In January, at W’s Golden Globes party, Juan Carlos Obando made a beeline across the room to say hello to Amy Adams. The actress had worn one of his dresses—a sexy polka-dot halter gown that her character in American Hustle would have adored—to a film festival, and Obando wanted to thank her for the A-list publicity. “She stood up and was like, ‘Thank you! I felt so comfortable and beautiful in that dress!’ ” recalls the Los Angeles designer.
Such is a common refrain among Obando’s devotees—an ever expanding bevy of sophisticated women, like the fashion consultant Katherine Ross and the actress Jessica Alba, who rely on him for silk blouses and pajama sets, slinky bias-cut dresses, and full peasant skirts. “People think of eveningwear as very ladies-who-lunch. My ladies have lunch—but in flowy clothes,” says Obando, a burly, ebullient man who, even bedridden with bronchitis (“In my 36 years, I’ve never been this sick—it’s like the avian flu”), is quick to crack a joke.
Inspired in large part by the vibrant, sensual women he grew up around in his hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, Obando’s “own-the-night basics,” as he describes them, fill a niche. If you’re looking for a tailored work suit, you should shop elsewhere. “We don’t do A to B,” he acknowledges. “I take care of you at B—or, rather, C.” And yet his clothes have a remarkably broad appeal. So much so that J. Crew has enlisted him to create a capsule collection of gypsy-inspired cocktail looks and a pair of strappy sandals, out in June. And demand for his own label, which also includes industrial, masculine-looking jewelry (“Technically, it shouldn’t work with delicate clothes, but it does!” he notes), continues to grow: Barneys New York now carries the brand in all its stores. Not bad for a guy who until relatively recently knew nothing about fashion. “When I was 19, and a friend was obsessing over his new white Versace jeans, I didn’t even know what Versace was,” Obando quips.
At that point, graphic design was his thing. “I wanted to be like the person who made the Coca-Cola logo,” he explains. But then in 2002, while at the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, he found himself working on car commercials that called for fabulous clothing. Many in his position would have hired a stylist; Obando instead went to Sears and purchased a sewing machine and some McCall’s patterns. “You can learn a lot from reading instructions!” he says. To supplement his self-education, he would pull apart vintage Azzedine Alaïa and Gucci garments to analyze their construction. After a few years of quietly honing his craft, he hesitantly made his debut at L.A.’s spring 2006 Fashion Week, with the swishy jewel-toned gowns that would become his hallmark.
And although Obando gave up his advertising gig in 2010, he has retained the power to persuade. His latest New York Fashion Week runway show—held in February in a flower-adorned 19th-century mansion on Fifth Avenue—was an enchanting affair. “This is the moment in my career when everything is coming together,” he says. “In a very polished way.”
Hair by Sascha Breuer at starworksartists.com; makeup by Mélanie Inglessis for Dior at the Magnet Agency. Models: Andie Arthur and Emily Senko at IMG Models; Naty Chabanenko at Women Management. Digital technician: Carl Novick; photography assistants: Edward Singleton, Bryan Tormey, Douglas Markland; production: Alicia Zumback at 3 Star Productions.