When Omar Villalobos finished his final exams a year and a half ago, the last thing he wanted to do was drive to a party two hours away. However, fate had other plans for the bright-eyed fashion student from Columbia College in Chicago; Villalobos met Gordana Rasic, a then-rising senior from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rasic had just launched her own fashion label by the name of GOCA Designs.“GOCA was brand new for Gordana,” Villalobos says, who was only 20 when the two met. “At first, I was like, ‘She’s not serious!’ But we got along great and I decided to get involved.”
“I’m passionate about fashion, but I also love psychology,” explains the fashion marketing major. “Marketing is about understanding the customer: the way they act when they walk into a store, how colors affect the way they purchase…” He nods eagerly. “Marketing is definitely my niche!”
Villalobos’s journalism minor proved handy in his initial position handling public relations for the label. “I started as a publicist, then moved into the role of creative director, then became Vice President,” he says. “And now, we co-own and run GOCA together as equal partners.”
Their two-person operation grew quickly. They worked collaboratively on designing, sending out press releases, contacting magazines and handling clients. “We were both in charge of everything,” says Villalobos. “While Gordana was designing, I was sending out emails. While I was sketching, she was contacting this person and that person.”
The two lived far from each other, and both made sacrifices to continue working together; some days they hauled a sewing machine back and forth between apartments simply to sew a skirt perfectly. In short, GOCA was in two places at once, and the pair was busy as hell.
“People would ask, ‘Where’s Gordana?’” recalls Villalobos. “Sometimes I’d call her and not be able to reach her, and I’d have to make decisions on my own.” Still, through blood, sweat and tears (“that phrase is so cliché, but so true!” he chimes), they began to make a name for themselves.
GOCA has since shown three complete collections on the runways of Chicago Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week. However, GOCA is taking a break these days; Rasic was selected as a finalist on Project Runway and Villalobos secured an internship with Vogue, opportunities that were simply too good to pass.
“My intentions were to go to Vogue, get close to Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, and tell them about GOCA,” he says, “but being there was an eye opener.” Exposed to the highest of fashion, Villalobos only reaffirmed his initial passion for marketing.
When Villalobos returns to Chicago, he and Rasic will regroup to determine the future of GOCA. Although the label’s direction is unclear, Villalobos knows GOCA will continue to be a life-changing experience.
“There were some really proud moments,” he says. “GOCA was photographed for a newspaper’s front page, and it was so amazing to show it to my parents and see their expressions.” After so much hard work, Villalobos’s passions, studies and family were finally on the same page.
But if you ask Villalobos about his journey with GOCA, he’ll tell you that it hasn’t been an easy ride. “You have to keep pushing forward, even if no one notices what you’re doing,” he says. “People that I’ve never even met ask me, ‘how do you do it?’ And I tell them, ‘You just do. If you love it, do it.'”