Cindy Castro, the founder, creative director and namesake of sustainable fashion brand Cindy Castro New York, didn’t feel gifted while growing up. “Gifted” was what people in her native Ecuador called a girl or young woman who had curves. She was very skinny, but with a talent for self-expression.
“Fashion was always my outlet for creativity,” Castro told Epicenter. “That’s where I felt confidence in myself.”
So she would fix things — even clothes her mother didn’t want her to fix. “I just bought you that and you just destroyed it,” she would tell Castro. But Castro couldn’t stand seeing a pleat or other fashion detail in the wrong spot.
This zeal for design led her to travel to the United States to finance her college studies as an au pair. Her parents couldn’t afford sending her to school here, so she saved up and worked and studied in Chicago. It helped that she had always loved languages and had taken English classes back home.
It took her a couple of years, but she eventually studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Before that, she had relied on her intuition and the skills she learned at Columbia College in Chicago, and in a yearlong embroidery course she had taken.
The values behind the Cindy Castro New York brand are activism, change and innovation: using sustainable materials, having fair work practices, and building community. Core to this is ensuring the fabrics her company uses are natural and biodegradable and made by ethical partners. Castro wanted her line to be an alternative to fast fashion and its often exploitative practices.
“That goes all the way back to the supply chain: making sure that the people at the cotton crops are being paid well, that they have safe working conditions, and that our packaging is biodegradable. ” Castro said. “We don’t want to contribute to overconsumption. We don’t want to contribute to our pieces staying in a landfill.”
This type of transparency is a major challenge in fashion design, Castro said. Many companies wanted big orders with few checks on their practices. Companies would look at her like she was out of her mind when she asked about a certain sustainability certification. She gleaned that most brands weren’t asking those questions.
Funding is another big obstacle, especially during the pandemic and as an entrepreneur making inroads by herself. It can be a “lonely path,” she said, as the first one in her family to migrate here and try to make it, especially in such a competitive market.
Her field lacks representation in more ways than one. She was one of the only Ecuadorian fashion designers she knew, and one of the few who didn’t come from generational money or have specialized knowledge in the field.
“Yesterday we had a [fashion design] panel, and all of them were like, ‘oh, my grandma taught me how to sew, or my mom or my aunt,’ “ Castro said. “And I’m like, ‘that wasn’t me.’”
But she sees beauty in her arduous journey borne out of love. She made the dean’s list and graduated with honors in a foreign country where she knew no one and had to learn the language — and in a field where she had to start from scratch.
She credits the hard work ethic she says is prevalent among Latinos and immigrants. But even with all her savings from working as an au pair, she couldn’t have gone to school without taking out loans — something family members who later migrated to the U.S. couldn’t wrap their heads around. Their stance was “education here is too expensive; just go work.” Back home, her own parents were appalled at how steep her student loans were. Ten years later, still paying off those loans, Castro maintains it’s worth it.
“It’s OK to invest in ourselves,” Castro said. “When I was working for somebody else, I didn’t have the same salary all the time, which is most of the Latinos that stay at their jobs. Because of my education, I was able to keep growing, to ask for more money, and there’s just a lot more opportunities.”
Leveraging the power of community is another way Castro invests in herself and others. During the first year of the company, in 2020, Cindy Castro New York was invited to be part of a fashion show for the first time — with Colombiamoda, one of the biggest fashion events in Latin America.
“It was because we were supporting women, fair pay, and [the cause behind] this fashion show was to eliminate violence against women in South America,” Castro said.
Having allies helps. Her company won a grant to be part of New York Fashion Week last month. It happened through a connection who had dropped her name to two major fashion producers. They loved the clothing and the sustainability behind her brand.
Castro looks to similarly lift up other immigrant women starting off in fashion, from her interns to the mostly immigrant workers in the sample rooms, where they cut and sew garments. It was there in the sample rooms — not in the offices of corporate fashion — that she ultimately found her community.
“There is where I found a lot of Latinos and where I felt that I had my space, because I could actually talk in my language and also be more warm,” she said. “And it didn’t matter [whether] they were Ecuadorian. It’s just the fact that they were immigrants like myself and we had something in common.”