Living the dream

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

When Rolando Santana was a student at White Plains High School, Neiman Marcus at The Westchester wasn’t just a store, it was an ideal.

“I would dream about seeing my clothes here,” he says. “It’s one of the most prestigious retailers for designers.”

That dream has come true with a line of edgy yet approachable day-to-evening dresses that reflects Santana’s love of art in sculptural, textured fabrics, subtle but distinctive prints and metallic hues.

Though every season is different, the goal is always the same – to put forth the best.

“I want to create dresses that women walk into the store and fall in love with,” Santana says during an interview at Neiman’s, where his modest charm enables him to move easily from interviewer and publicist to sales staff and clients. It’s as effective as his classic, understated clothing.

“The pieces in the collection are pieces you can wear again and again,” he says.

This has nothing to do with economics, he says, and everything to do with having go-to looks at your fingertips.

“As a designer working with retailers and private clients, you know they come to you wanting to feel secure. I always say, ‘The dress is the last thing I want you to worry about.’”

This fall, Santana has drawn inspiration from the dynamic metal sculptures of the late John Chamberlain (1927-2011), who lived and worked on Shelter Island, N.Y. There are layered, metallic looks like a dress in gradated copper, burnt orange and black with a black fur collar.

There are gowns and dresses made of heavy stretch fabric that caress a woman’s curves with a sculpted, supportive inner shell, an asymmetrical neckline and, in some cases, flattering half-sleeves. These suggest Santana’s own Latino background and a marriage of sex and class.

“Latin-American women are comfortable with their bodies and want to show them off,” he says, “but this is done in a subtle way. At the end of the day, you want the woman to feel comfortable and dressed appropriately.”

Such sophistication – and its approximately $5,000 price tag – speaks perhaps to women of a certain vintage, though Santana notes that there is a secondary collection with different price points for younger shoppers. Among the dresses in the Neiman’s group that may appeal to them – or any woman with great stems – is a black lace mini whose long sleeves serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the ooh-la-la hemline.

Meanwhile, a gray/navy sleeveless print dress in satin lamé captures the behind-the-scenes process, in which Santana plays with different prints digitally, then sends them off to Italy. That’s where the prints are tested on different fabrics and the dresses are made.

Santana’s prints are edgy, abstract. He has never used florals – before. But get set for the spring collection, which bows during Fashion Week Sept. 12 and pays homage to another artist, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), whose boldly colored, symbolic paintings teem with flowers and life. This despite her suffering extensive injuries in a 1925 bus-trolley collision that left her in continual pain and unable to bear children.

“She always said that the two tragedies in her life were the trolley accident and (her volatile marriage to muralist) Diego Rivera. And that of the two, Diego was the greater tragedy,” Santana says with a rueful smile.

The spring collection, Santana says, asks what Kahlo herself must’ve asked: “How can you make something beautiful out of something painful?”

It hints at the confining harness she often had to wear to support her mangled core. It plays with flowers in various ways – in 3-D, embroidery and cutouts. And while Santana shot a video at Kahlo’s historic Blue House for the Mexican edition of Vogue – which will go viral on Vogue MX Sept. 11 – there’s nothing blue in the collection.

It’s a tribute to Kahlo. And it’s also a valentine to his native land, where he was born in Cuernavaca. His mother, Josephine Santana, ran a dressmaking business there, at first from their home, and he watched her, accompanying her to fabric stores and learning the craft of building clothes at her factory from the time he was 13.

He’s proud of her, proud that neither of his parents ever suggested fashion was an unrealistic or unworthy profession, proud, too, that they have come full circle, with her turning to him for fashion advice as she divides her time between Mexico and New York.

Though he calls his mother’s business “the best school I could ever have,” he still felt he needed that “New York imprimatur.” So he left for America in 1991. After White Plains High and Westchester Community College, he earned degrees in international business at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. He was assistant designer, then dress designer at Spenser Jeremy, creative director at Donna Morgan and vice president of design at Kellwood Co.’s Designer Alliance, where he launched the Democracy contemporary dress collection.

While he enjoyed working for others, he says, “I really wanted to go out on my own.”

In 2009, he recognized the time was right and began his company, which now has eight employees. He’s collaborated with Manolo Blahnik on shoes for his runway looks and next spring plans to offer a line of shoes and sunglasses.

Ever the pragmatist, his business yang balancing his creative yin, he says, “It’s time to branch out in a very realistic way.”

Though he has a store-like studio in Manhattan’s Garment District, he won’t be moving from his White Plains home – a quick walk from Neiman Marcus – anytime soon.

“I never detached myself (from White Plains),” he says. “Now I have this career. It’s insane. We work crazy hours. At the end of the day, White Plains is a great way to disconnect yourself from that.”

Besides, he notes, Westchester is home to people like fellow designer Ralph Lauren and film director Ang Lee.

“We have a lot of creative people here.”

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