, Nadarajah sold handbags to pay for her studies. But it wasn’t until she moved to Houston as an adult that she decided to make fashion her career.

She sent out resumes to retailers across the city, and got a job selling Dolce & Gabbana and Brunello Cucinelli at Neiman Marcus in the Galleria. She loved building relationships with clients, but yearned to create and sell her own designs. She quit and enrolled in a fashion design course at Houston Community College.

“When you speak to Luisa, she has a positive energy, an aura,” says Ravi Brahmbhatt, director of HCC’s entrepreunership program. “She has a sparkle in her eye that says, ‘I want to use my skill set to do good in the world’ that is very energizing about her.”

On a recent afternoon, Nadarajah and her team were in the studio, preparing for the upcoming fashion show. Her penchant for fun, bright and hand-embroidered details — or what she calls “Latina taste” — was on full display.

Model Angela Nichols stood in Valentino studded heels as Nadarajah pinned the armhole of a bubblegum-pink dress made of stacked rows of scalloped trim, repurposed from a donation. Other pieces in progress incorporated silk from a collection of Indian saris that belonged to Nadarajah’s mother-in-law, who recently died of cancer.

The fabric-filled studio buzzed with creative energy as a barefooot Nadarajah shaped an oversized bow on the model’s shoulder. Later, she planned to add a spray of laser-cut silk flowers.

“It has to be a showstopper,” she said. “It just can’t be plain.”