But the young designer scampered over obstacles to launch her own line of elegant purses, which have been carried by actress Kate Baldwin, NY1 anchor Roma Torre and “30 Rock” producer Kay Cannon, among others.
Unlike many aspiring designers who dream of creating dresses, it was always about accessories for the jet-haired beauty. You might even say she was obsessed:
“I would organize all my accessories by color and category,” Zapata confesses. “Belts were divided into black, white, silver, all my browns, my colorful ones. With purses I had my clutches, my casual everyday, my shoulder bags, beach bags. And my shoes were all in clear plastic containers by pumps, wedges, sandals, boots, flats.”
But with her mother, Grecia, toiling as a cleaning lady and her stepfather fixing cars, there wasn’t a lot of extra money in the family of five to indulge her obsession.
Ultimately, that was a good thing, because it spurred Zapata’s creativity.
“I always loved that classic look, Hermès and Valentino — stuff I would see in magazines and store windows but could never afford,” says Zapata. “So I would buy jewelry at thrift shops in SoHo and sewing notions in the Garment District, and I’d put it all onto bags.”
For her first purse, Zapata confiscated her sister Karina’s makeup box.
“It was pink, with a mirror inside,” Zapata recalls, “and I wrapped it in this cool paisley-print fabric and made a handle out of an old bead-and-stone necklace. Then I lined it with red faux fur, so that when you opened it — poof! — all that red popped out at you.”
But Zapata’s life changed as she was about to enter middle school. Her mother made the radical decision to move the family back to her homeland, the Dominican Republic, and her reason says something about the state of New York City schools then.
“She was afraid of the junior high in our neighborhood,” Zapata says. “It was a really bad school, and we heard it was violent.”
In Santo Domingo, Zapata was able to observe socialites as they shopped, dined and partied.
Still, after four years, she wanted to come back to New York, and her mother relented.
When she applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream school, professors liked her portfolio, but she was rejected.
“My grades were too low,” she says.
Undaunted, Zapata says she told her sister and brother, Junior, “I’m not gonna give up, and don’t you ever give up either.”
She attended Borough of Manhattan Community College for two years, getting her grade point average up. She interned for designer Nanette Lepore.
“At Nanette, I learned a lot of designing, production, where to get materials, how to get ready for fashion shows. From Nanette I learned you can make anything and always give it that feminine touch. Even a very tailored jacket you can make delicate and soft. Her color palettes are amaaaaazing. And she still manufactures in the Garment District!”
Almost immediately, she got a job working for legendary Nine West founder Vince Camuto, who now produces the Dillard’s and Jessica Simpson lines. Zapata designed shoes and traveled to Brazil to oversee their production.
“What’s great is that you work very closely with Vince. He is hands-on with everything. I learned a lot.”
But what she learned most, she says, was: “I can do this.”
Zapata had grown up around her stepfather’s business, Bienvenido Electrics on W. 172nd St. “But still, I second-guessed myself. I thought, I know I have passion and drive. But how am I going to go about it? Yes, I have a dream, but is it realistic?”
Apparently, it is.
A year ago, she launched Mariela Designs, which has already won a following of women who delight in her exquisitely beaded evening bags, like the gold mesh pouch, braided baguette, and silver-icicled soft caviar-leather clutch. (See more at Marielazapatadesigns.com.)
Fourteen seamstresses sew the details in a city factory. That makes them pricey, but Zapata, who now lives in Williamsburg, is working on a more affordable line.
What would she say to other neighborhood girls with a dream? “Learn from your experiences, good and bad, and keep going,” says Zapata. “Put your mind to it. Things will start turning out your way.”
BY JOANNA MOLLOY