I met Sophia at SCAD Atlanta during my time there as a recruiter. Her passion for her work is infectious. She pushes the envelope, challenges mainstream fashion expectations and redefines the limitations of luxury spaces. Fashion with substance and intention is what she brings to a saturated industry. We discuss her latest collection Imperfectly Perfect, her future as a recent graduate, the discrimination she faced as a person with a disability and how the fashion industry can truly be more inclusive. Get to know Sophia Herrera.

Feature photo by Jaylon Smith

What is your story, tell us a little bit about your background?

Originally I’m from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but I have a Mexican and Indian background as well. All the way from the other side of the world haha. At the age of two, the lives of me and my family changed. We were involved in a car accident that resulted into me having a spinal cord injury, so I completely lost connection from waist down and therefore became paralyzed. From then on I’ve been using a manual wheelchair. My family is my biggest supporters; they never let the wheelchair be in the way of me having a normal life, my mom especially would sacrifice anything for me and my two brothers to succeed in life. In our family we value positivity, since the accident my parents always fed me with positivity and would show me that even though I ended up in a wheelchair; doesn’t mean my dreams are crushed, I should always thrive to succeed in life and my goals. 

When did you decide fashion as a career path?

Ever since the age of five, I was always passionate about art; painting, drawing you name it. I was always the creative one of the family. At about freshmen year of high school I started thinking about what I wanted to do in college or what I wanted to do for a career. At first my mind instantly thought about becoming a painter but after discussing with my parents; they felt as though when it comes to opportunities after college I wouldn’t have much variety. So I thought to myself what is a career where I can combine two things that I love; Art and Fashion. So that’s how I became interested in fashion and I knew it was my future career. 

Can you discuss the inspiration behind the most recent collection ?

My senior collection, named “Imperfectly Perfect”  is one close to me both personally as well as professionally.

“Imperfectly Perfect” surrounds the theme of my personal experience through living with a disability while exploring geometric architecture aspects. Disability is an element that surrounds us in the world we live in today. Not only is it typically overlooked, but there are different perspectives to how we see it. For this collection, I explored not only my own disability, but other types of disabilities in society. The designs themselves are imprinted with words. The words expressed in some of my designs such as the black and white jumpsuit; are words that have been said to me over the past years as I  have been in a wheelchair since the young age of 2. Some of these include the following: “ALONE” “DUMB” “CRIPPLED” “FREAK” “CRAZY”. They are hand painted on a transparent fabric like silk chiffon or jersey burnout knit; the reason through the transparency is that I wanted to show that this effect doesn’t get into my head and it makes me stronger. 

The disability market is growing, however it’s in the hiding as not a lot of people know about it. Though this is true, I wanted to make a statement about this through my designs. In this collection I  wanted to create garments that could not only be worn by a person with a disability but also by anybody; making this collection all about inclusivity. There are 6 garments in total and each garment is designed to explore the idea of functionality and also make it a standout piece. There are openings/closures that have been added such as simply moving the zipper to the side or even to the front, adding snaps to make it easier for a person in a wheelchair to get in and out of the garment. The fabrics that were used for this collection ranged from a jersey burnout knit to Italian wool suiting, pleated chiffon, crepe back satin, silk chiffon and twill. Silhouettes in this collection are mainly jumpsuits and dresses with the twist of an asymmetric aspect to show the architecture of the garment.             

The Sophia girl is a confident, strong, independent with a vision of wearing garments that she can wear and still look fabulous in a wheelchair or with any other disability. No matter the disability, you can still pull off a gown or an elegant jumpsuit. Anyone can wear anything. 

sophia herrera
Photo by Jaylon Smith
Photo by Jaylon Smith

How long did the collection take to create?

The Imperfectly Perfect collection took about five months to create. There were many tactical obstacles that I encountered, because I needed to not only think about the overall design but also the functionality of the garments. I had to visualize in my head, that if I were to wear one of the garments; what would be the easiest or practical way to wear it. 

