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Isabella knew she was different. She had a magic that glowed from within and a dream to show she could do anything she set her mind to. With her creativity and eye for fashion she showed the world her vision for a different type of catwalk.
You can find Isabella in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.
This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Special thanks to our narrator, Jamie Brewer. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed in bright colors. Her name was Isabella.
Isabella was born in 1996 in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She loved her home, surrounded by bustling city streets full of music and art, and a skyline of majestic mountains and volcanoes. Isabella was the youngest of four children. She was super outgoing and always on the move. She loved singing, dancing, playing tennis and horseback riding. But most of all, Isabella loved fashion.
From the time she was old enough to hold a pencil, Isabella was drawing and designing dresses, ponchos and jackets. She had 16 rag dolls that she lined up to make a little fashion runway. She got pieces of colorful cloth and cut them into different shapes, measuring and pinning them to her dolls to make scooping necklines and full skirts.
Isabella found inspiration all around her. Her favorite colors were the pinks and yellows of a new sunrise. She was amazed by the magnificent quetzal birds taking flight and the lacy mist rising over the lakes.
Isabella loved all the hues and patterns in Guatemalan fabrics too. Indigenous Mayan women who lived outside the city wove these fabrics by hand and each community in Guatemala had different patterns and colors that were important to them. Some women harvested their own cotton and dyed it with seeds and plants. Some embroidered flowers and forests, eagles and snakes. Stripes and zigzags, polka dots and pom poms — it all fascinated Isabella. She especially loved the huipiles fabrics because the women who made them told amazing stories with the animals and plants they sewed into the cloth. Each image they created represented ideas of love, nature and strength.
Holding these fabrics was sacred to Isabella. She felt like these colors and patterns were in her veins, like a strong, bright thread weaving through her past and connecting her to her present and future.
As she prepared to graduate from primary school, Isabella’s teachers asked her to write a “life project” to explore what her hopes and dreams were for her life.
Isabella sat down to write her project with a bold grin on her face. She knew her calling. She was going to become a great fashion designer, celebrating the fabulous colors and craftspeople of her homeland and bringing new ideas to life.
|“Isabella! There is an envelope here for you!”
After studying so hard in school and in college, Isabella had applied to a fashion design school in Guatemala. There was only one university that specialized in fashion, and Isabella was determined to get in. But…
“They say I won’t be able to handle it because of Down’s.”
“What? Es ridículo!”
Isabella was born with Down syndrome, which is a genetic condition where there’s an extra copy of chromosome 21 in your DNA. DNA is like a special code that tells your body how to grow and function. Some people with Down syndrome have a lot of mental or physical challenges, like difficulty talking or trouble developing muscle tone. Isabella never felt like Down syndrome held her back from fulfilling her dreams though. In fact, Down syndrome inspired her to work hard, speak her mind, and see every day and every person as beautiful and unique.
So when Isabella opened that letter from the university specializing in fashion design and saw that she was rejected, she felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She felt like people were judging her without even knowing what she was capable of and that hurt — a lot. But she also knew one thing for sure.
“You know what?” she told her family. “I’m going to turn this NO into a YES.”
|Isabella decided she was going to become a fashion designer her own way. She signed up to go to a sewing academy and poured her heart and soul into learning all the different ways to stitch, seam, hem and design. For one assignment, she was asked to sew outfits for muñeca quitapena, or worry dolls. Worry dolls are part of Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. They are very very small — about the size of your pinky! Children whisper their worries to the dolls at night…
I’m worried about making new friends.
I’m worried she’ll call on me in class.
I’m worried about the big soccer game. What if I mess up?
Then children put the dolls under their pillows so the dolls can take away all their worries and let the children have sweet peaceful sleep.
Isabella loved worry dolls. But she didn’t want to make clothes the size of her pinky. She wanted to make clothes that fit people!
I’m worried nobody sees how awesome I can be!
So Isabella created life-sized worry dolls, with long limbs and fun hairstyles. Then she went to the market and picked out some of her favorite Guatemalan fabrics. She made her dolls beautiful embroidered jackets with pompoms and fringe; flowing ponchos, beaded necklaces, and dazzling hats. They looked like the boldest, brightest group of rebel girls around.
