Valerie Mayén is a mom, a business owner, a fashion designer, and because of all this, a believer in fashion as a form of self-care. She began her business over a decade ago and spent a great deal of time on Project Runway where she refined her craft. Fashion has been a part of her life for decades and it’s because of fashion’s “transformative power”, as Valerie says, that fashion stays an important and poetic part of her life. Grab a cup of tea and read below as Valerie talks about her time in the fashion industry and the reason behind her belief in fashion as self-care.
CC: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?
VM: I’m from Corpus Christi, Texas. I grew up there but left when I was 17 and moved to Philadelphia to start my foundation studies at the University of the Arts for illustration. My BFA is in illustration and graphic design. I ended up transferring to the Cleveland Institute of Art, spent a year at Otis in Los Angeles and did some study abroad in Italy studying art history. I kind of bounced around all over the place, landed in Cleveland and never left. So, I’ve been in Cleveland since 2002 and I started my business here in 2009.
CC: Tell me a bit about your time on Project Runway. What was your favorite piece that you made on the show? What was your favorite challenge?
VM: I was on Project Runway in 2010 for season 8 and went back for All Stars in 2016. My favorite piece from regular runway was probably the Marie Claire dress which was in the second episode. We had to make a garment for the every-day-woman, the “Marie-Claire-woman” and the winner got a spot on a billboard. I almost won that challenge! My second favorite look was the “party store challenge”. We had to make a garment from party supplies and I made this dress out of black and white napkins. I was in the top 3 for that one as well, but again, I was runner-up.
I had a great time and I would definitely do it again, however, I would do some things differently. I was so lucky and fortunate to be a part of that experience!
CC: What do you love most about your work and the fashion industry? What makes you passionate about it?
VM: I think the thing I love most about my work is being able to materialize something that is functional, but also that acts as a catalyst to express who you are on the inside. Fashion can be a very superficial, self-serving, shallow industry, but there is also a lot of beauty that comes with it. There are some things that are very tangible and poetic about fashion and about the craft of cloth and tailoring. It’s kind of an industry trade that has been around for a very long time and is definitely more artisanal than some other trades.
The thing I love most about fashion is that it has transformative power. When we’re making garments, we’re not just making them for people to wear to bed or to buy their groceries in, we’re making them for job interviews or because they lost a bunch of weight and want to treat themselves. We also do a lot of custom work for clients, whether it’s brides or birthdays. What you put in your body affects your mood, your thoughts and your health. The things that you put on your body also affect your productivity and your efficiency and your attitude. A really great fitting pair of jeans can really make you feel different about yourself and about your day. Fashion is transformative, it’s a way to make something out of nothing, and it’s functional.
CC: Tell me a bit about Yellowcake. How did you get started with the brand and what are your goals for the future of the brand?
VM: I started the brand in 2009 on a whim. I was a nanny for a couple of years and I just wasn’t really satisfied with my position. I always loved fashion design, but I didn’t really know enough about it. I’d never used a sewing machine in my life. I was 25 at the time and took a class at the community college 10 minutes from where I lived. I was able to take a few classes and I learned how to make a skirt, a blouse and a dress. Then I had to drop out because I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have the $3000 to pay for the next semester, so I dropped out. I panicked because I had already quit my nanny job and the back-up job that I had lined-up fell through. I didn’t know what to do with myself until my friend introduced me to Etsy. It was slow-going at first and it wasn’t until I started making outerwear that I noticed a difference. I think women are more prone to buy everyday wear more cheaply, but outerwear is kind of like a utility product that you use all year long or all season long. So, I was able to charge a higher price point for outerwear and women were willing to spend it because it was an investment. So that’s how I built my business- by sticking to one product and being really niche and really good at making that one product. It’s better to be the master of one thing, be really good at it and be well-known for it than to be just okay at several things.
