Photo Courtesy Of Noël Alvarez
Garbage, is the last thing you think of when you see the bridal gowns designed by Noël Powers Alvarez . Her latest collection is composed of elegant and intricately constructed off white colored dresses, made of, organza, silk satin, and laces imported from Europe. Therefore when she tells you, “I’m as close to white trash as it gets,” you are taken aback.
Alvarez is causally clad wearing an outfit that matches her brown hair. Her petite toned frame, displays a pair of beige capris paired with a knitted shirt. It is of a dark color purple, which if you closed your eyes could easily transform into a deep shade of brown. Its neckline is jeweled. The sandals on her feet are of faux snakeskin. She is standing by the food display counter in a small juice bar in Forest Hills. Her eyes are skimming through the selection of pastries. She is indecisive on what to order, contemplating whether a proper meal would serve better as she had skipped out on her breakfast. She finds out that they also offer sandwiches, but eventually settles on a piece of pound cake and iced tea. She then scans the restaurant in search of a vacant seat.
“I brought them…I thought; ‘what if she asked?’… She might want to see them…” said Alvarez while reaching for her bag. She pulls out a sheet of paper and places it on the table.
The sheet of paper is actually two sheets of ruled white paper, attached together with scotch tape. It contains sketches of her upcoming collection, along with alterations she plans on making on a couple of dresses in her last one. “I am a perfectionist and it bothers me that I had to use an unbeaded lace when the design called for a beaded lace, or charmeuse, when the design called for chiffon. I also couldn’t find just the right Guipure lace for ‘Danielle’. So I went with a crinkle pleat polyester.” She felt that it looked great for the photo shoot of the collection, but she would never have put a bride in it.
Each gown has a name: One is called after one of Angelina Jolie’s children. “The moment I heard “Vivienne”, I pictured a romantic off the shoulder wedding gown wrapped in silk taffeta and beaded laced appliques. I envisioned Angelina, with her perfect skin and long thick hair braided loosely to the side. I think I was more inspired by the name, in that it set off an image of the dress – like word association.”
The image of the dress is skillfully reproduced in blue ink: detailed to the point where it could be lifted from the page, and worn. You then realize how dissimilar Alvarez is from the designers who flash you images from their latest collections on TIFF and JPEG file formats. The designers who meet up with you in fancy hotels. And who - switching between English, Swedish, Danish and French lingo, tell you that their inspiration is from time spent vacationing in the southern part of France, while flicking through their portfolios based on the Marangoni fashion drawing technique.
Her story is different.
Alvarez was born in December, near Christmas. So her mom decided to name her Noël. “I always hated name, because people always pronounced it wrong, or called me ‘Nicole’, Holly’ or even ‘Carol’ – seriously!” she said. She has since embraced it, and now finds humor in her circumstance as an Irish-Italian, with a French first name and Cuban last name.
Alvarez grew up with her single mother in the projects of Boston, right on the Mystic River. If you run a google search for “49 Light Guard Drive Medford, Massachusetts”, you can see her house. Her old neighborhood does not fall short of some the images seen in a Clinton Eastwood’s award winning movie bearing the same name of her geographic location. Others, who have had the experience of growing up in similar crime infested, government financed, low-income housing areas, will tell you that it is not an ideal environment to grow up in . But, Alvarez mostly has fond memories of her childhood; “We were really like a big family… A tight knit group of friends all with our own baggage, I suppose.”: Because she focuses on remembering only the good times, and tries to bury the bad times; as it is painful for her to relieve them. The remembrances are part of the reason why she always wanted to escape the projects to someday live in - what she calls “a real house”. Therefore in 1982, at age 17, she enlisted with the army.
