Pulling Back The Curtain On Fashion Designer Moms

They have two 24/7 jobs.

Written by Alison Syrett
Photographs by Silver Chang

Running a fashion brand and taking care of young children have a fair amount in common: sleepless nights, constant creative challenges, and a sense of uncertainty you learn to live with. (The glamor thing, not so much.) But while Alejandra Alonso Rojas, Elena Velez, Felisha Noel, and Michelle Ochs certainly learned to be nimble and forward-thinking while launching their labels, having babies added a whole new dimension to their work.

“I think sometimes the hardest part is just when the schedule changes,” Rojas, the founder of her eponymous label, tells me over a Zoom call. Her 4-year-old son Alonso is in the other room quietly painting (a little too quietly, perhaps, as we later learn he’s ripped up one of her books to make a collage). “When there’s no school or someone gets sick, the whole great flow that we have just completely changes.”

This is definitely something that Ochs, who began working on her Et Ochs label five years ago, around the same time she became pregnant with her oldest child, can understand. On the day of her shoot for this story, she had a perfectly orchestrated plan for meals and naps worked out with her nanny, who called out sick at the last minute. “I brought them to work and then tried to get work done, then hair and makeup done, and then didn't feed them,” she says on our call with a sigh.

I find myself relating to both women on many levels: As a working mother of a toddler and preschooler myself, I know the mental upset that comes from introducing a tiny needy human into your already overbooked life — and, additionally, the total surrender to chaos that follows having a second baby. For Velez, a mother of two under 3 whose label is currently the toast of the New York fashion scene, parenting two little boys has been an adjustment as well — albeit not an unwelcome one. “I have no boundaries between parenthood and work,” she tells me over email. “This limits the people and places I can engage with but that suits me just fine.”

This sanguine sentiment could’ve come just as easily from Noel, founder of Fe Noel, who is finally on the other side of the exhausting and incessant demands of parenting a very young child. When she arrives on set with her 6-year-old son Stone, I’m stuck by their easy, conversational rapport. According to her, she’s made the transition from finding ways to incorporate parenthood into her work life out of necessity to actually enjoying any co-mingling of the two.

“He's like a companion, so funny, and I can hang out with him,” Noel tells me. “He teaches me things with the way he talks and he thinks. I'm like, ‘Wow, who knew?’ I wasn't expecting to be dealing with this person in this way where not only am I teaching and nurturing him, but he's doing the same for me.”

All four designers posed with their children for Romper and TZR, and shared with us their candid thoughts on juggling the simultaneous challenges of motherhood and starting a small business — while reveling in the twin joys of parenthood and creative fulfillment.

Alejandra Alonso Rojas with Alonso

Alejandra Alonso Rojas with her son Alonso, 4, in her design studio.

Which came first: your desire to be a parent or your desire to be a designer?

I knew I wanted to be a designer since I was 4. It's funny because I have a lot of friends who, since they were little, they were like, “I'm going to have five children.” And I'm just like, “Whatever, I don't know — we'll see.” Now I adore motherhood. I wasn't obsessed with babies growing up. I was more obsessed with dressing babies or the dolls, or just painting and doing things like that. But being a mother came super natural. I'm glad because I wasn't so sure it would.

What are the hardest and best parts of parenting for you?

The hardest thing for us was he was never a great sleeper, but neither was I or my husband until we were 2 to 3 years old. So we knew it was going to happen — karma. Alonso didn't really sleep through the night until he was 3 years old. But we pushed through, and we found balance. We never really went against his will or pushed him into doing something different. And I think that it's very rewarding to communicate with him. Like, why is he doing this? Why is he having a bad day? I feel like that's the most rewarding, when you get that connection and they explain to you what's wrong. But, yeah, three years without a sleep through the night was really tough.

Alonso, 4, is also a creative force.
Jumping around in Mom’s studio.

What are some of your favorite places to shop for your son?

I love buying clothes for him when I'm in Europe. When I go to Spain, I buy 90% of his closet from there. I have a friend who has a beautiful store in Madrid called Thanks Mum, which I love. I love Maisonette; they also have a huge assortment of European brands and really special products. I love this Japanese store Makié on Thompson Street and between Prince and Spring [in NYC’s SoHo neighborhood]. I've been buying clothes for him there since he was born, and the sizes last at least two or three seasons, the way that the patterns are engineered. And when the pants are getting a little shorter, I just put the tights on under them and then they look like cool crop pants and I love that.

The website Smallable also has a great outlet section. I literally filter by sizing, and I just buy a bunch of stuff 70% off from the best brands for next season. When I love something, I actually buy in two sizes, sometimes three. Because when you cherish something, like a sweater, you just keep wearing it. With kids clothes, I just get so sad because then the next winter the sweater is going to be too small. So I usually am crazy and I buy three of the same when I like something a lot.

How inclusive is your brand and is it something you consider when you think about the world you want your son to live in?

Yes, when I design, I definitely think of that, and how we have men clients who are buying things, too. Then it's more a decision budget-wise to really expand into an extra department. But we already had a whole unisex sweater collection in the line: I called it His and Hers and it was for everyone. The pattern of our suits also really fits men and women. I don't like to think that my clients are only women, and it doesn't have to be that it's a man that dresses completely as a woman. It could be my husband who wants a leather jacket in a different tone or something like that. And I feel like there's something really beautiful about men’s clothes on women or women’s clothes on men. I don't think it has to be black and white.

Elena Velez with Atlas & Freja Lucia

Elena Velez at her design studio with Atlas, 2, and baby Freja Lucia.

Which came first: your desire to be a parent or your desire to be a designer?

Designer. Kids weren't an immediate priority to me until I was confronted with the opportunity.

Has pregnancy or parenthood changed your design sensibility?

