Spring 2011

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Where Did You Get that Dress?

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Zoe Damacela

Zoë Damacela in one of her custom-made dresses

Aspiring designer Zoë Damacela sold her first dress in high school for $13, though it was probably worth more than $100. Now her custom-made dresses go for as much as $300, and the Northwestern freshman has sold more than 300 one-of-a-kind pieces, including dresses for weddings, proms and quinceañeras (the traditional Latin American celebration of a young woman’s 15th birthday), as well as accessories such as handbags and purses. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” started the custom-made women’s clothing company, her fifth business venture, as a freshman at Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in an effort to become self-sufficient. “I always had difficult circumstances. I was actually homeless for a while,” said Damacela, the daughter of an Ecuadorian mother and Afro-Mexican father. She grew up with her mother in Santa Barbara, Calif., before they moved to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in 2002. With her business, Damacela said, “I don’t have to depend on someone else.” Damacela, who as an 8-year-old sold her handmade greeting cards on a neighborhood street corner, won funding from several Chicago business organizations for her latest venture. She claimed $2,000 in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s Chicago business plan competition and competed for $10,000 at NFTE’s national business plan competition, where she finished second. With that success she also earned an audience with President Obama (H06). And when she returned to Chicago, Damacela had a mentorship with Michelle Obama’s designer, Maria Pinto. From start to finish, Damacela is personally involved in every aspect of her business, though she has hired seasonal employees during prom season. She said the time spent on each piece of clothing varies from three hours for simple dresses to a few months for prom or wedding dresses. Damacela, who enrolled in The Business of Fashion class as well as economics and costume design classes at Northwestern, has already learned an important lesson. “I wish someone would’ve told me not to think about the fact that you’re young, or poor, or a girl,” Damacela advises. “What’s most important is to believe in yourself, that you’re a talented person and you have something to offer the world.”