Small Brand Spotlight: The Former Project Runway Contestant Whose NYC-based Label Is One To Watch

by Freya Drohan

Meet Layana Aguilar: the designer with multiple strings to her bow. Inspired by her South American heritage and skills she learned working at Oscar de la Renta, Aguilar launched her own label in New York City in 2013. Prior to that, she cut her teeth in all areas of the business by appearing on Project Runway and working on a major commission from Disney.  She’s since added new passion projects to her offering too—including a school to teach young girls how to up-cycle and create their own clothes. Here, she tells us how she gets it all done.

How did you got your start in fashion?.
I believe I was born with the love for fashion! Ever since I could remember I loved expressing myself through my clothes. Growing up in a small town in Brazil I always felt like a fish out of water by the way I dressed. Everyone wore the same things, but I wanted to be different. Sometimes, instead of going out with my friends, I loved spending hours in my room planning new outfits and cutting up my clothes to transform them into something unique that no one else had!

You moved to NYC to study at FIT and landed an internship at Oscar de la Renta—what did you learn there that still sticks with you?
As a fashion designer, working at Oscar de la Renta was a dream come true. At Oscar I learned how to work with the most amazing fabrics and how a couture house works. I loved being immersed for the first time in the behind the scenes of creating a collection and seeing all the planning that goes into a fashion show. Most of the seamstress at Oscar were old school Italian ladies. They taught me how to make Panna Cotta and I even picked up a little Italian! We were just like a big family and they were very generous and open to teaching me and nourishing my dream of having my own label one day!

Layana Aguilar (courtesy)

Tell us about how you ended up on season 11 of Project Runway?
Wow, It feels like a lifetime ago! After almost two years at Oscar de la Renta, my desire to have my own company grew stronger every day. I felt ready but I knew I did not have the resources to take such a big risk. It was one of my best friends who suggested that I try out for Project Runway. We loved the show and it can be a great platform to have exposure.
When I decided to apply, I found out that the casting was ending in a week. My portfolio was not ready! And I could have not been able to make it happen without the help of my family and friends who helped me gather all assets to send my application. I did not make it for season 9, but I was called back for season 11 and made it then to be part of the cast.

What’s the experience of being on the reality show like? We’ve always wondered!
Now I can look back and say it was so fun and so crazy at the same time! While I was on it, I remember it being very intense. They strip you of any communication with the outside world. We were sort of in a ‘fashion jail” for five weeks. The producers really know what they are doing! They put you in high pressure situations where they know you will let your craziest emotions take over to make it good TV! They would always make sure to pair you with someone you don’t get along with in any team challenges or have you work on something you don’t like. And episodes are edited to make sure you are portrayed in a way that fits their story line.  I know that all of this may sound very overwhelming and horrible, but for me, it was an amazing opportunity! I started my career on the show, I had nothing to lose and I did well. I also built strong friendships and shared such a unique experience with people I would have never met if it wasn’t for the show. The show also brought me the amazing opportunity of working with Disney to design the ball gown for the first Latin princess, Elena of Avalor.

Does your Brazilian background inspire your work?
Yes! I love colors, I love mixing patterns, and even though I am a bit more edgy than my fellow Brazilians, the essence of femininity that my clothes always have comes from my Brazilian heritage and from watching my mom transform into the most beautiful and confident woman when she had the right dress on.

Spring Summer ’21 (courtesy)

So you launched your line in 2013—what have the last seven years been like?
It has been a crazy and wonderful rollercoaster ride! Fashion is a very tough business. I was able to survive by being resourceful and fearless, and most importantly, by doing it with love and integrity. I will never forget the thrill of my first Fashion Show during NYFW in 2014. That is probably the biggest highlight, together with the pride of being chosen by Disney to design the gown of Avalor. I am also proud of my latest collection, designed during the weird times of lockdown. It is an ode to womanhood and sisterhood. This collection is a bit more whimsical than my previous ones. I have experimented with more lightweight and softer fabrics than I would normally do—like tulle, chiffon, and organza—but I still wanted to incorporate the understated strength of a warrior in every garment. I named the collection ‘Still we rise.’ Women never cease to amaze me, even more so this year after all we have been going through. We are so resilient! As nurturers, we have a unique ability to care, share, and make the world a better place. Women who inspire are women who are making a difference, and my goal is to inspire many of us through my work.

How does your experience as a mother shape what you’re designing for your customer?
I always loved creating very elaborate, over the top garments. But after becoming a mother, naturally I started to make my creations less complicated. They still have the same strong identity of my brand, but definitely with less whistles and bells. When you are a mother you definitely do not have the time to be closing 50 snaps!

Did we hear you founded a fashion school for kids in Tribeca? Tell us about it!
Yes I did!! And it is my new baby: the Fashion Squad School. It brings me so much joy and pride. My team and I have created such a wonderful environment full of love, freedom of creativity, and fun. We are building our students’ confidence one stitch at time. We start with kids from four-years-old and up. It is amazing the things that they make with their little hands and unbound imagination. We teach them the full experience of designing garments: from choosing their textiles to sewing their own clothes. We are also very passionate about teaching them up-cycling clothes and being resourceful.
From what I see with my students, the future of fashion is bright!

What else have you been busy working on this year?
This year has been a lot about growing the Fashion Squad School, keeping up with my social media platforms, and planning my new collection. I have been adapting to the challenges of helping my kids with remote learning and overall making sure I am raising good human beings.

What’s next for you and what are you excited about for the future of your brand?
I’m so excited about the future! I am an extremely positive person, and I can feel that good things are coming! With my brand, I want to make sure that I continue spreading love and confidence with my collection; empowering the women on my team so we can keep creating our products without compromising our integrity. With the Fashion Squad School, my ultimate goal is to grow and bring it all over the world through a franchise and, most importantly, bring our program to underprivileged kids. I strongly believe the Fashion Squad School can make a big difference in their life and teach them a skill that will help them in life.

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