By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times
Polished, poised, and dressed impeccably, Natasha Otero wears her former role as a model like second skin. Hers is a Cinderella story: she came from humble beginnings – a Brooklyn girl who made it to the top at New York’s Ford Modeling Agency.
Her portfolio includes TV, runway and print: At 19 she was hired to do a Dr. Pepper ad. She was also a cover girl for Pantene and Dove. For over a decade, Otero enjoyed the limelight.
Today, with her fashion-modeling career behind her, she is embracing Wilmington’s civic community and proving that she’s not just a pretty face – she is now a role model for local youth.
Otero is the executive director of Fashion in the Square (FITS), an organization she founded to promote the fashion industry in Wilmington and empower local youth by encouraging pursuit of the arts. The organization’s namesake, Rodney Square, is at the heart of the city’s revitalization efforts.
Within a year of making her first local mark – September’s fashion show during Fashion Week – Otero has an established board of directors and has filed for 501c3 nonprofit status. Along the way, she has reinvented herself as a passionate businesswoman with a philanthropist’s heart: Her most recent project, Fashion Night Out, a fundraiser held last month at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, sold out. The evening included industry hotshots who traveled from New York City, including Ford model Julie Griffith and Scott Nylund, Beyoncé’s creative designer for a decade. Nylund was the first recipient of FITS’s Humanitarian Award for his volunteer work with children in the Amazon. Main Line Talent provided the models for the fashion show, with attendees voting to send one model to walk in next September’s show in Rodney Square. Otero hopes to include Wilmington models and designers in September as well. While producing Fashion Night Out was largely a labor of love for Otero, sponsors included Wilmington’s Longshoreman’s Local 1694.
“They (seem like) the antithesis of fashion, with hardhats and overalls.
But they know what we can do for kids,” Otero said.
For those who dismiss high fashion as frivolity, consider the following: New York’s biannual fashion weeks (most recently held in February) bring an annual $887 million to the Big Apple, according to U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney. The nearly billion-dollar enterprise, raked in revenue greater than 2014’s NYC Marathon and the Super Bowl combined. Nationally, the fashion industry – from designers and manufacturers to retailers – is a billion-dollar plus giant.
“The apparel and footwear industry is a $361 billion industry in terms of retail sales. The industry employs four million direct U.S. workers, and hundreds more indirectly,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.
“Fashion brings all different elements (of the arts) together,” Otero said.
From the front-and-center producers and photographers to textile designers, makeup artists, and couturiers working the back of the house, the design industry is huge. In the marketplace, the trickle down effect impacts everyone from small clothing boutiques to large corporations that use screen printed T-shirts as a means of advertising. Intangibly, fashion weaves a visual statement that goes beyond one’s basic need to be clothed. Whether its from a socio-economic prospective or from a cultural one, fashion is evocative. Otero had her reactionary moment when she missed a Wilmington bus and had to walk home.
“I was seeing kids with bags over their boots. I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be a way to get these kids what they need,’” she said.
The observation became the tipping point, ending Otero’s midcareer crisis that had started nearly a decade earlier when she left the Big Apple. Her goal was not necessarily one of providing material goods, but, rather, to offer hope. She was on mission to show the city’s impoverished youth that the arts offered not just career opportunities, but also a positive means of self-expression.
Nylund couldn’t agree more.“It has been my art that has gotten me through it,” he said, referring to difficult times in his life.
Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams also gets the big picture.
“In order for our children to have the ability to compete in today’s global economy, we must nurture them academically while also broadening their horizons. Exposing Wilmington’s youth to fashion design and encouraging them to explore the creative process allows kids to gain firsthand experience in a nontraditional industry. It also creates the opportunity for our youth to express themselves,” he said via email.
For Otero, a high-profile model who had walked fashion runways around the globe, it was through that more personal walk in the streets of Wilmington that she found her calling.
“Every part of my life had come together for this goal,” she said.
“I moved here in 2006, bought a house, but still had a condo in Brooklyn. I bought it as a getaway of sorts from New York City life,” she said. The high-speed Acela train would whisk her back to Manhattan for occasional work. Life changes, including marriage, childbirth, and divorce turned her life, and lifestyle, upside down. Now, happily engaged and with two children, Otero looked back at those more desperate times.
“I went from an independent young woman to living in my mom’s spare room in Wilmington. At 31, I started over in a city where I could work, but I had to restructure my career all over. I went from making thousands a day to not making that in a month. I had hit rock bottom,” she said.
Otero’s Manhattan modeling friends urged her to stop complaining and do something, she said. The idea of bringing the fashion industry to Wilmington began to slowly percolate. She was already working in a related field as a hair stylist at Cielo Salon and Spa in Wilmington, and as a part-time assistant at Downtown Visions — an organization that would prove fruitful in both planting a seed in a roundabout way and in lending support for her nonprofit endeavor. The seed came from Wayne Collins, a member of the organization’s cleaning division, and one of Otero’s first believers. He urged her to call Gail Stallings Minor. Days later, realizing she had yet to reach out, he told her to pick up the phone then and there and make the call. A dedicated believer in community service and a communications professional, Minor had worked alongside homeless prevention advocates in Washington, D.C., and had deep civic roots in Delaware. She now sits on the FITS board.
In many ways Otero’s nonprofit is at the frontend of a trend, both demographically and culturally. Marty Hageman, the executive director of Downtown Visions, sees the venture as one that dovetails nicely with summer activities in Rodney Square.
“This was a good fit for us, because we sponsor, along with The Grand and the city of Wilmington, Summer in the Square. By pooling our resources, we can promote Rodney Square five times a week, May through October,” he said, “We’re always looking for something different, unusual, and that has a following. … This has come a long way from Natasha – from an idea to something that’s really growing.”
While the square blossoms in the warmer months by offering nearby corporate employees and locals with activities like the farmer’s market, an outdoor café, and live music, Hageman is also aware that many people may work in the city, but don’t live there. That demographic, however, is about to change. Construction is underway on several apartment complexes in downtown Wilmington. The Buccini/Pollin Group projects will add several hundred rentals to the area. The residential growth, said Hageman, will require additional retail, hence, adding to the variety of downtown merchants, and will draw young professionals with an eye (and need) for fashion. Jerry’s Artarama manager Dave Bart hopes Otero’s initiative will also increase retail opportunities for suppliers. He points out that the city once had three art supply stores, now his is the only gig in town.
From a cultural perspective, Hageman sees FITS as a positive addition. “The downtown is already known as a cultural and arts destination in the state. This certainly makes available another type of art not occurring in the state of Delaware,” he said.
“Fashion in the Square touches a unique space and fills a void amongst the many youth empowerment initiatives. … It brings new energy to Wilmington’s cultural and social scene,” Williams added.
What’s on tap next for Otero? FITS will have a presence at May’s Point-to-Point event at Winterthur, and already Otero has begun planning for the September show. She said she plans to contact summer camps with hopes of encouraging young people to create fashion designs that can be sold at the event. And, she’s working hard at validating an industry that can offer so much. “I’m creating a culture that doesn’t exist. I have to start somewhere.”
For more information about FITS, visit www.fashioninthesquare.org. Otero is open to student interns, yet another avenue for showing the city’s youth that its voice and creativity is not only welcomed, but necessary. ♦