I've never been the sort of person who focuses too heavily on external expression. When I was pregnant, my body felt more to me like a tool than something to decorate. I'm not a maternity wear designer. I'm not someone who really considers a wearer at all for that matter. My passion is more craft-based and personal than it is serviceable.

What are the hardest and best parts of parenting for you?

The hardest part of parenthood is having the most tender and breakable parts of your heart in the hands of an unsympathetic world. My favorite part is the satisfaction that comes after a long day with a quiet house full of sleeping, well-fed, clean, and content little people.

“Caring about your kids' clothes is a losing battle,” says Velez.

Do your kids have opinions on clothes yet or do you still get to dress them however you want? Do you ever argue with them over what they should wear?

Caring about your kids' clothes is a losing battle. Mine are too young to have hot takes on the ‘fit. Most of their clothes are from Costco. 

What do you think of the "sad beige" trend for kids clothes and gear?

I run a sad beige brand for adults so my sentiments are pretty clearly articulated. 

Felisha Noel with Stone

Designer Felisha Noel in her studio.

Which came first: your desire to be a designer or a mother?

I did want to be a mom, but I didn't think it was going to happen when it did. When I had Stone in 2016, I was 30, and thought I would have kids when I was 38 or 40. I remember thinking, “Oh, I can't chase my dreams anymore. Maybe I have to go get a serious job to do this.” Not that designing is not serious, but it’s an unsteady business. And I wanted to arrive at a certain level where I felt more stable and more secure before having him. But he came and it was like, OK, we're going to do this, and I definitely need to really lean on my support system.

What are the clothes your son wants to wear versus the ones you wish he would put on?

I want him to be in linen pants and Birkenstocks. He wants to be in Pokemon and animated clothes, which I think is cool. I like it too. Because I'll dress up with him as well. He likes comfort, and I do, too. But if we're going out I’m like, “Why don't you put on this sleek turtleneck?" And he's like, “No, why do I want to wear something covered up to my neck?” He doesn't really have a brand preference, it's just more about if he thinks it's cool or not. If it has a Pokemon or a Spider-Man, or if it's a nice color — or if someone says he looks nice in it — then he wants to wear it all the time.

“I want him to be in linen pants and Birkenstocks. He wants to be in Pokemon and animated clothes,” says Noel of Stone, 6.
Felisha Noel and Stone in her design studio.

What are the hardest and best parts of parenting for you?

The hardest part of parenting is finding the best way to correct him when he's wrong. He is super opinionated. The way I grew up, if an adult speaks to you and you speak back, that's like talking back. But then I also found in my adult life that it causes you to not be able to advocate for yourself. So really it's me deciphering, do you raise your child the way that you were raised or do you find the best way for you? And it's a constant struggle. Just because something is what your parents taught you doesn't mean it's necessarily right. And there's things that as you grow up, you're like, “Well, I didn't like that when I was younger. So I don't want to keep doing that to him.”

And then the easiest part just comes naturally: [him] just being lovable, fun, and curious. And also I've been able to relax. I don't have to get everything right. It's not like they hold it against you. Let's say if I yell, 20 minutes later he says, “Mom, I know you yelled at me, but I forgive you." He's funny. First of all, I yelled because you did something bad, but he's like, "I forgive you."

Michelle Ochs with Adrian & Penelope

Michelle Ochs in her design studio.

Which came first: your desire to be a parent or your desire to be a designer?

To be a designer. Having started a business so young [out of college] and always being kind of a workhorse, that's all I knew. Even just thinking about being a mom took a back seat. My kids fell within the Covid window — they weren't Covid babies, but my daughter Penelope was around [when the lockdowns started] and my son Adrian was born on the tail end. It really let me slow down, and also taught me efficiency. But the creative part of me didn't go away. I love them, but I'm not built to be home with them all day. It actually turned out to be a beautiful time and I got all that time with them that I would've never had if I'd been running a business, so, I'm very grateful for that. But I serve two masters: fashion and my children.

Has pregnancy or parenthood changed your design sensibility?

Overall, my design aesthetic has always been rooted in the body, being body con, showing off the female form. And I think my core aesthetic of showing something that incorporates stretch and comfort [has not changed]. But I think I demand even more for my clothes now than I'm a mom. I am definitely a woman designing for women, which I know is always a cliché thing to say, but I bring the stretch factor. Can I bend in it? Can I make sure that I can use it for work, and that I can dress it up and dress it down? If it is a gown, is it worth it? Because you're spending your hard-earned dollars for it. All of these things come into play in a way where I think maybe I wasn’t necessarily thinking about in my 20s.

Ochs with Adrian, 2, and Penelope, 5.
Fashion Designer Michelle Ochs's son Adrian hangs out in her design studio.

What are the clothes your kids want to wear versus the ones you wish they would put on?

I have no say in what they wear at all. I would prefer neutrals. I was able to do all the neutrals for Penelope before she was able to talk because I knew I was probably going to have a second and I don't want to spend a lot of money — they're outgrowing these things so fast. So Adrian is in a lot of hand-me-downs, and I was able to hold up that for a while. Also finding really chic, neutral, non-gender clothes is hard. I hate to say this, but the little shopping sections were like little sassy baby prostitutes for girls, and the boys were like news page men with little caps and suspenders. I need an in-between.

Speaking of neutrals, what do you think of the "sad beige" trend for kids clothes and gear?

I mean, we all fall into the Instagram trap and it's so funny. I had this whole idea in my head, it's all going to be neutral, it's going to be beige and it's going to look like this. And then as a mom over time, you see they're attracted to the colors, they're attracted to the contrast: black and white, and reds and blues. It's instinct. You can't fight it. You just have to roll with it.

All clothing provided by respective designers.

Photographs by Silver Chang

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert