Ada Nieves: Pet Fashion Trailblazer
Ada Nieves loves doing things differently. So when her husband Edgar, who was leaving for a 2005 tour of duty in Iraq, bought her a new Chihuahua puppy to dote on in his absence, she did just that, turning her doggy love into a fashion phenomenon. From puppy shower to pet fashion trailblazer; Ada Nieves’ story starts here.
Since 2006, Ada has been the pet fashion designer, event co-chair (with Gregg Oehler) and creative director of the New York Pet Fashion Show (NYPFS). Her creative curiosity has led her to explore new ways of approaching pet fashion, and the resulting innovative designs have elevated the event to a must-see for dog fashion enthusiasts and industry aficionados. This year for its 10th anniversary, Ada outdid herself. Under an umbrella theme of “Royal Fashion,” with an emphasis on the Marie Antoinette era, Nieves designed creations that pushed the boundaries of what’s currently being done. Her “Lumiere” piece, which was included in the Age of Enlightenment runway show that evening, featured a computer-controlled system of LED lights going off individually in a sequence that took Ada and a technical team 6 months to complete. 3-D printing was another area that piqued her curiosity, so she went to a store and started learning about it. The result was another innovative piece: the collar and red snowflake design on her pup, Mojito’s, harness outfit on the NYPFS runway, were created with a 3-D printer that was, then, incorporated into the design.
But to understand just how significant Nieves’ role in the pet fashion world has been, you have to look at how she started, and how her signature curiosity led her down the path of pets.
Shortly after her Chihuahua, Vanilla, arrived back in ’05, Ada decided to throw her a puppy shower. Her friend owned a dog boutique, the perfect location for the event. Ada is passionate about cooking and baking, having been a children’s party planner for years, so she set about making a special dog cake and treats. At that time, she didn’t know a lot of people in the dog world, yet 60 Chihuahuas arrived to party. Photographers covered the event; making doggy cakes and treats back then was very uncommon. Photos from the event circulated and, before long, Vanilla was invited to do a photo shoot for a new magazine called New York Dog. Coming from a line of tailors and seamstresses back in her native Puerto Rico, Ada learned how to make clothing, so she created something special for Vanilla to wear (it was a photo shoot, after all). It was a fateful invitation, because at the shoot, she met the magazine’s publisher/editor, Gregg Oehler. Vanilla ended up on the cover of the premiere issue and Ada and Gregg got on like a house on fire. Shortly thereafter, they were asked by a customer to create a dog fashion show. They thought, why not? That was the first of what would become today’s New York Pet Fashion Show.
Around that time, Ada was watching the 2005 Oscars and thought one of the star’s gowns would be perfect for Vanilla (when Ada sees fashion, she thinks “dog”). The next morning, she ran to the fabric store and made that gown for Vanilla and other favorite Oscar gowns she’d seen for her other pups. Photographer friend, John Chapple, thought it would be fun to shoot some pictures and send them out. He’d never seen anything like this. The pictures caught on, running in the New York Post and in outlets around the world. She had many requests to buy the pieces, but decided to donate them for auction to help Hurricane Katrina victims. One ended up on exhibit in Spain, with a woman Ada is good friends with to this day. People started asking Nieves where they could get her stylish dog clothes. And, before she knew it, her dog fashion business was born.
Knowing she wanted to learn more about the craft of designing for dogs, she enrolled in a brand new program for pet fashion at the world-famous design school, F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology). Upon graduation, Ada become the first certified pet fashion designer. “Going through the program helped solidify what I was doing,” she emphasizes. “Now, I had a certification from FIT. It showed I was passionate about this and was looking at it, not as a hobby, but as a career.”
As her pet fashion business grew, that small dog fashion show she’d originally created with Gregg for a customer also grew. Ada and Gregg formally joined forces as co-chairs of what was then the Pre-Westminster Pet Fashion Show in 2008, and the combination created an immediate powerhouse. Turning the event into one that focused on rescue dogs, a cause very dear to them both, was the first significant change, opening it up to alliances with rescue organizations around the city, a key focus of the event today.
Nieves’ network of fellow pet fashion lovers and designers was growing, too. With her outgoing and supportive personality, people loved working with Ada and she became known as a champion of up and coming designers, whose work she would feature at the New York Pet Fashion Show. Her Chihuahuas (at this point, she had 5) gained notoriety as models and actors, had their own agents, and were called on regularly for magazine shoots, tv shows and events to model Ada’s designs. With Nieves’ reputation as a master dog fashion designer growing, she was being sought after for more and more high profile jobs.
In probably one of the most fun and challenging assignments she’s had, Nieves was asked by MTV to create doggy replicas of two standout 2010 MTV Music Awards‘ outfits, to be used in a spoof reenactment of the awards: Cher’s skimpy leather/stud number and Lady Gaga’s infamous meat costume. For the Gaga replica, Ada used bacon to wrap around a corset she designed, so the outfit would have structure and the dog would have protection from the meat against it’s body. But outfitting a dog in yummy bacon had it’s challenges. “I took notes on how the original meat dress was made to create a guide to make the doggy version,” Nieves explained. “But, I had concerns that the meat would be too heavy for the dog to carry or wear, so I checked different meats at various supermarkets until I picked the bacon for its light weight and flexibility; it could be shaped as needed. To give it that ‘meaty’ color, I hand-brushed red food coloring onto the meat, using a thin brush so it would look natural. To have it last and not have it eaten, I sprayed it with clear lacquer and lots and lots of hair spray! Then I took into consideration the coat of the dog that was going to wear it and used bridal satin fabric to make a vest. The shoes were probably more challenging to make than the outfit!”
