The “green” recycling trend amuses Eleonor Leon.
For her, finding new uses for castoff things has always been a way of life — out of necessity.
“That whole recycling thing, Mexicans have been doing that forever,” says Leon, 44, a local clothing designer and artist who recently opened a downtown store. “You had to. I just grew up that way. We didn’t have a lot of money. We used everything.”
Her store — La Fashionista, 45 S. Sixth Ave. — is a testament to her love of vintage and her unwillingness to chuck things into the trash. She rescued a still oil-slicked cash register from Grill, mannequin heads from Wig-O-Rama, even broken fragments of the Greasy Tony’s sign.
Recycled materials show up in her fashion designs, too.
Leon’s transformed measuring tapes into corsets and tortoise-colored guitar picks into jewelry, so of course she plans to use unconventional materials (tape from old eight-tracks) in her designs for Tucson Fashion Week, which kicks off Thursday. See related story.
“She’s an organic artist-designer,” says Paula Taylor, one of the creative directors of Tucson Fashion Week who has known Leon for years. “Her work is wonderful. She builds these one-of-a-kind art pieces.”
Leon is one of several local designers presenting outfits for the three-day event that highlights emerging, local talent alongside fashion heavy-hitters like Betsey Johnson and Bert Keeter.
“You never know what door could open,” Leon says.
These days, the door she’s most concerned about is the one nestled between Black Rose Tattooers and Revolutio boutique on South Sixth Avenue near Broadway.
Opening a store in these challenging economic times was — is — a risk. And for the single mother of two teenage boys, a pretty substantial one. It meant doubling everything: rent, water and electric bills, while on a very fixed income.
But Leon says: “I’ve always wanted to do this. If you believe in your dream enough, what’s going to stop you? Only you.”
The firstborn of a blended family of seven kids and the first to go to college, Leon grew up around downtown and on the south side. Her stay-at-home mom sewed, wore glamorous clothes and shoes, and dressed her young daughter like a doll, but it was a childhood bicycle accident that really turned Leon onto fashion.
While pedaling around on her Schwinn one day, she slammed into a brick wall. The impact knocked her out and smashed her nose to the point that she’s needed multiple surgeries.
“I looked like a boxer,” she says.
After the accident, Leon began to pay close attention to how she looked, which side of her face was her better one. How she dressed became her camouflage.
“I think I used clothing as a second skin,” says Leon, who describes herself as an ’80s girl who’d love to have a cover band that plays the era’s tunes and, of course, dresses in costume. “Fashion is what motivates and moves me.”
Leon had a good job teaching several courses at the Art Institute of Tucson, and she handed many of her paychecks directly over to Rose Petal Bridal Fashions as it was slowly going out of business. The longtime bridal boutique closed two years ago, but before it did, Leon snapped up mannequins and fixtures, like a crystal chandelier, knowing that someday they’d decorate her store.
While she accumulated vintage clothing, lamps and cigarette holders and stuffed them into her Menlo Park home, Leon tried to secure business loans for her fantasy shop. She struck out. When her ex-husband died and left her money, she used it to turn La Fashionista into reality.
In January, she started sprucing up the South Sixth Avenue space, adding splashes of pink and chartreuse and lights salvaged from the Red Room at Grill. By July, she was open for business.
Leon has an office in the back, with a Juki industrial sewing machine, from Rose Petal, but she prefers to spread her designs across the pink counter out front, working in between customers.
She’s set up vignettes throughout the store, encouraging customers to view it as a gallery.
“I want to create a place that’s a refuge,” Leon says. “If you come in for five minutes, I want to remind them of a different time.”
Though Leon is surrounded by fixtures from businesses that didn’t make it, she’s determined to buck the trend.
“I don’t want to be another storefront that closes. I’m doing everything I can,” says Leon, who substitute teaches on the side to keep the store afloat.
After all, she’s waited a long time for this.
“I’m thrilled every morning that I get to dress up and go to my place.”