Fashion designer José Luis Casilla redefines style across all of Vallarta

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When José Luis Casillas returned to his hometown in Puerto Vallarta after a decade in Guadalajara, he had no idea his long-simmering career was about to fully materialize.

In fact, he figured it nearly impossible to develop a vocation in fashion design in this city. But now, seven years later, ky moda independiente — a business he runs with his partner and jewelry/accessories designer, Manolo Becker — maintains a customer wait list of nearly three months and enjoys virtually no competition.

Frustrated by a design endeavor that had begun to stagnate, Casillas left a retail business he founded in Guadalajara (while still a university student) when he chose to take a year off and return to Vallarta. He was to decide during that time whether to continue in fashion design or begin a new career entirely.

“I thought either I change careers and drop this, or move out of Mexico,” he said. “The products that I manufacture are not a necessity and when you live in a country like this, where people are concerned about what they’re going to eat, or where the next money to pay the bills are going to come from, having an awesome dress sometimes is not on top of the list.”

José Luis and Manolo maintain a storefront retail operation and work studio on Calle Roma in Col. Diaz Ordaz. I met them at that location late one morning in mid-June, prior to their ritual 1pm break for lunch. Wedding gowns line the window facing the street — a clear indication of the target customer in the community where the brand is housed — and inside there are elaborate, sometimes over-the-top accessories, the likes of which you may have seen on go-go dancers at a recent White Party here or in Palm Springs.

During our two-hour long conversation, two women arrived, separately, for fittings of gowns they had special ordered. Yet another arrived as we concluded the interview, a wedding planner, immaculately stylish with perfume that made me, your humble scribe, swoon. So in summary, it was:

Straight women — 3

Drag Queens — 0

If anything, ky moda independiente has made a name for itself in the LGBT community for the lavish designs the two proprietors have created for the likes of Mama Tits, Chi Chi Rones and Jo Anna, and Diva Divine. And it can all be traced back to the opening of Act II.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“So anyway,” said José Luis. “I said I’m gonna take a year off. I’m gonna go back to Vallarta. I had a family thing going on there. It seemed the reasonable thing to do. I want to open a grocery store, like my mom does. She has a grocery store [the Mini Super Amapas convenience store] so I said I want to do the same thing.” The plan was short-lived.

“I remember the grocery store,” he said. “I had a small portable sewing machine there, and in between selling Diet Coke and bread, I was sewing. I had a mannequin and I still have stuff that I made during that time. I remember this girl, this German girl, came in once and she said ‘oh I love what you’re sewing. Could you sew something for me?’ I was like ‘yeah, but you’re only here for two days. You’re going to leave.’ She said, ‘it’s ok. Send it.’”

“She wanted a gown,” he said. “At that time it was $5000 or $6000 pesos for a dress. I was thinking, she’s not going to pay that money to a stranger. But she did. So I made the dress. I sent it to Germany. While I was sewing in the grocery store, a local magazine, Maxwell, came to me and said, ‘we’re going to publish a fashion spread. Is there something that you’d like to showcase?’ I did.”

José Luis leaned in toward the computer monitor at a desk in the showroom as he talked. He scrolled through a selection of photos on his Facebook profile. “This,” he said, pointing to a dress on the screen, “was made between selling Cokes and bread!”

At around the same time, Act II was opening and José Luis played the role of Zach for the playhouse’s inaugural musical, A Chorus Line. “I remember that Danny [Mininni] had a friend working with him, Terry,” he said. “Terry was in charge of costumes, and Terry asked me, ‘I know that you sew. Can you do them?’ So we made all the costumes for A Chorus Line and through A Chorus Line and Act II I met John Whelan and I made a lot of dresses for Turleen. And that’s where I met Miss Conception.”

“They are the most incredible costume designers in Mexico,” Kevin Levesque told me later. More widely recognized as Miss Conception, he has worked with Casillas and Becker since the days of A Chorus Line at Act II. “When I walked in their studio for the first time they gave me a big hug and instantly asked me what amazing things we can make.  Sat me down and started sketching out a dress for me.”

José Luis recalls it a little differently, though the mutual admiration is undisputable.

“In the beginning with him I started with nips and tucks of his outfits,” he said. “‘A zipper broke, can you fix it?’ Stuff like that! But now I do the entire show.”

“They truly are the most beautiful and talented people I’ve ever worked with,” said Levesque. “From then to now, we have made 32 dresses and I will continue to work with them forever.”

“We love working with Miss Conception,” José Luis said. “It’s so much fun. He always has ideas and he is very creative. Everything is a challenge. He will say, ‘I want a dress with six arms’ and then the other one, I want a can-can skirt with all of these layers down. Stuff like that, which is always fun to work.”

And so began a relationship with nearly all the big name performers in this city. “We met Chi Chi and Jo Anna, we made stuff for them,” he said. “Also we met Kim Kuzma, made stuff for her. And Diva Divine, I’ve known her since forever, and we’ve made stuff for her as well. And Mama Tits now, and we’re in the process now to build a dress for Hedda Lettuce.”

For a design career that is closing in on two decades, José Luis looks back and sees the evolution of his style and aesthetic. “Art and design are not the same thing,” he said. “Art exists only for the reason of being, because it expresses an emotion, that’s it. Design has to have a function. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a good design. When I realized that I don’t want to just sew for myself, I want to sew for my clients, I think that I learned a lot.”

“Something else that I’ve learned from this business is that it’s not a speedy career,” he added. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to like what you do because it is long hours. It’s not always pretty, because people take their self-image very important and you always have to be prepared. And also you have to know types of bodies, tricks, and always find the way to make it better. So you definitely have to love it.”

The designer’s love for this city remains in tact, despite reservations at first, upon his return, that it wouldn’t sustain a career like his.

“Vallarta is an awesome place,” he said. “We have the opportunity to meet very cool people from all over the world. An awesome thing about Puerto Vallarta is that you know people at their best. Why? Because they are on holidays, they’re relaxed, they can talk. I’m sure if I met someone super huge at their job, in their environment, I would have to make an appointment and beg for time to show my stuff. Here, people are in their right mind to do it. That’s the powerful thing about Vallarta, people are more relaxed, and willing to talk and change ideas and explore.”

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