In one of her biggest nail biting TV moments, the Anderson show (Anderson Cooper’s talk show) came calling, asking her to create doggy replicas of some of tennis superstar, Serena Williams’, most famous outfits. Anderson planned to surprise Serena with them during the interview. Not only is Williams’ a big dog lover – she has two who travel with her everywhere – but she is also very involved in her fashion company’s designs, and Ada wanted to make sure she liked what she saw. “I was so nervous; probably the most nervous I’ve been on any tv show job,” Ada confided. “And, we didn’t have measurements of her dogs. They sent me pictures and I started calculating sizes and what I thought would work,” she explained. “And, because there’s a God in heaven, it did!” she laughs. “She was extremely happy.”
If you think designing for dogs is all Ada does…think again. Curious about why people don’t dress their cats, she started making clothes for Martini, her gorgeous long-haired rescue. When an industry colleague was putting together a Rats World show, she approached Ada to brainstorm about ways to help change the public’s perception of rats as scary and dirty. Ada knew just the thing. “I want to dress every animal,” Nieves explained. “An animal owner who spends the time and money to dress their pet is not someone who will abuse or abandon them. Rats are really very sweet and loving. Putting them in pretty dresses immediately changed people’s reactions to them. It was amazing.”
If you haven’t figured out by now that Ada Nieves adores Chihuahuas and hers are her world…listen to this. She currently lives with six – Tabasco Chilly Pepper, Vanilla Salt, Mojito, Margarita, Kahlua, Strawberry Muffin, and kitty, Martini. They’re all actors and models, remember, so in addition to designing, Ada’s days are devoted to ferrying her babies around town (and sometimes, the country) for their appointments. Mojito starred on Nickelodeon’s Nick Studio 10 show, and was the only dog ever invited to the Nick Awards in LA to walk their orange carpet. When Vanilla works a TV job, she’s treated like royalty, including having her own concierge who makes sure she’s hydrated, and holds an umbrella over her to protect her fair skin from the sun. Ada’s celebrity brood have modeled for or appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Late Show with David Letterman, GMA, the Martha Stewart Show, Ralph Lauren, Cole Haan, Animal Planet, Dog Fancy, and more. And Nieves has been tapped as a pet stylist for episodes of NBC’s 30 Rock, E’s Ice Loves Coco and Animal Planet’s From Underdog to Wonderdog. That’s no joke!
You’re getting the idea now. Ada Nieves is a woman on a mission, with enough vision and energy to power a small planet. She’s elevated dog fashion, helped to create the go-to pet fashion event of the year and groomed a stable of Chihuahua stars. Wait, we’re not done. She’s designed over 20 pet fashion shows, participated in AKC-sanctioned dog shows with Tabasco, who won “Best in Breed.” Ada also writes a pet column for Examiner.com, has a show on PetLifeRadio.com and, in her spare time, congregated the largest Chihuahua support, rescue & foster group in the country, boasting over 800 members. Husband Edgar, retired after being injured in Iraq, jokes, “I’m Mr. Ada Nieves! When I was in the Army, I was #1; here, I’m #7!” As if to make the point, he holds up a painting done of Ada and her 5 Chihuahuas. “I forget what’s it like to have a normal day; there’s always a dog involved!” But the truth comes out, as he says, grinning sheepishly, “I joke around and everything, but I adore my wife. I’d advise anyone to have a life like this. It’s the best way to go!”
Nieves knows that, too. Yet, she’s very aware that all of this is bigger than her and welcomes the opportunity to help pave the way. “I want to do this, not just for myself, but for my colleagues,” she explains. “I want to create another part of the industry where pet fashion designers can go to find jobs and support themselves, and keep the industry growing.” In the grand scheme, the big fish for Ada is getting attention for pet fashion designers from the human fashion world, bringing together the New York Pet Fashion Show with NY Fashion Week. “I want them to be recognized at that level for the talent they have,” she emphasizes. “Maybe it won’t be for me; maybe it will be someone else, and that’s great, too. Things are moving very quickly in pet fashion; it will happen, eventually.”
About Jody Miller-Young
As a designer of luxury dog apparel under the Couture by Sophie brand (www.couturebysophie.com), Jody Miller-Young brings her love of runway chic to the dog fashion arena. Her debut collection, The Icons, paying homage to fashion icons in music, created a small army of Couture by Sophie fans. Her passion for design and the desire to share her finds with others led her to create Bark and Swagger, the everything- dog-fashion-and-more site (www.barkandswagger.com). On Bark, Miller-Young offers tips, talks trends, writes reviews and conducts interviews with experts of interest in the dog world. She also covers the celebs we know and the dogs they love and devotes a regular column to shelter dogs and to the hero angels who advocate for them.