Project Runway now has its own spin off with the show Project Accessory on Lifetime Television. Chicago’s Diego Rocha was just voted off but appears in the finale this week. This award winning handbag designer brings his Brazilian style to the table creating items that can enhance any outfit. We talked to Rocha about how he makes his life work with a purse.
Jerry Nunn: Oi, Diego. You are from Brazil…
Diego Rocha: I am, originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
JN: Then you moved to New York.
DR: I moved to New York in 2002 then I moved to Chicago in 2005. I have been here for a while actually.
JN: So how do you like Chicago?
DR: I love Chicago. It is such a great city. The people are amazing but I hate the weather very much. Like everybody else right? But I have a great clientele here so I am staying.
JN: You have your own storefront?
DR: Yes, it is in the gold coast. I am next door to Morton’s Steakhouse.
JN: You originally did finance work correct?
DR: My first job was at 14 years old back in Brazil. I got this job in Sao Paulo and worked for a company for 11 years. I was managing the entire company in financing. It was fun but after 11 years of doing the same thing it was time for a change. I had family living here in the states. I decided to take off for a year and see something else. I wanted to study English and go back but I fell in love with designing and creating stuff. That was the beginning and out of the blue.
JN: You taught yourself?
DR: I am self-taught like how to sew and make patterns. My mom used to be a pattern maker. She worked for great designers in Sao Paulo. I have never been into dresses or clothing. It is too complicated and delicate. A bag is completely different. You deal with tools and it is very hard to make. Creating the entire structure of a handbag is pretty intense. This past Friday I asked my assistant to sew a crocodile bag but it was so hard because the skin is so dry. It took like five hours!
JN: So you are working with all kinds of materials, metal, leather…
DR: I specialize in exotics, pythons, ostrich, alligator, all kinds of crocodiles and lizards. It is very luxurious but you have to understand those skins to work with them. I used to work with leather when I started out but when I opened my shop in the gold coast the ladies started asking for exotics.
JN: What kind of price range are we talking here?
DR: I have a clutch made of python that starts at $680. The most expensive is small bag in American alligator is $3,800. The average price is $2,200. These ladies can afford it, trust me!
JN: Do you make accessories for men?
DR: I used to do some cuffs but this year I came up with a bangles idea. We got so busy with the bangles that we don’t have anything for the guys in the store right now. They ask for briefcases but I don’t know when that will happen. With ladies they need two bags per season so it keeps me very busy.
JN: What led you to be on Project Accessory?
DR: I was in New York and receiving the award for Independent Handbag Designer of 2011. I heard about the audition and wasn’t sure about it. I can be shy but decided to meet the producers and see if it would be fun. I went there and that is how the process started. I was amazed when I was picked. It was long process.
JN: I am sure they wanted to make sure it was done right after the success of Project Runway.
DR: I was concerned if they were going to have students or more established people on the show. What if the other designers are in their ‘20s? I was 36 years old and didn’t want to deal with that. I was glad that most of the people were my age!
JN: It looks like it is fun to be on the show.
DR: It is very fun but hard sometimes to be there. It is a lot of pressure on you 24 hours. You completely forget everything, family, business, dogs, whatever you have. You are just there and want to do the best. That is hard part. You get emotional or frustrated but at the same time it is such an amazing experience.
JN: It was filmed in New York?
DR: Yes, in the summertime in August.
JN: Were you away from a partner all that time?
DR: I have no time in my life right now for anyone. All I do is work, work, work. I can’t wait for my vacation to go home and relax.
JN: You went to Big Chicks last Saturday.
DR: Yes, Mondo Guerra from Project Runway was there. It was really fun.
JN: You both should team up and do something.
DR: I know. Project Runway and Project Accessory are kind of like a club. The interesting part about the show is people start to recognize you. It is weird in a way. Last week’s episode was very intense.
JN: Have you had a favorite moment from the show?
DR: I think winning the handbag challenge was the best. It was my moment. I made it to the fourth challenge. So that was good for me. I didn’t want anyone to beat me on the handbag challenge.
JN: It is your specialty. I was surprised that the hat maker on the show didn’t make a hat from scratch.
DR: It is a lot of pressure on everybody. I make handbags. On the handbag challenge if I didn’t make a bag that would be bad so I think he really spoiled his moment. In the workroom you get the pressure of everybody expecting you to do what you do. You have to do the best you can.
JN: So people can keep up with your projects on http://www.diegorocha.com?
DR: Yes absolutely, and Facebook, Twitter. I feel very proud of myself for accomplishing all of this in less than 12 years. I have big plans for 2012!