Turning Passion for Design into a Thriving Small Business

Gabriela Martinez studied fashion design at the Universidad Regional del Norte in Chihuahua, Mexico. By the age of 22, Gabriela operated a modest boutique in Chihuahua where she sold hand-sewn clothing from fabrics imported from Los Angeles and New York.

In 2001 Gabriela moved to the United States to take her fashion design dreams to the next level. Her English was very limited when she arrived in Denver, and Gabriela spent most of her time sewing patterns and sketching designs in her apartment. Gabriela read about Mi Casa’s Éxito Para Negocios (Business Success) entrepreneurial training program in the newspaper and she enrolled – as much to make friends as to learn about business ownership in her new country. Through Mi Casa, Gabriela made valuable contacts and learned information that not only made her feel more at home in her new city, but also helped Gabriela convert her business aspirations into a brick-and-mortar business – Gabriela Designs Denver – with a steadily growing clientele.

“Mi Casa helped me grow my business and I continue to turn to Mi Casa for counseling and advice,” she says. “Mi Casa helped me see that my market was actually much larger than I originally thought.” Gabriela realized that her largest constituency – upscale shoppers who appreciate fine, handcrafted clothing – was located close to downtown, so she recently moved her business to 321 West 11th Ave. “I found my niche with customers who are looking for unique designs and people who value handmade fashion.”

From bridal gowns to dramatic shawls to leather handbags, Gabriela prides herself on high-quality materials and unique designs for men and women. Gabriela also creates patterns and prototypes for other fashion designers, in addition to doing alterations and filling custom orders. For her handbags, Gabriela works with interior designers to collect scraps of fabric, which she uses in her one-of-a-kind creations.

Gabriela saved up to invest in second hand industrial sewing machines so that she can work with any kind of fabric. Gabriela also has a quilting machine, which enables her to work with interior designers to produce pillows, drapes and other home furnishings.

Gabriela joined local fashion associations including Fashion Denver and Fashion Group International, which quickly recognized Gabriela’s talent and invited her to participate in fashion shows. The 2010 Fashion Fest featured 18 local Denver fashion designers, and Gabriela, the only Latina competitor, nabbed the first prize with her sophisticated black evening gown with intricate beadwork, sheer sleeves and an attached scarf.

“I think my success has come from the passion behind my business plan,” Gabriela says. “My advice to other entrepreneurs is to follow your passion and don’t let anyone or anything take you off course. If we don’t risk anything, we won’t ever get there.”

Gabriela, 36, wants to begin a women’s sewing group at Mi Casa to introduce more people to the craft that has been her passion since she was a teenager. Her long-term goal is to distribute her line of clothing and accessories nationwide. And one day, Gabriela hopes to grow her business to the points that she can hire women to bring her designs to life. In the meantime, Gabriela likes the idea of sharing her craft with other women in need of a boost.

“I truly believe that in times of great distress the act of creating something with your own hands is good therapy and a positive way to rise above bad situations.”

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