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced during your time as a designer?

When you’re a designer you are faced with a lot of criticisms about your designs or even who you are as a designer. Especially when you are a student. My senior year at college was one of the most challenging year I faced as a designer. I was mainly bullied by a professor of mine, who never believed in me and would say to me that I am not normal because I am disabled, and that I would never succeed as a designer because I’m in a wheelchair. It tore my whole world apart, to the point that I went into depression, had to quit my job in the admission office, and calling my parents almost every week to tell them that I can’t take it and I wanted to come home immediately. Other challenges that I faced was during the fittings of my garments on the models that my professor have given me. There were a lot of changes that had to be made not only in the design but also the fit of the garment. 

How have you overcome those challenges? 

I had other professors and students who would push me to not let my professor get into my head, to not give up, and to believe in myself that it is possible to achieve my goals. I want to thank Professor Stephanie Taylor, TJ, Alexis Occhipinti, Chantal Sisson, Elizabeth Keyes, Amanda Mangroo, Ameena Abdul Hakeem, Lara Langston, Casie Tanskley for always hearing my problems and always being there for me during these tough times. For the challenge of the fittings, I went to one of the sewing technicians, and another professor to help fix the fit so my models were comfortable in each garment. 

What needs to happen for the fashion industry to expand in inclusion and diversity (people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)?

Many brands are becoming more inclusive in their clothes, but it doesn’t feel personal, its more of an attention grabber. I feel that designers should discuss ways in which they can make their clothes more practical for diversity, by speaking to the people who are those people, such as a people in a wheelchair, ask them how would they want their clothes to be more practical and easy to wear; yet still stay on trend. 

many people think that a person with a disability, they [are] unable to function as others, they can never be independent, they can never achieve their dreams. And this needs to change because believe it or not we are more than capable to do anything in life.

What are some misconceptions when it comes to speaking about people with disabilities? How can we become better supporters?

I would say, it depends which country you’re at. For instance, in Malaysia, its not a country where there are many people with disabilities, so there is a lot of staring. I went to an International School in Malaysia and I was the only one who was in a wheelchair, from 1stgrade to 8thgrade, I was bullied with hatred words and words that you should never ever say to a person with a disability especially as a kid. However when I moved to the United States, I noticed a difference, I saw a lot more people with disability. But the misconceptions still continued, many people think that a person with a disability they aren’t able to function as the others, they can never be independent, they can never achieve their dreams. And this needs to change, because believe it or not we are more than capable to do anything in life; you name it, sure it will take time but that’s okay. We don’t always need help because we can do it, unless we ask for help. 

What is your purpose as a designer?

I believe that God gave me the career as a designer, because I have a story to tell, even though I don’t create avant garde garments, my designs tell a story whether its personal or in the world. And I believe that I have a primary resource in myself because since I am disabled I can connect to the community and everybody else.

So you recently graduated, what would you like to do next?

About two months ago I received an email that I never thought that I would ever receive. I have the amazing opportunity to showcase my designs in Paris during Fashion Week in September 2020. How crazy is that? Therefore I will expand my collection by creating five more garments, sticking to the same concept. I also got accepted for Masters of Fine Arts for Luxury Fashion and Management at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition, I will continue working on some freelance work from clients.

Where would you like to be 10 years from now?

Ten years from now I hope to be an Associate or Senior Designer for a huge luxury or contemporary brand. Say about 20 years from now I hope to open up my own luxury high end brand for evening wear and bridal. 

Can you discuss upcoming projects, events or collaborations?

As I mentioned before, I have the amazing opportunity to showcase my designs in Paris during Fashion Week in September 2020. So I would be mainly working on that and also trying to get my story out there; so people will know about me and share their opinions about my designs.

Stay connected with Sophia on Instagram and check out her work on  www.sophiaisabel.design


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