Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merlin Castell - a Cinderella story By Matt Kailey

The darling of Bravo's The Fashion Show earlier this year and in demand by some of the hottest trendsetters in Hollywood and beyond, Merlin Castell is truly a rags-to-riches phenomenon who just keeps getting richer.

Born in Honduras and raised by a single mother who struggled to keep eight children in clothing, Castell now dresses the best in the business - the film business, the television business and the music business - as well as the ladies who lunch on Rodeo Drive and stay at the Beverly Wilshire.

How did a boy who played soccer without shoes to avoid ruining his one good pair become a man with a style all his own and a following that includes the likes of Paris Hilton, Carlos Santana and even Marilyn Manson?

"I don't have limits in my life," says Castell. "Always, since I was a kid, I had high expectations. ... And little by little, I'm getting everything. And I'm doing it myself, alone. ... I couldn't even speak English when I came to this country. And I learned English, and I had to break a market that was particularly impenetrable. It was very difficult. And thank you, God, that I can get the attention of the people by doing my little dance."

His "little dance" is designing some of the most fashionable haute couture on the fashion scene. And, even while growing up in Honduras - without electricity - he knew that it would happen one day.

"When I was a kid, I used to dream with all this - what is happening in my life," he says. "I used to tell all the other kids, 'One day, I'm gonna be famous.' ... And I used to tell all the other kids, when we would talk about what you want to be when you grow up, I used to say, 'I'm gonna be famous. I'm gonna be a star.' I didn't say I was going to be a designer, because I didn't know what a designer means, but I said, 'Everybody will know my name.' And they used to say, 'I don't think so. Your family's very poor, and you have to be rich to get what you want.' And I said, 'I don't think so. I'm gonna get what I want. Watch.' And they watch now."

Like his dreams, Castell's talent for design emerged at an early age.

"I've been designing my whole life," he says. "Shorts. I designed my shorts. But designing designing I actually started here in Los Angeles - seven years ago, eight years ago. And my big break, I think it has been The Fashion Show. I didn't know I was famous until [shortly after the show]. I was in Costco buying groceries with my roommate, and I see everybody's watching me and watching me and watching me, and they must know! ... And my roommate said, 'They're looking at you.' And then this lady came and she hugged me and said, 'I love you.' And it feels so weird! And I said, 'Ohhh, well, I love you too!' I didn't know this show was so big - big, big, big!"

The show was big, and Castell was so popular with audiences that Bravo asked him to appear on the show's finale as a fashion expert. But Castell had a following before The Fashion Show, and his newfound fame and bigger name as a result of the show brought a little bad along with a lot of good.

My customers are ... more socialite ladies," he says. "They are Bel Air ladies, ladies from Beverly Hills. They want to have something unique. They know they can buy whatever in the store. ... They can have everything. But sometimes they want to have something that's not mass production - what is only for them. They want to feel special. And that's why they come to me. They want to have something original. ... Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad. It's good because they pay me really well for what they get. And the bad way is that they want to keep it a secret. They don't want people to know where they got what they got, because they are collectors. ... And that's the only bad thing about it. But now, with the show, my name is out. What can I do? ... I lost like 25 customers after that show. They wanted to keep it a secret."

But Castell is no secret anymore, and with his unique sense of style, both for himself and his clientele, he's definitely hard to miss.

"I like to create new things," he says. "I like to create something fresh. Something that's gonna blow your mind. ... That's my style. I like to shock people when I show something. I like to surprise them."

And, he says, no matter how shocking or surprising something might be, there is no such thing as a mistake.

"Whatever you can wear and you feel comfortable with, I'm thinking you have to wear it," he says. "It doesn't matter what. Because there's no mistake in fashion. It's a statement. ... I believe you only live once. One time you die, there's no return. ... That's why you have to live it loud, the most you can. Every second of your life, you have to live it the most, the best you can. If you're gonna cry, cry until you're dry. If you're gonna laugh, laugh until you feel pain in your stomach. I enjoy every second of my life to the limit, and it doesn't matter what."

Castell's enjoyment of life is part of his charm, and no doubt one of the many reasons that clients and television audiences alike gravitate to both the designer and the designs. But with all his famous and elegant patrons, there is still one person he wants to design for.

"It's Nicole Kidman," he says. "Oh, I dream to dress the bitch. I dream to dress her. She's so elegant. She's my muse. ... Nicole Kidman is my dream, dream, dream celebrity I would like to dress one day. I don't care - whatever she wants to wear. I would do whatever for her."

And with Castell's success, independent thinking and positive attitude, it just might happen.

"A lot of people, they waste their time trying to please the market," he says. "I have no reason to please the market. Always there is a market for somebody. Each one of us, we are so individual, so different and so original, there's a niche for every one of us in this life. So when you commit yourself to who you are and what you do and what you are the best at, that's the moment when you start getting success in your life."

And that success has brought Castell a long way from his roots in Honduras.

"I live in West Hollywood," he says. "You see everything there. ... After that, you are ready to die, because you have see everything. I love it. I love my community. I have nothing in this life to regret. Nothing. If I want to say something, I say it. If I don't like something, I say it. If I'm happy with something, I scream it loud."

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