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Five Questions For Juan Carlos Obando

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Juan Carlos Obando thinks different. How different? When asked on his CFDA/Vogue application for his ideal business mentor, the Los Angeles-based designer went out on a limb and nominated Steve Jobs. What the Apple impresario could teach a maker of exquisitely hand-detailed gowns isn’t clear—at least not at first blush. But for Obando, who sidestepped into fashion after a successful career as an advertising art director, Jobs was an obvious choice. “Look at how identifiable that brand is,” he explains. “You don’t even need to see a logo. I mean, at this point Apple owns the color white.” He continues, “When I think about building my own company, I’m not just thinking, what are the clothes going to look like next season? I’m thinking, what’s my white?” Obando has applied his out-of-the-box thinking not only to his clothes (his New York Fashion Week debut paid homage to Batman creator Frank Miller through the prism of muse Liz Goldwyn) but also to projects such as No. 4, the newly launched haircare range he helped conceive. And more projects are in the offing. This year, he was tapped as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. The winner of the 2008 prize will be announced November 17; in the meantime, Obando answers Style.com’s questions about life in the Top Ten.

What made you want to be a designer?

An Absolut Vodka campaign featuring Tom Ford for Gucci looks. It clicked something. I saw fashion and branding coming together 100 percent. The way that ad talked to the consumer was incredible. It made you want to be there, to experience that lifestyle, to live life like that.

What was the most rewarding moment of the CFDA/Vogue process for you?

The interview. It was the moment where I faced the people I look up to, and my whole body of work, at the same time. With the clock ticking. But I’ll also say this: The first thing you have to do when you reach the semifinal round is submit a business plan. That’s the best present ever. Whether I win or not, having the impetus to work on my business plan was incredibly rewarding, purely in terms of how my business is going to function from now on.

What’s your up-and-coming designer’s take on the current economic crisis?

Well, I don’t want to say I’m insulated, because this time around, I don’t think anyone is. Even the people who buy $9,000 dresses, they’re getting hit. Where I think I’m at an advantage is I’m small. I do pretty much everything myself. And I don’t make the kind of clothes that people take home on a whim, anyway. My clients are still buying, thus far, and they’re buying as slowly and selectively as ever. I’m doing a lot of wedding dresses. And in a more general way—I’ll be honest—I’m not sure I mind seeing the end of an era where there’s a wait list for a $20,000 clutch. Something new is coming, and maybe, I hope, this downturn will make us a bit more modest. And a lot more earth-conscious. I feel like I’m already starting to see the old idea of luxury coming back around. That luxury is not about the cost of an object, per se, but rather, the cost relative to these other values, like exclusivity and craft and handwork hours, and beauty and exceptionalness. Back to basics, in other words.

Speaking of money, where did your first funding come from?

My own advertising paycheck, and a dear friend loaned me some money as well. I’m still doing some ad work, honestly—I’ve been working on the Quantum of Solace Web site. And I don’t mind keeping that up, because it’s kind of nice to have a break during the day, three or four hours on a conference call or whatever, where it is literally impossible for me to think about fashion. I’m forced to take the blinders off and spend a little time in the world where, you know, fashion actually lives.

How do you rate your chances for taking home this year’s award?

I kind of expect the Vena Cava girls to win—and aside from my own selfish desire to win, I hope they do. They’ve been at this for a while, longer than me, and they’re so sweet and talented. I love Alexander Wang, too, I think his energy is really special. Who knows, though? Definitely not me.

Photo: Courtesy of Juan Carlos Obando

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  1. marvoi says:

    i actually, honestly think this is the best 5-question interview i’ve read in a while… and the best of the cfda bunch this time… i agree with him on the vena cava girls… or based on the interview, this person’s personality shines through… and that’s important… whatever the judges decide, hopefully it’s for the best… =]

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