Beginning fashion designer Tatiana Shabelnik reaches for the stars


There is no secret formula for success in the fashion industry. It’s a field where a woman can go from anonymity at a juice stand to having her colorful prints on shift dresses worldwide without ever having been to fashion school, as Lilly Pulitzer did. Or where a young man can start as a Savile Row tailor, become a costumer, study fashion design at Central St. Martins and rise to be the toast of the haute monde, as Alexander McQueen did.

Tatiana Shabelnik, a Soviet emigrant who is balancing a day job and civic responsibilities as an active member of the Rotary Club of Pico Rivera, is finding her own path in her quest for success in the field.

Shabelnik spent more than a decade working as Web manager for Whittier College and as adjunct librarian for Rio Hondo College. She’s now Web interactive services manager at Claremont McKenna College.


But she’s always had a passion for fashion.

Born and raised in Minsk in the former Soviet Union, she says, “Life wasn’t easy economically or politically.... I grew up under communism. To buy good quality clothing or shoes was not easy. The choices were very limited, and the salaries were very small.”

Shabelnik’s mother was a physicist at the Academy of Science of Belarus, but she took up sewing to make extra money for the family. She started sewing Tatiana’s designs when the girl was only 6 years old.

When she didn’t make it into a competitive arts program, Shabelnik enrolled in a library science program and taught library and information science after college, before moving to the United States to pursue a master’s degree 26 years ago.

After a divorce, Shabelnik, 45, began taking fashion design classes at Otis College in 2012 and within a year was custom-designing scarves and shawls. She launched a line of women’s clothing called Contrast, noted for its interplay of bold color and contrasting textures, such as leather and chiffon.

In June, she returned to her hometown of Minsk, Belarus, where she was invited to show her first collection at the Mamont avant-garde festival. And in August, she was among designers who participated in a Los Angeles showcase put on by Raw, an incubator of talent in a number of art and design disciplines.

Now she is competing to be named one of three semifinalists for the Raw Awards’ Los Angeles artist of the year. Like many of today’s competitions, this is a combination of public popularity and expert decision-making: People can go to her page on the Raw website or to her personal website to vote through Oct. 9, and then the final selection will be made by a panel of judges.


The semifinalists will compete in a fashion show in Los Angeles, with the winner going on to compete nationally.

Shabelnik isn’t daunted by embarking on a career in fashion in mid-life. After all, there are other well-known examples, such as Pulitzer (of the juice stand), Diane von Furstenburg (an economics major) and Vivienne Westwood (a one-time teacher), who all found their success in fashion after starting in different fields.

“I decided better late than never,” Shabelnik says. “Obviously it is not easy to have a full-time job and pursue my dream of passion on a scale that I do it. I work on my fashion when I get home from work, sometimes till midnight or 1 a.m. and on weekends.”

But, she adds, “The right things happen for a reason at the right time. Also, good people come into your life when you do good things for other people.”


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