Photos: Johanna Lenski
I’ve known fashion designer Isabelle Donola for several years through mutual Brazilian friends. She recently disappeared for a while, to return with news that she had been filming the first season of Project Runway: Under the Gunn in Los Angeles. While she may not have been deemed the winner of the show, in real life, she always manages to come out on top. I caught up with the infectiously energetic designer at El Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where we chatted over tapas about her experience on the show, and the amazing paths she has taken on her way to becoming a fashion designer.
Q: You were just on Project Runway: Under the Gunn. How did you get picked to be on the show?
A: I was contacted by the assistant casting director with a very persuasive invitation to participate in the show. From that step on I had to go through the same process that all the others designers go through. I had to send in my lookbook, a homemade video showing my clothing, and everything else that all the other designers did as part of the selection process. Once everything was over, they gave me week to get ready and go to Los Angeles. It all happened very quickly– and suddenly we were all there with Tim Gunn!
Q: What was your experience like on the show?
A: Tim was really wonderful. Every time he came around, he would say he liked my designs, and had something good to say about them. We never knew what was coming next, so it was a cool adrenaline rush. Being on the show was very different from my normal work environment and the type of pressure I am used to, but I had a really good time. It felt like I was back in school, in a funny way. But mainly, there was a feeling of community, because we were all together in the same boat. All the designers became very close to each other, and I felt such a great connection with everyone there. I think we all inspired each other.
Q: You rather dramatically clashed with your mentor, Nick Verreos. How much of that was real, and how much of that was editing?
A: It was pretty real. I think our clash was even stronger than what was shown on TV. It was really intense, but it was just a matter of one day we had a clash, and the next day I was out. So it was really fast. And so it wasn’t really that painful. At the end of everything, I hold no grudge against him. I understand that we were all going through different types of pressure, and we ended up clashing. But it’s all fine. I respect him as a person and as a designer, and it helped to confirm for me that I really shouldn’t be changing what I am doing because of what other people are saying, because when I have a vision, it’s my vision, and until it’s complete, people don’t really know what it’s going to look like.
Q: You have an interesting background. You grew up in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, and started sewing at three. And then you studied ballet at a prestigious school in Rio de Janeiro, before you broke your leg. How long did you study there for, and how did you feel after you broke your leg? Did you know right away you wouldn’t be a professional ballerina?
A: I studied ballet up until I was 16. It was a very strict and intense education, six days a week. When I broke my leg I refused to give up, and worked twice as hard as everybody else in my school. So I was able to get back into shape within a year, and be the best in my class. But then I ended up getting tendonitis as a complication from my broken leg, and I had to have a second surgery. Because of all the medicine I had to take, I gained a lot of weight. And I only have muscle; I don’t have fat to lose, so I couldn’t really be the thin type that I had to be order to be a ballerina. So I got kicked out of the school because my body type no longer fit into the parameters of a ballerina.
What I learned from that experience, is that you should always do your best and if it doesn’t work out there is nothing to regret. It didn’t happen because it wasn’t meant to be. I learned that ballet was not going to be my career, but it was a passion I had, and still have, and it’s just taught me so much. It taught me a lot about art which is the most important, because when I was studying ballet, I was going to museums with my class. Every week we would go watch a ballet. Every week we would go to the theater. Because of ballet school, I grew up breathing art every day and that’s priceless.
Q: After breaking your leg you became a professional skateboarder. Is that how you broke your leg initially?
A: No, I broke my leg on my way to school. They were doing construction, and the street was kind of messy, and I got hit by a car. But I was really lucky that I was wearing a backpack, because when I fell on my back, the backpack protected my head. But my leg broke in three pieces and I needed surgery right away. I had to have several pins put in my leg. A year later, I had another surgery to remove the pins because they were causing tendonitis.
Q: Skateboarding seems like such a radical shift from ballet. How did you make that transition?
A: It was pretty natural, actually. My older brother had started skateboarding, and he started a little group of cool kids in the neighborhood that were into rock and roll and skateboarding, which was very unusual for a Brazilian suburb. Where I grew up, people listened to samba and funk, which is a Brazilian funk. But I never liked that kind of music, so when my brother started hanging out with these rockers and skaters, I thought it was really cool.
My brother moved to America, and I became friends with his friends, because I missed him, and they reminded me of him. Then I just thought, “Why are there no girls skateboarding?”. It looked like so much fun. I was still doing ballet, but I wanted to try it. Even though there were no girl skateboarders, I didn’t care what other people were going to think. In the beginning it was pretty tough because people got really offended by me dressing with low crotch pants and flannel blouses. It was 1994 and I was really grunge. People would throw bottles of water on me, and scream at me. They really didn’t like that I was so different from everyone else around. But my mom taught me something really, really good, which is always be true to yourself and don’t listen to what the rest of the world has to say about you. If you like yourself, other people with like you as well. So I didn’t care about all those people.
Q: How did you start skating professionally?
A: When they had the first championship for female skateboarders in my city, I went and because I had no clue that there were other girls skateboarding, I was really excited. And I happened to win the championship. Then from there I got a sponsor, I got several sponsors, and I started winning a lot of championships. I started traveling around Brazil and I went from 1st place to 5th place. So I had to work my way back up to 1st place again. And then it was always me and my best friend coming in first and second. But, I didn’t care so much about winning or losing. I just wanted to have a good time with my girlfriends, and meet cool people, and have fun.
Q: How did you move from skateboarding to fashion?
A: I started moving on from skateboarding after I broke my arm skating on a mini-ramp. I was strictly prohibited from skateboarding by my doctor, but I kept on doing it. So I broke my arm again, and that is when I finally decided to go to fashion school and pursue my ultimate passion, which up until that point I had suppressed. Growing up in Brazil, people always told me that I could never be a fashion designer, because I wasn’t wealthy. But skateboarding taught me to be daring in life. So I finally decided I was ready to pursue fashion, regardless of the difficulties I knew I would encounter.
Q: How did you end up in New York City ?
A: I came to visit my brother in New York City after participating in an All Girls Skate Jam skateboarding competition in Southern California. When I arrived in New York, I felt that this was going to be the place where I would make my dreams come true. If there is a city full of opportunities, where dreams can become reality, this place is NYC.
I am thankful that I had my brother here to give me a lot of support for my first baby steps in the city. I was already head designer of a fashion company in Brazil, and decided to leave that all behind to pursue fashion in New York. As a designer, I knew that my vision was really avant-garde, and there was no market for that kind of fashion in Brazil. I thought if there was no market for me in New York, there would be no market for me anywhere.
Q: What are you working on now that you are back in NYC and back to your real life after Under the Gunn?
A: Right now I’m working mainly with private clients. I’m currently working on a custom wedding dress for a Brazilian top model for her upcoming wedding in Brazil. For New York Fashion week, I plan on showing a haute-couture capsule collection in addition to my IDNYC clothing line. But, I want IDNYC to be more accessible, so I will be creating some pieces that will retail between $95 and $550, and I’ll be making everything available for pre-orders live from the runway.
Check out Isabelle’s designs at Isabelle Donola NYC.