“SHE looked innocent - surprisingly,” exclaimed Carmela Domaboc on the first occasion she met Paris Hilton in Los Angeles, California when the hotel heiress bought a chain necklace from Mai Collections, Carmela’s custom-made line of jewelry.

“Pretty much, Paris has her own world. I wasn’t able to talk to her because she didn’t care about who made it,” Carmela laughed, “she liked it, so she bought it.”

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Born and raised in Cebu, Carmela never thought she could be included in the stylists’ list of top designers they often go to for magazine promotions, fashion shows, and red carpet arrivals.

She finished her master’s degree in Special Education at the Cebu Normal University after she graduated from Bachelor of Fine Arts major in Advertising Arts at the University of San Carlos in Talamaban.

Before she decided to make her own pieces, she first sold accessories from Sepa, made by Josefa Dianne Espera.

“L.A. is all about what the stars wear. It becomes an instant trend once it’s worn by the stars,” she said, taking it as the most effective strategy in building a fashion business in America.

For almost two years, after she moved from Cebu to Los Angeles in 2008, Carmela struggled to reach the right market, hopped from one boutique to the other and literally “begged” buyers to give her a minute of their schedule.

Buyers are official representatives of boutiques who choose items or labels that they would market to the costumers.

First, she researched on the individual names, the contact numbers, the address, and the companies these buyers have been working for. Then, she would either send an e-mail showing photos of her designs, or book an appointment, which she barely got.

“I never received any reply from them,” she admits ruefully. “The best way is to wait for them in the parking lot. Since I was a ‘nobody,’ I made up stories just to get through them.”

Establishments have been acquainted with walk-in designers who offer the same products - not to mention, the same sales talk - so they provide a small box in the counter for business cards.

Carmela recalled one instance when she decided to sell her designs to Saks Fifth Avenue. “When I got inside the shop, wala ko tagda (I was totally ignored). I told the clerk I have an appointment with the buyer (but I really didn’t make one).”

She waited for hours in the parking lot until the buyer arrived, uninterested in her offer. Carmela continued, “She was trying to avoid me. We were walking toward the boutique while I presented my designs.”

“They thought I was retarded or something.”

And this was how she got the appointment, saying: “She told me to call her secretary, but I replied, ‘I’ve already done that and it didn’t work. Trust me, I am not going to bother you if you don’t like my designs, but please, give me five minutes of your time.”

Although Carmela was invited to the buyer’s office, her turning point came in November 2009 while watching television.

“I saw Oliver Tolentino (L.A.-based fashion designer) on TV, and I Googled for his number. I called, and luckily, Oliver himself picked up the phone and asked me to visit his boutique.

“When he saw my designs, he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it’.”

Since then, Carmela has been exposed to PR officers who would organize cause-oriented fashion shows. Thus, her pieces have been handpicked by stylists and been sashayed down the runway for the New York Fashion Week, early this year.

And now, at 26, she’s far from nobody, name-dropped by no less than Courtney Semel, the daughter of Yahoo chief executive, for her accessories.

Mai Collections has also been featured in Spanish Vogue and Music and Fashion magazines and has distributors in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and soon in Dubai. (CPP)