Elena: The Sewing Queen

This is story 1 of 10 of LoveYourzStory’s Creatives Series. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know 11 individuals who are passionate about creating. It was interesting to learn where each individual drew their inspiration from. I wanted to shift the attention on other Creatives and tell their stories on what motivates and excites them in their respective field. Thank you to everyone who participated in this series! – Marinelle Cabillo, LoveYourzStory

Elena flaunting the dress and decorations she made at her Barbie themed birthday party!

Elena is known for her kawaii style and homemade outfits. Her life motto is to, “always be cute.” So it’s no surprise that her outfits are anything but basic! Elena strives to be different and takes every opportunity to showcase her creations to the public. Her love for sewing could be attributed to her maternal grandmother.

Elena was 7 years old when she sewed for the first time. When her grandma would visit from Mexico and stay with her family for a while, Elena noticed that she would always be working on a project. Her grandma would mostly hand stitch and use her sewing machine. Curious Elena would always ask her grandma what she was working on, and with time, her grandmother offered to teach her exactly what she was doing. In the Mexican culture, sewing is geared more towards women, so Elena’s grandma didn’t feel the need to teach her brothers. However, Elena strongly believes that sewing is a skill that everyone can benefit from.

The first project that her grandmother gave her was to embroider a flower. Her grandma drew a simple flower with leaves on a piece of cotton. Elena did her best to follow grandma’s pencil drawing and sew right on top of it. She remembers feeling excited about sewing independently because she knew the next step would be learning how to cross stitch. Why did she want to learn how to cross stitch? Because one of grandma’s cross stitch pattern books had an elephant wearing a party hat that she was dying to make. Making that cute elephant was definitely one of her goals, but she knew she had to master her basics first. With time, Elena eventually went on to make that elephant she so desperately wanted to make!

Young Elena proudly showing off her flower embroidery

From there on, Elena’s love for sewing grew. Her mom taught her how to use the sewing machine for the first time when she was 13 years old. Like her grandma, her mom would use her sewing machine for little projects here and there. Elena remembers all the times her mom helped her make Halloween costumes. She would participate in sewing up different parts of her costume, which gave her a sense of pride. Halloween is one of Elena’s favorite holidays and takes it very seriously with her outfits – a holiday meant for her creativity to shine.

By the time Elena was in high school, her interest in creating clothes for herself was at an all time high. The first garment she ever made was a strapless dress for her Senior Project. The Senior Project required all seniors at her high school to work with a mentor to learn a new skill. After learning that new skill, a final paper would have to be submitted. By this time, Elena was confident using the sewing machine, but didn’t know how to make a pattern and put it all together. Her mentor was a tailor who made men’s pants. Pattern making has been a skill she has continued to use ever since.

“He never really did womenswear, but he knew the pattern making basics, so together we made a very simple strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline and a straight short skirt,” Elena shared. “It was fun to create and made me feel confident about going into fashion design.”

When it came to choosing her major in college, Elena thought long and hard about what she’s passionate about and what she enjoys doing. Growing up, her mom always encouraged her to pursue a career in the medical field, specifically nursing. Elena didn’t quite know what she wanted to major in, but one thing she knew from the get was that she definitely wouldn’t be getting into the medical field. It took her a while to really sit and think about what route she wanted to take in college, but it all really boiled down to what she enjoyed doing on her free time.

“I took time to think what I like to do, and I landed on that I like to make things,” she said. “I say this vaguely because I did all types of crafts growing up: hand stitching, painting, paper crafts, corsage making, you name it! But overall, it was always me creating with my hands. But when I laid it all out, it all came down to fabrics being my most used medium of choice. This made it clear in my mind so I was able to choose and pursue fashion design!”

Elena and her models rocking her outfits for the college fashion show

Her parents were very unsure of her decision to pursue fashion. She understood that it’s typical for immigrant parents to want their children to pick “good” majors so they can get a job to make good money. To her parents, fashion design wasn’t a stable or profitable field. Even during her time in college, major already declared, her mom would voice her concerns, asking her daughter what she planned to do with a fashion degree. Being a good sport and knowing her parents were just worried, Elena would brush it off and jokingly troll them back saying, “beats nursing!” The disapproval and low-key shade continued on post-graduation, when she was on the hunt to find a job. But one thing about Elena – she is confident in every choice that she makes. She knows that at the end of the day, the only person that needs to be happy with her decisions is herself. Luckily, with time, Elena’s mom learned to be more supportive of her style and passions.