So, that’s how it began and it slowly evolved and Project Runway helped a little bit. We had a storefront for about five years until we converted to a studio and showroom only. Now, we are primarily e-commerce because of COVID-19, but also because that was the direction we wanted to take. It’s more sustainable and it’s more financially lucrative. And now, we’ve been in business for almost 11 years!
CC: What are some social issues and organizations that Yellowcake supports? Why?
VM: A big part of the reason why I started Yellowcake was because a lot of the fashion industry is produced overseas. Not only are these garments possibly being made unethically with cheap labor, but it’s also traveling further to be made and shipped back. So, the emissions are much higher, the carbon footprint is much higher and the quality of the product may be different. If Americans, that are so hell-bent on bringing jobs back to America, aren’t willing to pay American prices for their products, then there’s a disconnect. The reason we started doing this is because we felt like we could do our part to contribute to our local economy, to bring small manufacturing back to the midwest and employ our neighbors. This was something that one of my biggest mentors taught me, Kathleen Fasanella. When I was thinking of getting some of our products manufactured down south or even overseas, she said, “Well why?” I said, “I don’t want to make this on my own anymore.” She said, “If you have more time than money, then you need to use your resources wisely and, until then, make the things yourself. Employ when you can but employ locally. Employ your neighbors.” So, that’s what we did and it took a bit longer, but it was more beneficial for us in the long run. We were able to pivot really quickly when the pandemic hit and, now, our clients know exactly where their products are being made.
We also noticed that a lot of men and women who are being marginalized for the sake of fashion are Black and brown people. I’m Latin American, myself, so part of the social organizations that we heavily support are initiatives that we know are going to help eliminate homelessness, poverty, hunger and other social justice issues, like this year when we got to work with Know Your Rights Camp and Freedom Minneapolis. We work with the Cleveland Foodbank and Laura’s Home, which is a rape crisis center for women and children. Every year we used to do a fashion show that would support different non-profits like Halo, a children center that has orphanages in Latin America, India and Africa. We try really hard to work with organizations that are smaller to mid-size. We try to do our part to bring awareness to our clients of who they could be supporting in ways that they hadn’t considered before. We also know that any fundraising that we do for these organizations, that money is going directly to programming and not the pockets of CEOs.
VM: I knew of Lesley several years ago before I was her mentor. In 2011, she started following us after Project Runway and we really liked her work so we started following her back. It wasn’t until this past year, in 2020, that we got to know her a little better. After the protests, we realized that we weren’t doing our part to elevate Black and brown voices the way that we could. As a business owner, I know that my strengths lie in giving business advice however I can. I’m not a huge expert, but I’ve been in business long enough to know more than new business owners. There’s always room to teach, regardless of where you are at in your journey. As a Latin American woman, it surprised me to realize that I hadn’t invested enough time in female or minority-owned businesses. So, I reached out to 5 Black-owned businesses that I knew of. I reached out to Lesley to ask her if she knew of anyone that needed guidance and she said, “Me!” So, I said, “Okay, sure!” She has been one of my most successful mentees this year! Lesley’s a really unique person and I really enjoy working with her!
CC: What is your idea of “fashion as self-care” and why?
VM: Especially in this pandemic, I think a lot of us have been delegating ourselves to sweatpants or loungewear and not really trying. It’s easy to do because I’m at home most of the time. When I take the time to put on real clothes and fix my hair and put on some makeup and be intentional about what I’m wearing, it does make me feel different. It makes me feel a little bit more lively and gives me a bit more “Moxy” to take on the day. For me, that is important because it’s easy to lounge around in your pajamas all day because you just feel like “blah”. That has a lot to do with what we put on our bodies, not just what we put in them. For me, I think self-care is really just about taking the time to do that (get dressed, do your hair and do your makeup). Whenever I make the time for that, which is maybe twice a month, it’s really important and special. Taking the time to put in the effort to coordinate your outfits, being creative with what you put on your body and trying new things- that’s important to remind yourself of your identity.
By Kasey Lettrich