By Iris Edén Santiago
Special to The Star
Since the 1980s, she has been doing exactly what she planned when she was a small girl cutting pieces of fabric to dress up her Barbie dolls.
By age 15, Sonia Rivera knew her calling. She had always wanted to become a fashion designer. While other girls her age dreamed about a quinceañera party or a luxurious vacation for their 15th birthday, Rivera had only one wish: a sewing machine.
And she got it. Her parents, who understood early on that there was no way out of her destiny, also enrolled her in sewing lessons with fashion designer extraordinaire and celebrated local personality Carlota Alfaro.
“That’s all I wanted,” says the Hato Rey native. “I remember every lesson…Carlota called me La Niña because every other woman in class was older, over 40 –I was very young, just turned 15. She (Carlota Alfaro) taught me everything! And also used me as a model to fit toiles, garments or show finished dresses in class. Those were exciting times.”
After graduating from high school she was quick to enroll in the Universidad Mundial, the only college to offer design classes back then, and where she learned the ropes of the trade.
“This is a complicated career,” said Rivera, who celebrates her 40th Anniversary as a fashion designer this year. “I live for the creative process, but it’s more than that, there is the administrative part of the business and other responsibilities.”
Rivera, who began participating in local fashion shows as guest designer upon graduation, is soft spoken, confident and inventive. Her strength is her creativity and solid sewing skills. With entrepreneur Rose Pérez, who hosted “La Kermés” fashion events, she won “Best in Class” in 1984. As part of Destellos de la Moda, she was also recognized on numerous occasions.
Her first solo show was in 1998 at El San Juan Hotel, when she designed 80 looks, “quite the experience.” Now most collections include 30 to 40 looks.
Asked about who influences her, Rivera doesn’t hesitate to confess her admiration for French fashion legend Thierry Mugler (1945-2022), known for his architectural, theatrical and hyper feminine approach to haute couture.
“I love his construction techniques, every garment under his name is brilliantly constructed…just perfect,” she noted. “I love his passion, his commitment. Also his futuristic approach.”
Rivera herself is known for her attention to detail and her love of perfection. The construction of her garments is always on point. Clients flock to her atelier for her power suits, her tailored jackets, shapely dresses and architectural night gowns. She is also proud of her draping, pleating and elaborate artisanal embroideries.
Rivera will stop at nothing to comply with a client’s every request. Case in point: The princess skirt of a bridal gown, some years ago. The skirt was completely embroidered in arquitectural ruffles that formed flowers in layers and layers of silk gazar. Single-handedly, Rivera formed and embroidered more than 800 flowers. She’ll never forget the dress as she ended up in the hospital with back spasms…”But the bridal gown was flawless, precious. And the bride was glowing. That’s all I work for, that smile.”
Her work ethics are unquestionable as is her commitment to clients. And the long hours don’t scare her. As an apprentice she used to stay up all night sewing dresses for her only sister Leticia and close friends, “Now I stay up all night too, working on ideas, new designs, sewing…it’s quiet at night, I can concentrate better, it inspires me.”
Rivera describes her style as modern and classic. She loves black, green and bright colors. But she shies away from imposing her vision on clients, unless asked to.
“I work with each client individually, pretty much like a doctor,” she noted. “We sit down and have a conversation about needs, wants, options, textiles and silhouettes. My job is to make each client’s wish come true.”
“The power to transfer ideas to paper and then fabric, and eventually fit a customer, is magical,” she said “There is no better feeling in the world.”
Talking about her career, which spans four decades, Sonia Rivera waxes nostalgic.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” she said. “But it has always been satisfying, inspiring, I wouldn’t be happy away from my sewing machine. This is the life.”
Sonia Rivera presents her new collection on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at The AC Hotel by Marriott in Condado as part of the San Juan Moda VIP Series.