Elena’s style is anything but minimalistic. Everything she wears, creates, and showcases on her body are big, loud, colorful, and over the top! Elena describes her personality and style in 3 words: Kawaii, Camp, and Maximalism. Kawaii is the Japanese movement of everything and anything cute. This can be cartoon characters, pastel colors, bows, and anything adorable! Camp is self-exaggerated, not serious, and of course, fun! Elena achieves this style by wearing fun / odd things like birds in her hair, fun purses like a LEGO brick, and anything that is whimsical! Maximalism is doing the most at all times! To Elena, “More is always more!” If it’s not colorful, fun, loud, over the top, cute, or an attention grabber, Elena is not interested!

Elena has never felt insecure about showcasing her creations in public. Her favorite thing to do is wear a new design that she completed in public. She loves seeing people’s reactions when they compliment her and she confesses that she made it. Elena gets so happy when strangers and those around her admire and appreciate her work. Deep down, she also hopes her creativity inspires someone else to try sewing! Elena radiates confidence wherever she goes in whatever she wears. What’s important to her is that she dresses for herself and her own enjoyment. She doesn’t care what people think, but if they love it, even better!

Her style also comes with obsessions. Her current obsessions are Barbie and Baby Yoda. But just because these are her current obsessions, doesn’t mean she has forgotten about her past ones! The truth is, Elena never gets over anything that peaked her interest. She may have a couple of obsessions at the moment, but it just gets added to her list of things she’s in love with. When something from a past obsession comes up, Elena is reeled back in and enjoys it all over again. She keeps her long list of obsessions as inspiration to create. Though Elena has categorized her style in 3 main categories, her style could also be broken down in the different “eras” of her life.

In high school, Elena’s obsession was all about Rock music. Her all time favorite band was the band HIM. Anything the band members wore, she would do her best to find a piece that looked similar. In college, her Kawaii obsession started because she decided to watch all 200 episodes of Sailor Moon her Freshman / Sophomore year. She watched the show here and there as a kid, but never watched it in its entirety. Sailor Moon was her gateway into the Kawaii community. It definitely influenced her style completely, though she found it easy to adopt because her childhood obsessions were Sanrio and Pokémon. Post-College – Now, Elena’s current obsession is Drag Culture. It all started when a co-worker asked if she was keeping up with RuPaul’s Drag Race. She had watched earlier seasons, but fell off. She told her co-worker that she would re-watch them, and since then, the rest is history.

Elena on stage at The Warfield with Bianca Del Rio, wearing their matching Flames Dresses

“One of the best designs I made for an event would be my recreation of RuPaul’s Drag Race S6 winner, Bianca Del Rio’s Flames dress!,” Elena said when asked what designs she was most proud of. “I made it to wear at her ‘Not Today Satan’ tour stop in SF. At the meet and greet, she was so impressed that the copy was so good – she makes all her own drag outfits – she ended up inviting me on stage at The Warfield for a picture and everyone at the sold-out show got to see it!”

Now, Elena’s style is heavily influenced by Kawaii and Drag Culture. It fed into her love for Maximalism and Camp. The mutual love for RuPaul’s Drag Race got the 2 co-workers to have a friendship outside of the work environment. They would go to Drag shows in the city on the weekends and go see Rugirls, as well as other local talent. Some specific queens that have inspired Elena are: Bianca del Rio, Naomi Smalls, Bob the Drag Queen, Aquaria, and especially Valentina. Fashion wise, Valentina is what Elena strives to be. Through online and real life events, she has managed to fully immerse herself in all the styles she loves.

It’s safe to say that Elena has a very particular style and draws inspiration from so many sources. Her style is so playful, quirky, and unique that dating wise, it may be challenging to find someone that matches her style to a T. That was the case when she met her boyfriend, Sam. They shared in interest in video games on the Nintendo, but other than that commonality, the 2 lovebirds came from different backgrounds and styles. She describes their styles as polar opposites. Elena is all about coordinating outfits, and the very first time her and Sam matched was for a date to the Museum Of Ice Cream. She did a western pink look and made a matching bow tie for him to wear. Even though what he was wearing wasn’t anything flashy, he felt that it was a bit much and didn’t want to draw any attention. But with time, he saw how much dressing up meant to Elena and has learned to not only appreciate it, but go along with it.