“I did it for the free in-state tuition while I attended UMASS Amherst,” she said, “I was enlisted for six years.” Then she went on to attend medical school in Texas. “When I returned to my Guard Unit in Boston, I would spend one weekend a month as a ‘medic’, usually on the firing range,” she said, “My partner and I would basically sit in the Army ambulance at the range and hope and pray that we would never have to transport anyone to the hospital”. She was later transferred to an infantry Unit in Chicopee. Even though Alvarez describes her time in the army as one of the best experiences of her life; “My heart is always with the armed forces.” - it was still a long way from the dream she had had for herself as an infant.
As a child, Alvarez always dreamt of becoming a fashion designer. She would sit in her room and draw pictures of beautiful dresses. That was as far as it went, with her fantasy. The closest access she had to the world of haute couture growing up in northern Boston was her grandmother’s thick “W” magazine. She wanted to study fashion. But, the only school she knew that offered courses in fashion design at the time was The Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It was out of her range. However in 1993, she enrolled at the School of Fashion design in Boston. She had actually started taking classes at the school shortly after graduating from UMass Amherst in 1987, on the urgings of her grandmother. But for some reason, as she puts it, she only attended a semester, or two, of night classes.
“After I got married and had my first son in 1993 – just weeks after my grandmother died, I was walking in my bedroom when I tripped over some papers sticking out from under my bed. They were all of my old sketch books from the School of Fashion Design six years earlier.” Alvarez is convinced that it was her grandmother telling her to haul her ass back to school.
Alvarez enjoyed every moment of her time spent at the fashion school in Boston. She loved the people, especially the teachers. “Dan Faucher was my favorite. He is the most talented person I have ever met. He is like the Jerry Seinfeld of designing. You would show him your sketch and he would suggest moving a seam or pairing two fabrics that you would have never considered” said Alvarez. Her favorite moments are from her draping with Dan classes, and the general atmosphere of the environment; “The classes at SDF were a very informal setting –kind of like art class – you spend a lot of time sitting with your classmates sketching and doing your own thing, and you tend to talk and get to know each other very well…We were a pretty odd bunch – odd in a good way.” said Alvarez. Her classmates came from all over the world. She still misses them a great deal.
After two years of studying French draping, Cocktail and Eveningwear, fashion sketching, flat pattern design and construction; Alvarez completed the Junior Certificate Program: 15 years later she would set up her first website.
At age 46, Alvarez has finally taking the steps of fulfilling the fantasy the baggage of the projects had come close to erasing. Between juggling a job as a zoologist she has completed her first collection of bridal gowns. They retail for $3000 per dress and are visual in cyberspace. “I would consider myself a failure if I do not reach my goal of opening an atelier with my dress designs. I have worked too hard at everything but am terrified of failing.” That is one of her fears. The other is when she gets asked what inspires her. “It’s the question I am most frightened of. Some people talk about the ripples of the waves in the ocean or the contrast of shadows in the city or some other bull. Maybe I’m not that clever to articulate some fantasy world setting that inspires me to draw.” she said. She usually just parks herself on her lawn chair in her backyard, while overseeing her children play. Then inspiration pops up to her in the form of smattering feminine ruffles balanced on a plunging back, which she then fine tunes in her note book.
Noël Powers Alvarez, grew up in an environment where people are at times prone to repeat the cycles of those before them. A girl on Alvarez’ block got pregnant at age 16 and ended up living I the same project she grew up in. Alvarez was motivated by knowing she could do better, at any stage in her life. That is why she decided to ditch the opportunity of medical school, 25 years ago, in the quest of finding out whether becoming a fashion designer was her true calling or not. She has a positive outlook. But, her husband jestingly thinks that she has a negative approach to life because she is always worrying when and how everything will get done. “I’m completely impatient and impulsive – type A personality for sure, that I have learned to reel myself in and try to enjoy the present. My three boys are my priority. I just love watching them grow and spending time with them. You do everything for the kids” said Alvarez. Her love is reciprocated; one of her boys recently helped her set up a Facebook account page to enable her network better. Because, this kid in particular, knows and understands how badly his mother wants her dress shop.