VICTOR ALFARO REALIZED HE HAD HIT THE BIG TIME ONE morning last December. As the designer waited at the airport in his adopted home of New York City for a flight to his native Mexico, he suddenly found himself being given the VIP treatment, compliments of a starstruck flight attendant who had recognized him from a TV interview. "There were lines of people waiting to get on the flight," he says, "but they rushed me on—and gave me a first-class seat."
Such luxuries seem fitting, given Alfaro's lofty credentials. One of Seventh Avenue's brightest stars, he picked up a coveted best new talent award in January from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). And, at 30, he has attracted high-wattage clients like Demi Moore
, Nicole Kidman
and Mariah Carey
, who are drawn to his colorful come-hither creations such as shiny yellow satin pants and slinky pink slip dresses. "He knows what works for me," says Carey, who presented Alfaro with his CFDA statuette at the New York City ceremonies. "I usually hate wearing suits because they make me feel uptight, but Victor can cut one as elegant and sexy as an evening gown."
It's that flair for the feminine that has catapulted Alfaro into fashion's firmament as tastes shift from grunge back to glamor. Raved Women's Wear Daily: "Victor Alfaro is well on his way to raising sexy evening wear to the level of a religious experience."
Glamor has long been Alfaro's obsession. One of five children (his twin, Pablo, is a financial consultant in El Paso, Texas) of Hector Alfaro, a gastroenterologist, and his wife, Pilar, a homemaker, Victor grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, poring over fashion magazines. "It was the only training I had," he says. "I read about Halston, Calvin. I learned a lot going through the pictures and comparing what was good and what was bad."
Although as a teenager he longed to move to New York City, he had to settle instead for his family's twice-monthly shopping trips across the border to El Paso. There he would replenish his stash of magazines and sometimes splurge on clothes. "I once bought a pair of platform shoes and a patchwork shirt," he says. "People looked at me like, 'What the hell do you have on?' They didn't understand."
Moving to the U.S. after high school in 1981 as an exchange student to perfect his English, Alfaro was still far from the bright lights he craved. His first year was spent living with a Baptist minister and his family in Sweetwater, Texas. "All they wanted to do was go to church," he recalls. The next year he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin to study communications. "Since I was a doctor's son, a fashion career wasn't something I thought was possible," he says. "It was just a fantasy."
But, uninspired by his studies, Alfaro decided to try turning his fantasy into reality. The first hurdle was getting his parents' blessing—and help. He applied to New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology, which requires submission of a portfolio of original designs. "I had never sketched before," says Alfaro. "But my father is very visual. He showed me how to sketch a shirt, and I was like, 'How do you know how to do that? You know nothing about fashion!' "
Graduating from FIT in 1987 (designer Byron Lars was a classmate), Alfaro spent the next two-and-a-half years apprenticing with designer Mary Ann Restive Then, after helping menswear designer Joseph Abboud launch his women's line in 1990, Alfaro struck out on his own with an investment from a family friend. "The economy was bad, and everyone said, 'This is a bad time to do it,' " he remembers, "but it worked out perfectly." Within a year his designs were being peddled by Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf Goodman, and last year he rang up sales of $1.5 million. "He's an honest-to-goodness nice guy," says his pal, model Amber Valletta. "When people are that good inside, everything about them is good, including their work."
Too busy, he says, for romance, Alfaro works in a cramped studio and lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment, both in the West Village. "Every penny goes into the business," he says. "I don't have the desire to have a car. I only have my Rollerblades and a bicycle." Not that Alfaro is all work and no play. In December he was able to unwind in Hawaii for three blissful weeks. "There were no faxes, I didn't bring my portable phone, and my beeper was off," he says. It was his first vacation in more than a year, but Alfaro isn't complaining. "I remember one of my brothers saying to me, 'You have to think about your future. I don't know where all that fashion is going to get you.' Now," says Alfaro with a smile, "we know where it got me."
ALLISON LYNN in New York City