Currently, Elena is balancing out her side passion of sewing with her current job. Her job is so flexible Post-Covid because it’s hybrid – work from home and in office. Now that she has some days of working from home, Elena finds herself working on garments during her breaks. She even found her rhythm noticing that she prefers to do work at night and projects during the day – a concept that would’ve never been a reality pre-pandemic.

One of Elena’s favorite pieces she made in college, Pop Tart Dress!

Generally, a simple design that she has done before or has the pattern for can take anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks to complete from beginning to end. If it’s a new pattern or something she hasn’t made before, it can take anywhere from 2.5 to 3 weeks. This all depends on multiple factors – when the garment is needed, if she has to get materials, how complicated it is to make, and if there’s anything going on in her personal life. If the project is for an event, Elena is very focused on sticking to the schedule to get it done on time, but if it’s a regular garment for no special occasion, she’s more relaxed getting it done. Elena is always working on a project, researching a project, or finding inspiration for the next design.

Once a garment or project is complete, Elena likes to give herself a mini break in-between. During this time, she is thinking of what to do next. This includes doing the research, looking up references, inspiration photos, and more. She admits that there are times where her mini breaks from project to project can be longer than her usual 1 – 2 weeks. Before the pandemic, Elena doesn’t recall a time where she had full on burnout with her projects. She remembers using the high of finishing a design to motivate her to start on the next project. Now 2 plus years into the pandemic, her creating fatigue is more apparent. After her Barbie themed birthday party, where she designed her dress, props, and goodies, Elena found herself in a rut. For 2 months she struggled to get in the mood to sew. It was to the point where she couldn’t even get herself to be in her sewing space at all. The burnout was really stressful, but she chose to focus her energy on other things that brought her joy, like journaling, playing Pokémon, and spending time with loved ones.

“I felt like if I spend the energy somewhere else, eventually I’ll get back to a clearer mindset and sew,” she said truthfully. “It took a while, but I can say that it did help, although I can still feel its effects. Now I’m just trying to find a better way to pace myself in projects to avoid burnout in the future… So, I do my best to rest in between projects but always try to keep something in mind.”

A common question that Elena gets asked often is if she plans to make her side passions a full-time job. In college, she did have an Etsy store where she sold her handmade hairclips, but eventually she had to close it down when school and work piled up. She thinks pursuing her creative passions full-time would be fun and exciting, but at the moment, she loves her job way too much to leave at this time. For the time being, she plans to continue to create mainly for herself. However, she is always down for a fun request. She doesn’t take custom requests often, but once in a while she will take up alterations, costume help, table centerpieces, and other fun crafts. The first time she made garments for someone other than herself was when 2 of her best friends graduated college. They asked if Elena could make and design both of their graduation dresses – she was a bit hesitant at first because she was so used to creating for herself, but in the end was glad she took on the projects because they both turned out beautiful.

Elena’s loves for creating doesn’t just stop at clothing. She will take one off commissions like making center pieces for parties or making corsages. She says that if she didn’t do fashion in school, she would’ve loved to pursue party planning or wedding planning. Themed parties have always been something that interested Elena, even at a young age. She would beg her mom to get the whole shebang at Party City – the matching plates, cups, napkins, tablecloth, signs, and anything that came in the full set. Recently, she even made all the decorations, props, and her outfit for her own birthday party. Of course it was focused on one of her current obsessions – Barbie! Parties hold a special place in Elena’s heart, and she always tries to perfect every project that she takes on.

Handmade dress on her cousin’s Ultima Moñeca

“Recently I did a Quince dress for a Build-a-Bear Dino for my cousin’s Quinceñera!,” She shares passionately. “Traditionally during the party, a Quinceñera is presented with ‘La Ultima Moñeca’ aka ‘The Last Doll.’ It is to signify that she is no longer a little girl and is now an adult who doesn’t play with toys. I let my cousin pick a stuffed animal from Build-a-Bear and I created a 1 to 1 dress based on her Quince dress!”

Social media is an important tool for Creatives to share their work. Elena confidently admits that she likes to promote her Instagram as if she has thousands of followers – even though she has yet to reach 1,000. Instagram is her platform of choice, and she uses it to showcase most of her projects. She makes it a point to post a new outfit when she wears it out and describes the process and inspiration behind the piece. Elena also likes to implement Instagram Stories to show the step by step process, then she posts the finished process as a highlight on her profile. She has taken a crack at Instagram Reels as well by pairing her videos and photos with songs that go with her theme or that has inspired her when making the piece. Elena has tried streaming herself sewing on Twitch in the past and loved that people were chatting and asking questions throughout the process. She hopes to start streaming again this year.

