Valerie Mayen, Designer
2014 EMERGING ARTIST PRIZE FOR DESIGN
Photo by Rob MullerValerie Mayen made the streets of Corpus Christi, Texas, her own personal “Project Runway” long before the reality television series was a gleam in some cable TV producer’s eye. Although hers was the only Latin-American and less well-to-do family in an affluent white neighborhood because her father was a homebuilder there, she quickly figured out that strategic clothes shopping at second-hand stores helped her establish a strong identity amongst the wealthier girls who could afford designer gear.
“It made me feel unique and original,” says Cleveland’s young fashion original. “It made me feel more confident, because I didn’t have what those girls had, but I had my own voice, so that’s when I learned fashion could create a personal image for someone without a lot of resources.”
Valerie earned a scholarship to attend the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a double major in illustration and vocal performance, but the amount of work was overwhelming. When her scholarship proved insufficient to keep her there, she transferred to a school in Texas that she didn’t like. At a time when she “didn’t even know where Ohio was on the map,” she received a full scholarship from the Cleveland Institute of Art. As part of her studies, she spent a year at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she worked as a gallery assistant at Gemini G.E.L. and a printmaking apprentice for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In 2005, after graduating with a BFA in illustration and graphic design, she had planned to move back to LA, until she began collaborating with some musicians, break-dancers and multimedia artists.
“I promised myself I’d give it one year,” she recalls. “Then one year turned into three, and three years turned into six, so every time I thought I was going to leave, something would happen to keep me here.”
To earn her keep, Valerie freelanced as a graphic designer and illustrator, but that wasn’t quite paying the bills. She decided to take some sewing classes at Virginia Marti CollegeA of Art and Design in Lakewood, and she learned how to make a blouse, skirt, and dress. She had used up her student loan availability, so she dropped out, and bought some books to teach herself. Just as she was planning to move to Philadelphia, she won a Cuyahoga County Creative Workforce Fellowship.
“When I got the fellowship, I was able to give myself some time and money to learn, teach myself the rest,” she explains. “That’s how I started on the fashion design trajectory.”
She started her own fashion design business, Yellowcake, in 2008 and created an online presence for her work. She received an email inviting her to appear on the popular reality series “Project Runway,” where her work achieved a lot of attention, and she made it through 11 of 14 episodes of Season 8 in 2010. “It was fun and very exciting,” Valerie says. “I was in the top six in my season, and I got to show a spring collection with a variety of looks at Fashion Week in New York, and that was cool. It was a whirlwind, and I would do it all over again – if they paid me!”
Also in 2010, she started doing some pop-up shops in different locations around Cleveland, and then in 2011, she opened her permanent store at the corner of East 65th Street and Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square Arts District.
Dan Luciano, whose late wife Lisa was instrumental in teaching Valerie how to set up and run a business, says his family adopted Valerie as one of their own when she worked as a nanny for them, and they have enjoyed watching her grow and prosper. “We love and admire her creativity, her energy and her willingness to do what is necessary to get her product on the market,” he says. “It’s not about the money for her, but always about getting fresh ideas out there.”
Drawing on her own childhood experiences, Valerie adds that she also treasures the opportunities to design and create a dress for a girl’s prom or birthday or graduation. “I know that it’s contributing to her confidence and her entire perspective about herself, and that’s what I love about my work,” she says.