Fashion's Freshman Face

Like a lot of high-school boys, Esteban Cortazar keeps pictures of pretty girls in his notebook. But unlike most, the 18-year-old junior at Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High moons over Giselle and J. Lo because he dreams of dressing, not undressing, them. Custom Garment Making 4 is his favorite class, and today he shows his teacher, Ms. Pringle, Polaroid shots of his spring collection. She lays out the photos of the flowing electric-aqua and yellow silk designs before her and pronounces them beautiful. Might there be a seat for her at the show if she can get the day off? she asks. Cortazar is thrilled. He says he will take care of it.

This week Esteban Cortazar will unveil his collection at Fashion Week in New York, the youngest designer to debut there. Is he a great talent? It's hard to say, since no one but Ms. Pringle has yet seen more than 20 of his flirty, feminine pieces. Can he make it in the rough-and-tumble fashion world? Too soon to tell, but already the industry is salivating. The New York Times has heralded his arrival. And Saks sees much promise. "He was all giggly, and that was rubbing off on us. You wanted to dive into the rack," says Saks's Michael Fink of the sneak preview he got recently. As for Cortazar, he went down a red carpet at a party this summer and can't wait to do it again. "It's such a cool feeling because I've always loved attention. And I knew how to handle it because I like it. I love it."

Born in Bogota, Cortazar used to admire the fancy dresses his mother wore when she sang at jazz clubs. At 10, Cortazar moved in with his dad (his parents separated when he was a year old), a painter, who lived above News Cafe in South Beach, where Gianni Versace famously read his morning paper. "We were living in a very beautiful way," says his father, Valentino. "He would always bring me his friends for me to paint."

As South Beach came into its own in the early '90s, so did Cortazar. At 13 he started dressing windows at his local vintage-clothing store. That same year he did his first collection for the sixth-grade talent show. He trained three girlfriends how to walk--"Show me Naomi!" he'd command. Inspiration was right out his window. "I watched Claudia Schiffer being photographed by Patrick Demarchelier in front of my building. Just fabulous," says Cortazar.

He understood the necessary art of self-promotion at a young age, and introduced himself to Madonna, Versace and Todd Oldham, who took his young fan to Fashion Week in New York when he was 13. A year later Cortazar charmed Ferdinand Grandi, who would eventually agree to bankroll the designer based on about 20 colored-pencil sketches. When Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's was in Miami earlier this year, Cortazar took a model with him over to the trendmaker's room at the Delano for a private showing of the mini fall collection. Ruttenstein liked the feathered and ruffled gowns, which Cortazar describes as "Betty Boop in Sevilla," enough to put them in his New York City windows.

Though he's been preparing for years, Cortazar's now scrambling. No. 1 on his "to do" list is to get a pearl-stitch machine. No. 11 is "ask Alison for Algebra homework." "I can't believe it. I'm so excited! This is crazy. Wow wow wow wow." The fashionistas couldn't have said it better themselves.

Fashion's Freshman Face | News