Mario Melendez didn't apprentice as a designer with an established firm, although he did work as assistant production manager for a women's clothing label--a move that helped him make the manufacturing connections he would need later. Having his own design company "was all I talked and dreamed about," says Meledenz, who compares being a designer with being a symphony conductor who brings separate elements together to create a harmonious whole.
By age 18, he was making silk-screened shorts for friends in his parents' garage. After serving in the Persian Gulf War and earning a bachelor's degree in political science, Melendez used $5,000 of his G.I. money to make the first 500 of his guayabera shirts from home. By night, he worked as a waiter to fund the business; by day, he pitched the shirts to every store he could find. "I had no shame," he crows, "and it worked!"
His shirts, which come in a wide variety of styles and colors, are sold in 50 stores and on his Web site (http://www.maji-usa.com). In business for two years, he projects 1999 sales of $500,000. Maji by Melendez has been featured in the Spanish version of People magazine and in regional publications. Like Mills, Melendez used ingenuity as well as persistence to gain attention for his business. Along with participating in West Coast trade shows, he is co-sponsoring a Latin jazz concert and fashion show, with part of the proceeds going toward scholarships for fashion-design students.
She's only 22, but like Melendez, Elle Hamm--part-time rapper, full-time designer--already appreciates the power of persistence. Without any formal design background, she began her Beverly Hills-based company, Rudwear, with just the $40 she invested in fabric to sew hair scrunchies; two years later, her company earns $100,000.
Hamm began by selling the scrunchies to Los Angeles-area hotel and airport gift shops, then expanded into a simple line of accessories, which she tried to pitch to Nordstrom. The upscale department chain initially wasn't interested, in part because of Hamm's inexperience in manufacturing. But with the help of her father--who linked her up with a company willing to manufacture her accessories--and a self-made brochure copied at Kinko's, Hamm landed another meeting at Nordstrom, which agreed to carry her line of scarves and purses. They liked her work so much that when she later proposed her sports-inspired dresses to them, they bit.
Carmen Electra and Pamela Anderson Lee have worn Rudwear fashions, and Claudia Schiffer appears in a Rudwear piece in her new movie "Desperate But Not Serious." Rudwear now has come out with a line of jerseys for men. Some are simple; flashier versions decked with patent leather are intended for entertainers.
"I'm a competitive person," Hamm says, explaining her formula for success. "I get the inspiration for my designs from who I am."
Few young designers can expect a smooth ride. But, according to Mills, the view from the top is worth the climb. "When you have to struggle," she says, "you appreciate it more when you make it over the hurdle. Getting through it all makes the dark days worthwhile."