Young designers are rarely able to live on the sales of their designs alone. They emerge from fashion and design schools unknown, ready to present their digital portfolios to buyers or store owners. Most often, they are turned away.
But Michelle Aquino defied the odds. She got her first sewing machine from her grandmother, and after a few lessons in simple hemming and patching she fast-tracked her limited knowledge to another level — even without professional training — when in 2009, at age 20, she launched M. Dot Design in San Diego.
Aquino quickly discovered there's strength in numbers — that a united front of artists working together can be stronger than one lone designer whose name no one knows.
Today, besides selling her collection online at mdotdesignstudio.com, she's built a business curating Shop It events at W Hotels across the country. The events are usually one-evening pop-up shopping parties that feature fashion from her own M. Dot line and other local apparel, accessories and jewelry designers that she handpicks. She has also included architects, artists, local bakeries and Bliss Spas. Average turnout is 150 people for the events, which have taken place in W Hotels in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami and more.
Aquino pioneered the concept at the W in San Diego in 2010 before bringing it to Los Angeles in December 2012, and it spread from there. That's not so surprising since the W hotel brand is no stranger to fashion; W is an official partner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Fashion Incubator program, which fosters promising designers.
"I met Michelle and absolutely loved her designs and the partners she works with," recalls Lauren Travis, director of marketing at the W Hollywood. "The lines really embrace the L.A. look. We wanted to give guests and locals a taste of L.A., so Michelle and I decided to create an event that brought some of the incredible local emerging designers all under one roof … for the ultimate shopping experience."
The W Hollywood took the concept a step further and had Aquino tailor her collections to incorporate inspiration from the hotel's interior designers and from the vibe of the city.
M. Dot pieces are comfortable, but sleek and versatile, tailor-made for the modern power woman. The 12-piece collection includes a wrap-dress designed with a special pleat and tie to cover any tummy imperfections, a modern take on a traditional suit that has a vest top and a sexy shift that's wearable in more than three different ways.
Leah Vaplon, owner and jewelry designer of frequent collaborator 9luxe, says M. Dot is a brand to watch.
"I have accompanied Michelle on many W events now and have seen firsthand the passion, energy and work she puts into not only building M. Dot, but also into making wonderful events for the W Hotels and supporting other designers in their endeavors," Vaplon says.
Aquino is always on hand at the events to offer what she calls couture ready-to-wear. "I think a woman's clothes should fit her, not have her working to fit in her clothes. Customers choose the fabric they'd like from available swatches of cloth I bring to the events, and they can choose the piece they'd like made for them. I guarantee a two-week delivery time and prices range from $250 to $600," Aquino says.
"I make from $2,000 to $4,000 at every four-hour-long event and offer what I call 'achievable couture in a ready-to-wear style,'" Aquino says.
She is scheduled to debut a new collection June 11 at the W Hotel Los Angeles in Westwood.
Aquino recently took her pop-up collab concept to the real-estate company Keller-Williams to help it sell a $4.5-million mansion in Brentwood. She and her group of local artisans gave the house a "lifestyle." Her team tricked out the kitchen with locally crafted dishware, filled the master-bedroom closet with her clothing collection and brought local artists in to decorate the walls.
Thanks to the W events, M. Dot is fast becoming a name in Hollywood and the alternative music scene. The singer and actress Leighton Meester, best known from the TV show "Gossip Girl," recently contacted Aquino to outfit her for a performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
"My next move is to take our Shop It concept to W Hotels worldwide. I'd collaborate with local accessory and handbag designers, and spas in some of the W Hotels from Thailand to India, and Hong Kong. That and buying a condo here in L.A.," Aquino says.