How often in life do you meet someone so inspiring that it changes your view of the world? Rosa Chávez is such a person, as countless students will testify. Here, with her signature passion and radiant smile, she shares how humble beginnings and caring mentors helped her become the adult she always needed as a child.
What first piqued your interest in fashion design?
My mom died when I was just a year old so I was brought up by my grandmother, moving between the Dominican Republic and the States. In DR, there were free art programs for kids (Dominicans love art!) so early on I discovered sketching and painting. Then in NYC, I spent my freshman year at Long Island City High School where a teacher admired my artwork and suggested I audition for a spot at the High School of Fashion Industries. Although I’d never heard of this school, I went there with my sketches and showed them to a Mr. Conway. He said very little but I could tell he liked my work. I had a strong feeling I’d be accepted at this special school, the only public high school in the U.S. with a fashion design major.
Your grandmother must have been thrilled…
I’m not sure. Since her dreams never came true, she believed women should live their lives under the radar without high expectations. She believed girls should be invisible, behave properly and not make noise. Although we never had enough money for non-essentials (which is why I started working outside the home at age 14), my grandma somehow managed to buy me a sewing machine so I could attend HSFI from 10th to 12th grade. I knew nothing about college or financial aid or navigating the system, but my sewing teacher Ms. Manning (who became like a mom to me) told me about the Success Via Apprenticeship program sponsored by the NYC Department of Education for excellent CTE students who want to become teachers. I ultimately chose that program and, when completed, I went to FIT, spending my senior year studying at Florence University of the Arts.
That must have been amazing…
It was crazy, scary, exciting and wonderful. Me, at 28 years old with very limited Italian, spending a year in a major fashion capital. I put all my belongings in storage and just picked up and moved. And after the program ended, when my friends went back to the States to jobs in the industry, I decided to stay in Italy, taking any job that would pay the bills…
What made you stay?
I had fallen in love with the Italian way of living. To embrace life with your heart rather than your head. To relish breaking bread with friends and colleagues as a metaphor for nourishing the soul. At my first job — the Pierotucci leather goods company, owned by the Tucci family — I realized that Italians work less for profit and more for the pride of creating something beautiful. If something came out wrong, they happily did it over. It’s about putting love and passion into every stitch.
So why did you come back to the States?
I needed to pay my taxes. And Ms. Manning continued to email me about open positions at HSFI. I recognized that teaching offers security, a pension, and the opportunity to prepare young people for life. My standards are very high and I make sure my students finish any project they start. It’s about commitment and character; it’s not okay to give up. I help them find the power within to believe in themselves and aim high, to counter that universal feeling of not being good enough or smart enough. I teach my students (92 percent of whom are female) to speak up for themselves, to ask for what they need. It’s something I couldn’t do at their age so for me it’s high priority.
You’ve given so much to these kids; what do you receive in return?
Most of all, I’ve soaked up their positivity. I see greatly shifting attitudes toward gender roles, toward body image, toward acceptance. I feel so much optimism from these kids and believe they can take that positive energy and use it productively, even changing messages at home.
Exactly one week ago, you were honored at Schneps Media’s annual Power Women of Manhattan gala for founding, in 2017, a non-profit (www.poofa.org—the Power of One for All) to provide financial aid to your students, many of whom are recent immigrants. How did this come about?
My good friend and PR expert Lucy Fierro nominated me; I learned about it only after I was selected and I’m still in shock. I’ve always been shy, I hardly consider myself a ‘Power Woman’ so I still can’t believe I paraded down a runway at a prestigious event for accomplished women in a dress I made myself, a seven-day journey from sketch to dress now documented on Instagram! (My collaborator on the dress was a former student, Fabian Salazar, now an award-winning couturier.)
Is there anything menswear execs can do to help support Poofa.org?
In addition to contributing any amount, however small, toward our scholarship fund (that includes a year studying in Florence for one lucky student), we always need sewing machines, dress forms, fabrics, yard sticks, French curves, rulers, professional grade markers. Designers and manufacturers can share their professional journeys with students at our Career Day. As I know so well, a single mentor can change the world for these fantastic kids.