Isabella was thrilled with her creations and soon moved easily from designing for dolls to designing for people. But there was one thing that kept holding her back. Something that even her life-sized worry dolls couldn’t solve for her.
“I don’t understand. Why are all these clothes so tight? And the sleeves so long?” she asked her mother.
For most of Isabella’s life, her mom had been designing clothes too. Or really, taking the clothes that Isabella wanted to wear and tailoring them to fit Isabella’s body more comfortably. You see, people who are born with Down syndrome often have different body types — sometimes smaller or wider than average, or very thin. While she loved that her mom hemmed her pants or added elastic where needed, Isabella really wanted to make a whole line of clothes that fit people with Down’s, right from the start. She wanted everyone to feel as bright and fabulous as she did.
So, Isabella went to the market again and looked at all the handmade Guatemalan fabrics. She talked to the Mayan women about what each picture or pattern meant and bought as many different pieces as she could carry. She felt like every stitch, every swirl of color was part of Guatemala’s history. She couldn’t wait to lay them all out and piece together clothes that told the story of her people.
Isabella made dresses, shawls, jackets, and skirts. She made flowered wreaths for her hair and special handbags called mashtates which were full of pompoms, beads and zippers. They were meant to look like the bundles that Indigenous women carry on their heads sometimes. It’s not easy to carry a lot of weight on top of your head, but it’s a common practice for Indigenous women in Guatemala and it shows how strong and graceful these women are. That was a big part of Isabella’s designs too — honoring the strength and beauty of women everywhere, especially in her beloved homeland.
In 2015, Isabella was asked to be part of a fashion show at Guatemala City’s Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing, or Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena. This event was called “Guatextraordinaria.” Isabella was thrilled to bring her mashtate bags to display at the museum. People from all over came to ask her about her process and inspiration and pretty soon she sold out of everything she’d brought!
Isabella was so excited that people liked her ideas and creations, that she decided to come up with her own brand. She would call it “Down to Xjabelle.” Down because she is proud to be living and thriving with Down Syndrome, and Xjabelle to recognize her dear grandmother who was once a brilliant fashion designer too and encouraged Isabella every step of the way.
|Later that same year, Isabella stood backstage, listening to the energizing music, watching the bright lights flood the auditorium, feeling the applause fill her whole body with an electric current of excitement.
Welcome to London Fashion Week!
Isabella was overjoyed and also stunned. She couldn’t believe she was invited to display her work here! It was literally a dream come true. She was not only one of the youngest designers at this event, she was also the first person from Guatemala and the first person with Down Syndrome to ever present on this celebrated stage.
Isabella was smiling from ear to ear as she watched models strut up and down the runway in her special creations — her multicolored pants, billowing ponchos, fantastic feather-collared tops. The sound of thousands of cameras clicking pictures and people cheering made every inch of Isabella’s skin tingle. And then, it was her turn.
Decked out in a one-of-a-kind brilliant blue dress with an embroidered neckline and long blue fringe, Isabella stepped forward. Her eyes sparkled in triumph. She felt not only her own strength and beauty, but the strength and beauty of all the people who’d made this night possible — like her Mami, who every day made sure she felt loved and empowered. Like her grandmother, who passed on this marvelous gift of fashion design. Like the women of Guatemala who planted cotton, dyed their fabrics, stitched stories of love and nature, and carried bundles on their heads.
When Isabella walked down the runway that day, she felt all those brave rebel women walking with her, cheering her on, and shining with a light that could never fade.
|Since that day, Isabella’s life has only gotten brighter. She was named one of the most inspirational women in the world, she has been invited all over the globe to showcase her clothing, and she gives talks about finding power and possibility in every breath. She tells people about how she was rejected from fashion school and how it only made her more determined to succeed on her own terms. Isabella believes in a future where all people are included and all people feel beautiful.
As she says, “I love life, my life! And I love having Down syndrome! I am a lucky woman doing what I love, learning new things.”
From the flowers in her hair to the songs in her heart, Isabella is a true rebel girl.