On Sunday September 15, at the City Museum of New York, Andres Biel walked down a newly erected runway, past the flashing lights of photographers and wild applause of recently converted fans. At the end, he reached for his trophy and his new title as Harlem Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer.
The following Monday morning he was back at his desk at Kopelovich & Feldsherova, a Brooklyn-based law firm where he works as a paralegal.
“This is going to be the last job I ever have in my lifetime,” says Biel from the sofa in the living room of his Brooklyn apartment. The room is divided in half, one side houses all the things you’d expect; a sofa, coffee table, and TV. The other half is devoted to his studio. There are garments on rolling racks, a table with two sewing machines, and a slew of multicolored thread. He also has two mannequins, both dressed in his latest designs.
“Sewing is not my hobby,” he says. “It’s my career.”
Biel took an unconventional path to fashion design, using classes at Mood Fabrics and YouTube videos to learn the craft and create his brand, IFlyUniverse. He represents a new kind of self-made designer; one that will stop at nothing to make a name in the seemingly impermeable industry.
The 31-year-old didn’t start sewing until he was 20. By then he’d already dropped out of high school. Back then, art and creativity were just hobbies he developed in his seventh-grade art class at Marta Valle High School in the Lower East Side of Manhattan–where he grew up. He didn’t think it was something he could use to build a career.
He started taking sewing lessons as a part of a young adult internship program at the Henry Street Settlement, a social services program in the Lower East Side. There, he learned how to sew his first original design.
Biel laughs as he recounts the memory. “It was this yellow African-printed tote bag, and it had a black lining inside. [My teacher] taught me how to make it from scratch, and I made it horribly,” he says.
After the class, Biel lost his way for a while. He worked in retail and at restaurants but never felt fulfilled. Then he met his partner, Jonathan Vargas, and everything changed.
“When we first met, he wasn’t really narrow sighted about what he wanted to do,” says Vargas. “He always had a passion for different things. I kind of just tried to direct him in the sense that you can learn things yourself and you don’t necessarily have to have people teach you in this day and age.”
Together, they made a plan. At night, Biel worked towards getting his GED. Once he achieved that, he could start working on accomplishing his real goals.
On the day his diploma finally arrived he couldn’t contain his emotions.
“The biggest burden was lifted off my shoulders that day,” he says. “When I checked the mail, I was like ‘Oh my god, it’s here!’ I saw it and I started crying. I felt like I could do anything.”
He started by taking every sewing class that Mood Fabrics had to offer, supplementing them with YouTube tutorials and constant practice. While taking the classes he used Instagram as a blog, sharing his latest creations and experiences. On one of his many scrolls through the platform’s endless feed, he discovered Harlem Fashion Week (HFW). He wasn’t sure how he’d get into the fashion show, but he made it his goal to figure it out.
He found out that HFW hosted workshops and classes throughout the year, and he went to every program they offered that spring and summer. By the end, he’d convinced them to show his designs.
Yvonne Jewnell, co-founder of HFW recalls that Biel stood out from the other designers because of his completely humble demeanor and the consistency of the collection he showed.
“Andy’s designs had a storyline. He made his collection based on his experiences. He was trying to evoke a narrative in the audience’s mind,” she says.
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Biel’s collection represented his life story by incorporating the colors white, silver, black, and red. They represented his birth and spirituality, the darkness that came with losing his direction, the experience of coming out, the reshaping of his heart, and finally finding his passion again.
Biel attributes the clarity of his collection to HFW.
“They helped me think about my brand. They helped me think about myself. In order to understand your brand, you have to understand who you are as a person.”
Since winning the trophy title as Harlem Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer, Biel has started planning for the future. Part of his prize was a shopping spree at Mood Fabrics and a brand consultation with SoHarlem, an incubator for small businesses in the fashion industry. He’s already started planning his spring/summer collection and hopes to show them at two upcoming fashion shows in LA and DC.
Biel says he wants IFlyUniverse to be a household name so that he can devote his life to it.
“This will be my everyday living breathing life,” he says.