With all these ideas and future plans, Elena can’t put her finger on just one specific person that has supported her throughout her journey. She considers everyone in her inner circle to be someone who has been in her corner. She knows that everyone on the sidelines are rooting for her every step of the way. These people include her youngest brother, Jason, her close college friends, her “Babushkas,” her boyfriend, Sam, and of course, her grandma.

Elena’s advice to other creatives is: Do whatever makes you happy! As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it will all be worthwhile. Her advice for fashion creatives is to remember to always make clothes for you. Elena wants fashion creatives to keep in mind that they are dressing either themselves or their ideal client, so if someone isn’t on board with what you create, it doesn’t matter because you’re not designing for them. She remembers that that’s the advice she had to follow in college. Fashion design made her happy, and she didn’t feel the need to explain to others why she chose this route.

Many creatives are usually asked, ‘are you able to make money off ‘Insert craft here‘?'” Elena said. “And I get it, especially if that is to become your field of work, you want to be able to make a living. But to me, the true goal is to make yourself happy. Pursue your craft and passions for self-happiness and fulfillment, with that money will follow.”   

Elena’s motto and goal in life is to always “Be Cute.” Through her style and designs, she wants to serve campy cute, maximal cute, kawaii cute, spooky cute, and any and every category of cute that there is. As a creative, her brain in constantly thinking of the next thing to create, and she is embracing every step of the way.

Elena happily posing for another photo

Do You Want To Be On Top?

**Plays “I’ve Got a Dream,” from Tangled, as opener to this post…**

In May 2013, my older sister was a Junior at SF State, majoring in Apparel Design and Merchandising. For one of her projects, she had to design two outfits that would be presented at a fashion showcase. A lot of her classmates worked with strangers that classified themselves as, “models.” In her mind, why would she need a random model she didn’t know when she had me? A younger sister who basically had no choice but to be said “model?” She guilt tripped me about how it would be easier for her if I were the model so I could try it on and get fitted anytime she needed to make adjustments or measurements. Of course I wanted to support her with her passion projects and school work, but damn this bitch had me fucked up. I remember thinking… “Wtf, I really need to stand infront of a couple hundred people and walk on a fuckin’ runway? …bye.” The only plus side that I could see in this situation was the fact that I got to miss a day of class when the fashion showcase day were to come. I was a senior in high school who had a bad case of senioritis, but never had the balls to skip. Nevertheless, I was so embarrassed just thinking about it… ME?! WALKING DOWN A RUNWAY?!

I pull up these pictures now and I almost laugh out loud, as I’m at least 35 pounds heavier. But at the time, I was stressing and under pressure about my appearance. Although I knew months in advance that I’d be walking down a runway, no amount of time could prepare me for this almost embarrassing moment. I felt like I was going to make myself look like Boo Boo Tha Damn Foo walking down that runway. And for those reasons, I seesawed with my diet. One day I’d be watching what I ate, and then another day I would fall into a pit of self pity and eat my frustrations, in the form of hot cheetos. Long story short, I was never consistent with my attempts at trying to “lose weight,” “improve my figure,” “get runway ready,” or whatever the hell I was trying to do. This was also a very crucial point in my life in regards to my body dysmorphia and my struggle with my weight, however, that’s another blog post that I do plan on sharing soon 😉. Let’s just say I was truly struggling with how I viewed my body and went about it in a very unhealthy way.

I practiced day after day in those cheap uncomfortable heels that I got for like $20 in the Mission. I walked up and down the hallway in my house, trying to sell the outfit, but at the same time making sure I don’t fall and eat shit. When it comes to heels I literally can’t. All aboard the mess express, because that’s me in heels. I even put resistant patches on the bottom of my heels to make me feel more secure. I played in my mind all the things that could possibly go wrong, from falling, to passing out, even thinking if under the runway lights my underwear would be visible through the dress material. The thing that bothered me the most was the fact that I could see my belly button through the dress. And for that reason, I practiced walking in heels while sucking in my gut. So, I had to practice walking without falling, walking fiercely, but also achieve that by not breathing.

