Most Interesting People 2011: Valerie Mayen

Valerie Mayen

Fashion designer | 29

Valerie Mayen looks over a cold 4,000-square-foot shell on East 30th Street, empty except for an orphaned mattress and a table with one sewing machine. But she sees a modern space with steel rods for fabric, an elevated pulley system for patterns, computers, cutting tables, a living space for rent. And as she describes the plans for Buzz & Growl, a fashion co-op she likens to a gym for designers, her enthusiasm makes you see it all, too.

The 29-year-old took on Lifetime's fashion design reality show Project Runway this past fall. She gained fans nationwide and made it to the final seven before being cut.

Now, the same animated Valerie, who wore her measuring tape as a sweatband, who makes wackadoo faces, who uses words like "wackadoo," and who dressed up as a bee to promote Buzz & Growl, gets serious when talking about sustainability, lean manufacturing and her goal to grow Cleveland's fashion community by equipping budding designers with the resources and support they need.

"When I wanted to learn how to be a fashion designer, I didn't even know how to sew a straight line on a piece of muslin," Mayen says. "I knew nothing, and I was terrified."

That was just five years ago, hard to believe when looking at the detailed coats and modern accessories in her colorful and whimsical Yellowcake brand.

Before fashion, Mayen had earned her BFA in illustration and graphic design from the Cleveland Institute of Art. The Texas native was ready to move to California after graduation, but her senior project, putting on a three-day event for the Goodrich Gannett Neighborhood Center, forced her beyond CIA.

"That really opened my eyes to all the beautiful things about Cleveland that people don't always see," she says. So she attached herself to the city like an appliqué and started finding ways to give back — like donating 5 percent of Yellowcake sales to The City Mission and other causes.

"People kept telling me, let your business grow first, become wildly wealthy, and then you can give," she says. "But, in the meantime, there are people who are still hungry."

Raising funds for Buzz & Growl, which she'd like to open in March, is just her latest contribution. "Hopefully, in 20 years we're going to look back on it and say, 'Man, 20 years ago this was just a glimmer in our eye, and this was just an empty space with a random mattress.' "

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