“Project Accessory” features two local designers

By Sophia Coleman

Chicago is about to get accessorized with the help of two local designers who landed spots on “Project Accessory,” a spinoff of the hit show “Project Runway.”

Diego Rocha, internationally known for his exotic handbags, and James Sommerfeldt, a senior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who handcrafts fanciful footwear, will be featured on the show that premiered on Oct. 27.

According to a press release from Lifetime, “Project Accessory” will run for eight weeks and showcase 12 designers who will compete and create their unique accessory visions and demonstrate to viewers how the right “accoutrement” can transform any outfit.

Karin Advani, fashion programming director at the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, nominated Rocha to be on the show in May 2011. She said she was pleased to hear that Lifetime selected two Chicago designers of completely different backgrounds.

Advani hopes this exposure will show burgeoning fashion students in Chicago that accessories are a profound art form and that there is immense skill involved in

creating them.

“Out of the 400 designers in Chicago, half of them are accessory designers,” Advani said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry and [‘Project Accessory’] will bring more attention to the talented accessory designers here.”

Rocha, 37, wasn’t always a Chicago designer. Back in his hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil, he worked in finance before he realized the passion he had for creating handbags.

“After 11 years, I got a little tired,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?’”

At the time, Rocha’s sister was living in New York, so he took it as an opportunity to head to the States, learn English and follow his dream. He went to NYC, where he began his true calling of designing luxury handbags.

Rocha’s mother was a talented pattern maker in Brazil, so it was only natural for him to follow in the same field. Though he was not interested in designing apparel, Rocha was fascinated with the way his mother could create a masterpiece through manipulating simple materials.

At the age of 28, Rocha began noticing the intricacy of women’s handbags while going to school to learn English in New York. He was not content with hitting the books day and night.

“I saw how much women cared about handbags,” Rocha said. “It’s a piece of art. Some people think ‘Oh, it’s just a bag’—but it’s not.”

Rocha pursued his love for handbags completely on his own. He took no classes or advice from any local designers. He had the picture of the ideal handbag in his head and he absolutely had to create it.

Determined, he confined himself in his apartment for six months, learning how to create leather handbags through trial and error.

Rocha admitted that for years he made many mistakes and threw out many tools and materials that were damaged beyond saving. But he knew he had artistic blood coursing through his veins, so it was only a matter of learning the construction.

“I knew my style,” Rocha said. “I knew what it took to make a well-made handbag—I saw how women carried them [and] I knew what they wanted.”

Rocha took his passion to Chicago in 2005 and set up a studio in the River North district. He put his career in motion through appointment-only sessions with clients.

In October 2010, he opened up a store, Diego Rocha, 1050 N. State St., where he continued making custom handbags, but also designed collections that customers could purchase off the shelf. The clutches start at $640, and the handbags at $1,840.

According to Rocha, the experience he offers while creating custom bags is unique to the city. When a customer makes an appointment, she is treated to a session that can best be described as “handbag therapy.”

“I ask what her lifestyle is like, what skins she wants—and she picks from a variety of colors and styles,” Rocha said.

He carries a variety of exotic skins and furs, from python and crocodile to ostrich and gazelle, which come in more than 200 colors.

Georgette Mitrovic, a six-year client of Rocha’s, first saw his designs during a fashion show at Millennium Park. She said she’s been in love ever since.

“I do own Dior, Gucci and Prada—but 95 percent of the time, I’m choosing to wear Diego’s designs,” Mitrovic said. “His handbags are exquisite and he treats every client as an individual.”

Sommerfeldt, 29, also uses an exotic aesthetic in his designs but comes from a very different background.

Originally from Des Plaines, Ill., Sommerfeldt came to Chicago in 2005 to go to the School of the Art Insitute where he took classes in fashion design with a focus on footwear.

His love for fashion started as a child, when he created custom furniture with his father—who was a design engineer—in their basement, which was equipped with a complete workshop.

The furniture was primarily for his mother, who had a precise idea of what she wanted her home to look like. Sommerfeldt and his father would take furniture from stores like Ethan Allen and add personal touches to fit his mother’s taste.

“Ever since I was young, I had an affinity for shoes,” Sommerfeldt said. “I had never thought of making shoes by hand, but when I realized that this was something I could pursue, I saw its potential.”

He came with his own design aesthetic at SAIC and learned the concrete steps of footwear design with his instructor, Eric Geer Wilcox. He continued his education with internationally acclaimed fiber-artist, Nick Cave,in 2008.

“[Cave] taught me to trust myself and try new materials,” Sommerfeldt said. “He told me to look at my work from every angle and trust my intuition.”

During this time, Sommerfeldt also became aware of the global impact of creating fashion. He realized that he had to be conscious of how he used his materials and figured out ways to conserve while creating footwear. He saw designers constantly throwing away valuable things that could have been repurposed.

“As an artist, we have the option of buying something new, but when you can find something as equally interesting—be it vintage or thrifted—that is more important,” Sommerfeldt said. “I prefer to breathe life into something old and give it new life.”

Not only did he have a knack for handcrafted footwear, he also immersed himself in the arts through other media like painting

and photography.

His whimsical shoe designs are based on his innate creativity and infatuation with Walt Disney sketches—Cinderella, in particular.

When creating a custom shoe for a client, Sommerfeldt said he lets the materials speak for themselves. He also gathers inspiration from Chicago architecture, the movements in dance and music.

“Music is one of my greatest sources of inspiration,” Sommerfeldt said. “It is a universal language, and to me it is congruent with fashion. We use these languages to convey our emotions, to connect with others, to communicate our individuality and desires.”

Because his footwear is handcrafted and made from exotic materials, such as shearling and African cane wood, Sommerfeldt’s pumps start at $1,100 and boots at $1,400.

Sommerfeldt found out about “Project Accessory” while working on a photoshoot with SAIC graduate Alexis Mondragon and his partner of two years, Matt Labuguen.

Labuguen, a Columbia graduate, could attest to his boyfriend’s extreme work ethic, as he recalled countless nights when Sommerfeldt would put off sleep in favor of constructing shoes.

“I remember asking him, ‘Do you want to do this [for] the rest of your life?’” Labuguen said. “And without hesitation he said, ‘Yes.’”