His rags-to-ball-gown story is like that of Cinderella, but his craft makes him more like the fairy godfather, turning ordinary women and girls into Disney princesses.
Nephi Garcia, 33, moved to the United States 14 years ago from the Philippines, where as a young boy, he watched relatives sew garments. The pattern making, he thought, looked like something he could do because he enjoyed geometry.
When he was 11, he designed and created a dress for a cousin by hand. After a few years, Garcia set aside the hobby, but when it was time for him to get married, he found himself tasked with making his wife’s bridal gown.
“It was a very princess-like dress,” he said. “Grace Kelly was my inspiration, so my wife had the lace collar long before Kate Middleton.”
Eventually, he decided to incorporate another passion — Disney — in his clothes making.
“I’ve always loved Disney, but I never knew I had a niche for cosplay,” said the Huntington Beach father of three, referring to the contraction of the words “costume” and “play.” Cosplayers are people who dress in the costumes of characters from films, television shows and video games.
“We got our Disney passes, and I wanted to dress up our daughter,” he recalled.
This was about two years ago. With scraps of pink and blue cloth, he pieced together his then-4-year-old daughter’s first costume — a fairy godmother dress from Disney’s 1950 animated film “Cinderella.”
As the girl posed for pictures with the Cinderella character at Disneyland, Garcia knew he had something special and continued making dresses for the girl, gaining notoriety at Disneyland and on social media for his designs.
But, like Cinderella, he had to face the harsh light of reality first before he could get to this promise of happily ever after: leaving a position in the high-fashion industry, declaring it not family-friendly enough for a family man, and also losing the part-time job he had in retail, and then finding himself, along with his wife and young children, living with friends as the family got dangerously close to homelessness.
His wife, who is a ballerina, encouraged her husband to turn his interest in Disney dresses into a full-time enterprise.
“My wife told me, ‘We have literally nothing to lose. Why not do it now?’ ” Garcia said. “This literally saved us from where we were at.”
Word about Garcia’s designs continued spreading, and he soon dubbed himself the “Designer Daddy,” making full-blown Disney gowns and other costumes full-time from an Anaheim studio. He said he chose the location so he could be near Disneyland, the place that inspired his newfound career, and hear the theme park’s fireworks when he works late into the night.
Now, he has more than 184,000 followers on Instagram and sells hundreds of dresses each year, with each costume going for about $1,600. Each dress takes about 12 hours to make and is unique and customized, Garcia said.
“We love Disney, but we didn’t realize that it was this tight-knit group and family,” he said. “Everyone’s been kind enough to share on social media, and that’s helped a lot.”
His work has been commissioned by cosplayers, Disney fans and Internet celebrities like Traci Hines, who has featured Garcia’s work in online music videos.
The dresses he has made for his only daughter, which can be seen on his Instagram page @DesignerDaddy, have also been popular. One of the most popular is a dress that transforms peasant Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Her blue dress turns into a gold ball gown with a simple pull of Velcro and other secret mechanics.
Other designs have included a family “Aladdin” theme that the Garcias fully embraced, with Garcia dressed as the title character, his wife looking like Princess Jasmine and his children transformed into Abu the monkey and the Magic Carpet as they walked around Disneyland.
He hopes his now-6-year-old daughter saves her costumes to give to her own daughter someday.
“Growing up in the Philippines, where people really struggled and didn’t have a lot of things, I worked really hard to be where I am now,” he said. “I don’t want to spoil her, but I do want to provide the magic in her life and will remain in her memory when she’s older.”
He said he is booked through 2017 and not making custom gowns anymore. Instead, he will begin mass-producing dresses to save time and resources.
Garcia will also make male costumes when they are ordered, but most of his current clients are female, he said.
Jasmin Banuelos, 22, of Norwalk ordered a customized Captain America dress from Garcia to wear on Dapper Day last year, an annual event in which patrons are encouraged to wear vintage-style clothes at Disneyland. For next year’s event, she has commissioned Garcia to create a dress inspired by Marvel character Peggy Carter, Captain America’s love interest.
“He does amazing dresses and he actually does them very fast,” she said, adding that her dress last year was completed in less than a day. “The quality is really amazing, and he just puts so much detail into it. He really thinks out the material he’s going to use.”
Garcia’s goal is to eventually design costumes for films.
As for Disney, Garcia does hope to catch the company’s eye but understands his dresses need some variance to avoid copyright infringement.
“Doing films would be a big step up for me, but I would never want to give up my clients,” he said. “I know it’s hard for them to get a custom-made princess ball gown and them feeling like a princess unless they have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for it. I want them to get in touch with their inner princesses.”