As the days loomed closer I think I had the mentality of “let’s just get this over with already.” At this point I already exhausted myself with anxiety and insecurities. I was just ready for it to be done with.

When we got to the practice run at the fashion showcase, I was starting to get excited that I would be the body to show off my sister’s designs. But I did notice something. I was one of the verrrrryyyy few “models” of color, probably the shortest, and definately the biggest. It seemed like all these women were atleast 5’10 without heels. I felt so out of place. Insecurities came back, though they never left. For a high schooler struggling with body image and weight, this seemed like the worst place to be.

All these tall, thin, “professional” models changing clothes openly infront of everyone is what got me cringing. The “changing room” was basically the back of the venue, outdoors and gated. They put up a tent where some could change more privately, but there were atleast 200 models. It was so crowded in that little open area that models would come right to the back after just walking off the runway and quickly disrobe to put on the next outfit to get back out there. When I put on my first outfit, I shyly went in the tent and made sure that I put it on as discreet as possible. You know, like when you’re in high school and you’re trying to change in the women’s locker room after swimming class? Like that.

When it was the real deal and the fashion showcase started, I could feel my heart pounding, my breathing picked up, and I felt like passing out. When it was finally my turn to walk down that runway, I faked it till I made it. Faked the confidence, faked the smile, faked my stomach and sucked that shit in. I didn’t fall. All eyes were on me, but at the moment I didn’t care. I walked off the stage exhilarated. I quickly met my sister for my dress change. I immediately started taking off my dress, left in my underwear and bra, scrambling to get into the next outfit.

“Marinelle what the hell,” my sister laughed but was also confused as to why I was doing it out in the open. At that point I was there all day, probably more than 9 hours. My feet hurt, I was tired, I was hungry, and most of all, I didn’t care anymore. I saw stares from the other “models” as I changed into my other dress with no shame. Some probably thinking “yo0o0o0o0, the nerve.” But I embraced it. I liked the fact that I was serving looks, but most importantly, that I was different.

A year later, my sister had her senior final project where she had to come up with multiple looks. My little sister, my 2 friends, my older sister’s co-worker, and I were my sister’s models. My little sister refused to be in it. In a way I saw myself in her. She was complaining about the same things I was just a year before. But I was telling her how cool it was, how it’s all in her head, and guilt tripped her on how we should be supporting our sister.

What I was insecure about a year prior turned out to be what I was most proud of. Being a “model” with my sister and friends made me prideful. I took pride in knowing that I was the thick Filipino chick who totally wasn’t a model. I took pride in the fact that we were a group of women of color who stood out from the rest. I took pride in the fact that I was in a space some would believe I don’t belong.

After the 2nd fashion showcase (where I wasn’t trippin as hard), my parents were smiling ear to ear. They were proud of my older sister for making all those clothes, and proud of all of us for coming through for her.

“Bigay ng bigay,” my mom and dad told me laughing. In bay area translation: I was givin it/ giving it my all/ doing the most. As I should’ve. The 2nd year was a totally different experience than the 1st. The 2nd year I embraced what made me different. I got more political and defensive with my insecurities and turned them into positives.

But I bet you’re thinking, “But why is ‘I’ve Got a Dream,’ from Tangled playing in the backgroud?”

I think it was this experience (and my later self-discovering moments in college) that made me have the far fetched dream of being a plus sized writing model. You know, like I get discovered for my body positive writing pieces and my radical views of realness, that I’m featured in a magazine or something 🤣. Sidenote, I’ve thought about posting “real” photos like a lot of body positive influencers I follow, but I personally feel weird posting half nude photos of myself. Power to the females that do though ✊🏽 I respect and appreciate models and influencers who put their real unedited photos up for people to see that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But most importantly, highlighting parts of their bodies that society has labeled as “unattractive.”

I realized that I was so insecure of my size because I never seen someone that looks like me on TV or anything model related. I told my cousin, “What if one day I get discovered for modeling, think of it, plus-sized Filipino model, we’re underrepresented!” Unedited, gut out, stretch marks, blemishes, all the above. Even pulling up these old photos from 2013 made me feel some type of way. Like I said, I’m probably AT LEAST 35 pounds heavier. But I got to remind myself that weight does not define me. In fact, I was in a pretty dark place at the time when I was at my smallest. The backstory will be a future blog post.

That “modeling” experience helped me take the first steps to self-acceptance and self-love. Even though the journey is still continuing to this day. 💖 Embrace what makes you different!!!