Thirty-four year old fashion designer and small business owner Vanessa Arroyo remembers trips to flea markets in Chicago, and summer visits to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico with her family. While she doesn’t have her “anchor set in one place,” Arroyo has found inspiration from the different stages of her life. Her parents immigrated to Chicago and lived in multigenerational homes in both Pilsen and Palmer Square. Arroyo spent most of her upbringing in Logan Square with her grandparents and “ran throughout the entire city” as she had friends on the Southside and other neighborhoods.
After spending more than four years in the New York City fashion world as a footwear design assistant and product developer, Arroyo knew that she wanted to explore the role her Mexican heritage played in fashion. In 2023, she launched SERES, a socially responsible brand that supports ethical and sustainable labor practices. SERES is the Spanish word for beings—a word that Arroyo deliberately chose to highlight the collective and every participant that makes SERES footwear possible – from “from people and ancestors,” to “animals and nature
Customers can shop SERES online or in person or at local popups, which they announce on their social platforms.
“I love to see a lot of people like me taking up space in fashion,” said Arroyo. “I love seeing international designers putting their culture in the spotlight.”
According to Business Formation Statistics, Illinois entrepreneurs launched 198,827 new businesses in 2021, representing the highest number of new businesses on record. However, a report found that only 12.7 percent of the 1.2 million small businesses in Illinois are minority owned.
So, what does being a Chicana business-owner mean to Arroyo? South Side Weekly spoke with Arroyo about her pathway to SERES and how her Mexican American identity shapes each step she takes.
The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
SSW: What role did fashion play in your life?
Arroyo: Growing up as an only child, I learned how to always keep busy with my imagination. My parents were always into fashion and loved keeping me fly. I still wear my mother’s clothing because her wardrobe is banging. As a child, they would dress me up in a very masculine way—baggy pants, gold chains and Air Jordans. At one point I asked my mom to buy me a skirt for school because I wanted to dress like all the other girls. But then I absolutely hated it! I’ve always had a personal way of dressing which has evolved over time.
Describe your time in the fashion industry.
My dad used to tailor his own clothing, and he taught me how to sew [on a sewing machine] when I was a teenager. That’s when I really found myself through fashion. I took accelerated fashion college classes during high school. After studying fashion at Columbia College Chicago, I worked at vFish, a womenswear label that wholesaled at various retailers including Macy’s. I got to travel overseas and I was so excited about that. But I knew that I needed to grow somewhere else. I bought a one-way ticket to New York City in 2012. I worked for Rag & Bone, which is a high-end fashion label. Shoutout to Catherine Eberhardt for taking me under her wing! I was happy during this time—I thought I was living my dream as I worked Fashion Week, designing collections and doing product development. I looked up to everyone that I worked with. But after six years of living in NYC, I really wanted change. I wanted to learn more about footwear and maybe take classes. It was actually someone who I was working with that suggested that I go to México to learn more about the industry. In the back of my head, I had always wanted to move to México but it was never in my budget the times that I wanted to. So, I was like, this is my opportunity!
How did your time in Mexico influence your work?
I was in León Guanajuato, México from 2016 to 2020 seasonally, staying anywhere from one to three months at a time. But I fully relocated for two years, which was 2017 and 2018. I immersed myself in the footwear world. I took classes all around León but formally trained at Arsutoria and Ciatec schools. One of my friends ran a space called Z. Leather Workshop and I learned a lot there. My good friend Olga Olivares introduced me to shoemakers in Mexico City and I was able to take courses with them. Another friend, Nei Ermel, from NYC hooked me up with a few apprenticeships and applied for scholarships to get technical training on how to operate machinery. I was just staying busy. But behind all of that, there was something else happening—I was reconnecting with my roots. I had an epiphany. I was so happy to be in that type of setting.
Tell us more about SERES. How did you start it?
I think a lot of creatives, especially in the fashion industry, hope to one day have their own business. It was during the pandemic when I knew it was now or never—I was going through a lot personally during that time. What do I want to create and how can it best represent me? I wanted it to be a Mexican American brand, and the name would be in Spanish. I was listening to a lot of podcasts at the time and the word seres kept popping up. It means many things but one of the definitions is “beings,” which is a tagline of the brand. We want to put a spotlight on all the participants that are part of the brand.
I wanted to create something that wouldn’t harm the planet, something that was ethically made. We work with artisans in México and make small batches from sustainably sourced materials. Our mission is to create fashion-forward footwear in a sustainable, efficient way while also respecting all of the beings it took to create this product.
How was the overall process creating SERES?
I knew that I needed a lot of money to start my business, and I’ve always been financially responsible. As a first generation immigrant, you learn the hustle! I think it goes back to that survival mode that you’re taught at a very young age as immigrants. I did a lot of research about business relations and entrepreneurship. I connected with a lot of organizations in Chicago to learn more, like the Women’s Business Development Center. I also reached out to my contacts in México once I knew I had a viable product. After the lockdown, I went to México to meet with people and see how we could make SERES come to life.
How does spirituality tie into your work?
It begins with the land. SERES is a sustainable brand and we source all the materials locally. The land is a being. All of the natural resources are living, breathing things—beings. The whole process of making SERES was cathartic for me. I’ve always had this affinity to nature. I felt like the word SERES can be felt in the entire creation of the brand. There’s seres all around us. It’s the essence of being connected to the spiritual and physical world. It’s the ancestral ties. My business wouldn’t be anything without all of the beings that were involved in the process and inspiration.
What role does your Mexican American heritage play in your journey?
I’m a first generation Chicana. Both of my parents emigrated from México when they were children. My mom when she was just a baby and she’s from Ciudad Juarez. My dad, who was ten, is from Amealco. When I decided to move to México to learn more about footwear, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. I had visited México with my family during the summer when I was a kid, but it was different when I lived there. I started to dig more into my ancestral lineage and bother my grandparents with all of these questions. Why did you leave México? How did our family end up in Juarez and Amealco? Why did we come to the US? Without my time in México, I wouldn’t be where I am today with SERES.
What would you tell other people who are interested in starting their own business?
Don’t overthink things if you have an idea. If you think about it every day, then it’s for a reason. It’s a seed that’s been planted inside of you that needs to grow and express itself. One of the best feelings in life is having creative expression. It’s work that you enjoy so do what you need to do. Follow your intuition.
Sarah Luyengi earned her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. Some of her work has appeared in Borderless Magazine and Common Ground Review. She last reviewed Once I Was You for the Weekly.