The life of Cuban designer Oscar Lopez has taken a 180-degree turn in the last few weeks. His travels and the pace of his work don’t give him a chance to even breathe.
In recent days he has traveled to New York, Los Angeles and then back to Miami for interviews and photo shoots and to finish the dresses of important clients. He’s been interviewed on Univision’s Despierta America program, and appeared on the popular Home Shopping Network.
It’s not surprising. After winning the television contest Project Runway: Under the Gunn last month, this talented Coral Gables resident is emerging as a new creative force in the difficult and competitive world of fashion. It is a dream come through for the designer who tried to leave Cuba twice, lived in Mexico for four years and with a lot of hard work managed to establish a studio in the Gables 10 years ago and cultivate a loyal clientele.
“To be honest, I did not expect to win the show. Never,” said Lopez. “With each episode I told Nick (Verreos, his mentor) ‘this is as far as I go. This is going to be the last (challenge).’ It’s really difficult to survive that pressure, those criticisms.”
Lopez impressed the judges with elegant haute-couture dresses that showed off a woman’s figure and gave the impression that the models were taller and thinner. He defeated 11 other designers by showing his sense of style and his ability to design and finish a dress in a short period of time, which in many cases was only six hours.
“The circumstances are very stressful,” Lopez said. “I tried not to lose my identity, my point of view as a designer.”
Broadcast on the cable channel Lifetime, Under the Gunn was a sequel to Project Runway, a reality show in which 12 or more designers have one day to buy materials and design and make a piece of clothing. Since its debut 10 years ago, Project Runway developed a fanatical following and was nominated for several Emmys. It also catapulted its host, German-born supermodel Heidi Klum, and the mentor of the designers, Tim Gunn, former director of Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
Lopez never had formal training for fashion design, so Under the Gunn became an intense academy for the Havana native. His first dress was criticized for too many accessories – the model wore gloves and a little hat. But as he advanced in the program, Lopez absorbed the criticisms and evolved as a designer.
“I like the artistic part of design, but you have to be careful not to put in too much art. You have to show your talent, but when you have to dress a client, that’s something different. You have to control that tendency to do everything, to show everything,” Lopez said.
“The show helped me to establish a balance. To focus on what kind of client you have and what’s the occasion for the dress. That is very important.”
As his name has become better known, the list of personalities who want to wear Lopez designs has grown. One example of his new fame was the dress that designer Rachel Roy wore to an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sponsored by the editor of Vogue magazine.
Lopez also has dressed the prima ballerina of the Miami City Ballet, Jennifer Kronenberg, and the Cuban singer Elena Burke for the recent Billboard Latin Music awards. He said he is also working on a wedding dress for celebrity Kim Kardashian but could not give more details because of a confidentiality agreement.
Born in the Havana neighborhood of Rancho Boyeros, Lopez knew from early on that his passion was to design fashion.
“I love anything that has to do with the arts, but there comes a time when you can’t do everything in this life. You have to pick what you feel most strongly, what’s your biggest passion. My biggest passion was always fashion,” he said.
Instead of playing with friends, he went into the homes of the seamstresses in his neighborhood to see and learn from what they were doing. Later, when his flight attendant friends returned from trips abroad he ran to their homes to see the new clothes they brought back and study them carefully.
But before he committed to a career in design, Lopez used dance to channel his artistic spirit, graduating from the dance school at the legendary Tropicana cabaret in Havana, as well as singing with a group.
He also knew that he would have to leave Cuba and the suffocating ideology of Castroism, if he wanted to let creativity run free.
“I never agreed with the political system. It seemed so absurd to me. You didn’t have opportunities to develop or evolve as a professional,” he said.
He tried to leave the first time at the age of 19, with a group of friends who made a raft from a tractor tire, but they were detained by the Cuban coast guard. After spending one year “cleaning up” his personal history, he managed to join a band and traveled to Mexico for a tour. During a second visit to that country, he made two important decisions: He would not return to Cuba, and would dedicate all his time and energy exclusively to fashion design.
Four years later he arrived in the United States, and with a lot of hard work and patience managed to reunite his Cuban family in his new home. It was a reunion deeply desired but marked by pain. His father, whom he had not seen for 10 years, died from cancer just a few months after he arrived. “It’s like he came to say good by,” Lopez said.
“In life, there are times when one has to made decisions and make a sacrifice. Not everything is going to be like one wants it. Life happens, and you have to decide.”
Once he settled down in South Florida, Lopez started to make his way in the local world of fashion, focusing on high couture and designing dresses for clients in Florida high society who were going to charity events.
“We are talking about important galas, where all these women would wear dresses from Christian Dior, Chanel, and well, there was an Oscar Lopez dress somewhere in there, and that was very good,” the designer said between laughs.
Winning the Under the Gunn program also brought him economic rewards. Among the prizes are $100,000 that he can use to expand his design shop, Ozcar G Couture in Coral Gables, a new car, a trip to Paris and a photo display in the magazine Marie Claire that will be published in July.
Lopez knows that he should not rush, that he should invest his prizes. In the future he would love to open a shop in New York, but for now he wants to develop a clothing line for a major store, which would be a showcase and allow him to continue to expand his skills and passion.
“It’s something that you have inside, something that happens like love. You don’t know what it is to be in love until you are in love. You don’t see it coming, and you can’t explain it. It’s something that happens, an energy that is there but you can’t see it.”