Oscar Carvallo’s entrée into Miami society occurred a mere two months after his arrival. The designer himself was nowhere in sight, but one of his creations did all the talking—or singing as was the case. It happened one balmy evening last February, when the lights were dim and a fabric ceiling hung low in an elegant tent set up on the Bass Museum’s front lawn for their 2016 Bass Ball. A VIP cross section of Miami’s art collectors and arts supporters had come to the gala turned out for the evening’s theme—surrealism.
Just as the main course was being served, it was time for the highlight of the evening. For many gathered there, it was the announcement that Bass Museum Board President, George Lindemann, and Ambassador Paul and Mrs. Trudy Cejas would be donating $1 million each to the museum. But for fashionistas, the most memorable moment was the best-dressed of the evening awards, selected by the Bass Ball’s Chair, Criselda Breene, and committee.
The award for most “Most Whimsical” outfit went to Alexa Wolman, who was wearing Oscar Carvallo’s “Sonic Dress” from his Hero collection. The boutique had barely been open two months and it had already been discovered by Wolman, who is an avowed fashion buyer so committed that she eschews sample sales that most women go crazy for. “I don’t want to wear last season’s clothes, I want to wear next season,” says Wolman in total seriousness.
As she made her way to collect her award, the room got an eyeful of Carvallo’s hot pink neoprene dress, which not only matched her signature pink locks, but included a garland of speakers playing an eerie version of “La Vie en Rose.” The song was a specially mixed version using the original by Edith Piaf and additional vocals by avant-garde darling Grace Jones. It was all Carvallo’s idea.
Some were surprised to learn that the speakers had not been an addition by Wolman, but were part of the actual dress. Cavallo says he created the concept for Art Basel in 2015, as an homage to the victims of the Paris attacks. His vision for a wearable piece of art was realized as the dress now serves as an art piece in Wolman’s home.
Exposure like this helps, because when Oscar Carvallo first opened his doors to his Design District atelier during Art Basel in December of 2015, many locals didn’t realize that the Venezuelan-born designer was actually a bona fide Haute Couture designer fresh from Paris.
The quality of his label sinks in with a trip to his two-story boutique where you can touch the dresses, see the seamstresses in the atelier and take in the plush presentation. The seamstresses, and their couture quality, came with him from Paris.
“All of these fabrics are made exclusively for us in Italy and France. Nobody else has these,” says Carvallo as he fingers the thick, jaw-droppingly beautiful brocade and silk fabrics. It’s a safe bet that nobody else will be wearing your dress either. “Here you have one piece, made for you. It’s very old- world, and women love that,” he says. The originality doesn’t come cheap, but with gowns running from $3,000 to $9,000, it’s still quite reasonable as couture goes.
It’s a premium that discerning clientele are willing to pay. “I want something that’s new and innovative and hasn’t been seen yet,” explains Wolman. “Oscar is very original. He’s not too trendy and is not replicative of anything out there. His pieces have a timeless quality.” For his part, Carvallo has been very impressed with the American couture-buying market. “Americans love couture. They love it! It’s another type of woman,” he says.
Indeed, the buyers in Miami are more like his original customers in Caracas, where he started his “Oscar Carvallo” label before moving to Italy 20 years ago. He stayed in Milan for four years perfecting his craft, before heading to Paris with a plan to conquer French couture. There, he worked hard to break into its rarified world and was eventually given an invitation to show at Paris’ Haute Couture shows in 2013.
“It certainly doesn’t happen right away. First, you have to adapt yourself to the country, you have to speak the language, you have to know the people, you have to learn the system and then, finally, you can go—if you’re good enough,” says Carvallo, who speaks letter-perfect French. “It takes years. You can’t just arrive and start to show couture.”
All the work made the acceptance all the sweeter. “It was a ‘wow’ moment for me, because I had been dreaming of it for years. That’s all I wanted to do,” he notes.
His Paris atelier attracted not only Parisian clients but also many from Spain, Russia and the Middle East. “It’s funny, on one hand French couture is by and for the French. It’s part of their culture and history, but there are not many occasions to wear it there,” says Carvallo. “French women tend to wear simple dresses and prefer to look more intellectual than sexy. It’s another way of thinking. Here, it’s completely different. People want to stand out.”
Because of this ethos, Carvallo scaled back his use of color. “At first, I was too colorful for them, so I got into a groove of doing mostly gray, white and black— the colors we use in Europe,” he says. “But here, people love color—fuchsia and red, so I’m doing much more and I’m so happy.”
After conquering the hearts and minds of Paris, and now Miami, Carvallo is intent on taking a new market by storm—New York City. The designer decided to begin showing there next year. Although he maintains an atelier in Paris, he will focus his energy stateside. “French Haute Couture is very, very small, and I’m ready to go bigger now. Plus, we’re in America so I think we should present in America,” explains the designer. “I’ll do a couture ready-to-wear show showcasing evening gowns and dresses.”
But New Yorkers will have to wait until next year, giving Miamians the jump on this exclusive label.