THE SHIRT OFF HER BACK: Debra Torres, JM 1997, is giving guayabera, the Cuban man's top, a new spin, turning it into hip women's wear.
Journalism alum gives
Cuban classic a feminine spin
Fashion designer and entrepreneur Debra Torres, JM 1997, waits for a bus on a New York City street on a Monday afternoon. She’s just bought some buttons, and she’s on her way to a garment-district factory to look at fabrics. She removes her earmuffs to take a call about her recent venture – starting her own line of clothing.
At 29, Torres has created a self-named line of guayaberas for women. This classic warm-weather staple – once reserved in the United States to vintage Cuban postcards and the occasional Spanish-language swooner – now claim sultry sex appeal.
Originated by Cuban guava-sellers in the 1800s, guayaberas feature airy, humidity-defying construction, four practical pockets and decorative pleats and embroidery. If you’re not one of the estimated 41 million Americans of Hispanic descent, you’d recognize them in one of the increasing references in popular culture. Think Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights or Buena Vista Social Club.
Cuban exiles – among them Torres’ father, a doctor imprisoned in Cuba for 12 years – introduced the shirts to the U.S.; they received a warm welcome in humid South Florida.
Cuban-born Torres, who came to the U.S. with her family at age 3, is helping to write a new chapter in the guayabera tradition. She recalls the guayabera as a key ingredient in the wardrobes of the men in her life. “In a way,” she says, “they’ve always been a part of my life.”
Torres traces a love of fabrics and fashion to her Lebanese great-grandmother. She describes how her mother inherited her sense of style from her grandmother. Now, her mother tells her she’s “got the bug.”
“I’ve always been the fashion person in my family,” she says.
Although she never learned to sew, Torres loved designing dresses for dances and often worked with her mother’s seamstress to create exactly what she wanted. In high school, Torres read Vogue and other fashion magazines, and this led her to pursue magazine journalism. She still uses what she learned in Prof. Emerita Jean Chance’s Fact Finding class. After graduation, Torres applied to various magazines but felt more compelled to work in the creative side.
“There’s still a little journalist inside me,” she says.
Her childhood friend and college roommate Betty Schachter, a stay-at-home mom in Miami who graduated from UF in 1997 with a bachelor’s in political science, remembers Torres always being fascinated with fashion.
“She makes a fashion statement wherever she goes,” Schachter says. “She always wore interesting outfits. But I mean that in a good way. She would put stuff together and somehow make it work.” Torres finished college in three years, also studying abroad in Rome and Paris. Fluent in Spanish and French, she interned at John Galliano and Manolo Blahnik and worked at Christian Dior. She was an assistant buyer at Neiman Marcus and worked for Nancy Gonzalez, who designs exotic, Colombian handbags. During those four years, she earned an AAS in fashion marketing from Parsons School of Design and an MBA from Columbia Business School.
Making the break
Torres recently read her old journals and realized she had been conceptualizing her business for years. Considering her Cuban heritage, it makes sense, she says. In borrowing the shape and the tradition of the guayabera for the inspiration behind her collection, Torres “went to herself” first.
She began by creating a few prototypes and developing the line in her spare time. Encouragement was not long in coming. After a friend from Columbia Business School, Michelle Mussafi, wore one of her modified guayaberas, co-workers began placing orders of their own. Mussafi’s mom also placed an order. And then her mom’s friends wanted some, too.
“I’ll go by her apartment and she’ll be dyeing fabrics in pots on her stove,” says Mussafi, a real estate broker at Lehman Brothers in New York.
Torres took a deep breath and began working full time on the line in fall 2005. She launched DebraTorres.com. Then she sought out Victoria Watson, owner of one of the most successful showrooms in New York.
Watson has been launching designers for the past 34 years but rarely takes one without a track record.
“This time, I really had to make an exception,” Watson says. “Debra has fantastic taste. She really has an eye for what can sell and what can’t. All of the right stores really love [her collection].”
With her Columbia MBA, Torres is aware that launching a business is probably the easiest part. Investing her savings, garnering a loan through the Small Business Administration and using her credit cards to buy materials, Torres is constantly reminded of the risks. She estimates she’s invested $50,000. She expects it will take three to five years to break even.
There are other pitfalls. Working for herself, Torres has to make an effort to stay motivated. And making solo decisions is no easy task. “No one sits you down and says how it’s going to be,” she says.
Still, she is encouraged by the feedback she has been receiving from Watson and others. Schachter, who is also Cuban-American, says she always knew Torres would be good at what she did.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be, and I don’t think she did either,” Schachter says. “But I knew it would be something fashion-related and that she would probably end up owning her own company.”
It would also have to be based in New York, Torres says. “New York is where everything happens. It would be so much harder to do this in Miami.”
Although she was nervous when she first stepped out of a cab onto the Manhattan streets, Torres quickly acclimated to the faster pace. Now when she is away from the city, Torres misses the speed of life. She lives 10 blocks from the garment district, where she walks to the factory to view samples, meet with pattern makers and examine the cottons, linens and silks that eventually become the finished products. At other times, she can be found writing news releases and compiling and mailing out press kits from her apartment.
Even at her busiest, she’s concerned with her clothes.
“Debra is always really stylish,” Mussafi says. “And she always wears heels, even in the middle of winter.”