From Rags to Riches to Rhude
By Chris J. Catapia
A prime example of someone who personifies the American dream is Rhuigi Villaseñor, a 25-year-old fashion designer who came from the slums of the Philippines with nothing but the clothes on his back, his older sister, and his ambition. At the age of 11, Villaseñor’s parents sent him to the United States and lived with his aunt in a one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley.
Today, he embodies the “rags to riches” story, both running Rhude Designs, the company he founded, and serving as Puma’s creative director. With A-list celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres and NBA player Lebron James wearing his clothing in media appearances, Villaseñor is already a fashion icon. Having experienced hands-on training when he broke into his field, he encourages young arts and humanities students who have interest and background in fashion, to apply for internship positions with his company. I am a 3rd year philosophy student at UC Santa Barbara who is working for Rhude Designs today.
In a recent interview, Villaseñor told me he recalls the fear which accompanied his excitement at the prospect of seeing what lay outside of everything he had known. “I never really thought I would ever get out of the Philippines. As a kid, moving across the world wasn’t really something you could prepare yourself for. But, I realize today that I couldn’t have been more thankful for my parents making the decision to send me to the U.S.,” he said.
After struggling with not having much in his early childhood, Villaseñor began to imagine a more lavish lifestyle. He says he got into fashion because he couldn’t afford the clothes he wanted. He never intended to sell his designs, he merely wanted the clothing for himself.
After graduating high school in Woodland Hills, Villaseñor sought hands-on experience and landed an unpaid position with Taz Arnold, the creator, and CEO of TI$A—a California street wear clothing company that was known for bringing back "Snapbacks," a type of baseball hat that has TI$A’s famed logo embroidered with various colors. Subsequently, Villaseñor took up pattern-making classes to perfect the craft of cut-and-sew, a technique that many high-end designers use today. This led to an internship with the Cali-Brit designer, Shaun Samson. There, he observed how to manage one’s own brand. Learning about the marketing side a clothing company allowed Villaseñor to apply these skills to what later became Rhude Designs.
Villaseñor’s passion for designing clothing is apparent upon meeting him. He wears a Rolex watch, Louis Vuitton shoulder bag, Gucci loafers, and “Traxedos,” the best-selling pants from his latest collection. Traxedos are a happy medium between casual track pants and tuxedo pants, that have been seen on multiple artists, such as rapper Migos, comedian Ellen Degeneres, and fashion designer A$AP Rocky.
Villaseñor describes his process for creating Rhude Designs as similar to what artists in other disciplines do. “It’s very much like writing. You brainstorm your ideas, you condense it and form like a thesis statement - what the mission is for the collection,” Villaseñor said. “If I can be as personal as I can be, then there’s nothing that can go wrong because all I can really be is myself. So, I created a brand based around that with all of my personal stories. Some people write, and I make clothes.”
In 2012, Villaseñor’s life changed forever. Hip-hop poet Kendrick Lamar’s stylist had contacted him seeking a T-shirt that he designed called the “Bandana Tee.” The shirt extends with the pattern of a bandana in an a-symmetrical way. Still struggling financially, Villaseñor did not have the money to produce the design. Then he found $100,000 in his bank account. Lamar had fronted him the money for two colors—black and red. Villaseñor recalls that as the turning point for his business. “I remember at that time we were driving a beat up Ford Runner. I cried to my sister in the car. I came from stretching out $10 to $100 racks. That changed everything.”
Grammy nominee Lamar then performed at the BET awards, in Villaseñor’s black Bandana Tee on national television, creating huge interest in the brand. When George Robertson, a major music agent, saw Rhude Designs, he became a business partner and Villaseñor’s connection to the music industry had begun.
Fast forward four years, when Villaseñor launched his Spring-Summer 2016 collection called, “Sugarland.” The line conjures a soldier boy from Sugarland, Texas trying to find himself. “Try to break away from yourself and understand who you are. The collection is focusing on stretching your body to your limit,” Villaseñor explained.
The youth returns from war with post-traumatic stress disorder which leads to his abuse of drugs and cigarettes. He finally realizes he can’t escape his past. The designer displayed this line at Paris Fashion Week 2017, where several international retailers showed interest and now stock Rhude Designs.
Villaseñor has major designer brand department stores selling his merchandise, including Barneys New York, Nubian in Tokyo and Sugar in Italy. At the recent Paris Fashion Week, he presented his upcoming line, “Paraiso,” which means Paradise in Tagalog, the Philippines language. With it, he honors the tropical lifestyle of his island hometown.
Villaseñor went from being an intern for Shaun Samson, to a world-renowned luxury clothing brand designer. My hiring marks his first hire of a student from UCSB’s division of Humanities and Fine Arts. My colleague Mikey Murguia, who was the first intern of Rhude Designs, lists the most important things he has learned from the job:“Never get too comfortable, always stay on your toes,” he said. Murguia has seen the brand rise from the ground up and credits Villaseñor’s success to his immigrant’s drive and humility as well as his artistic passion. “In the end, there is only one Rhuigi Villaseñor. He is truly one of one,” Murguia said. “People need to wake up because nothing lasts forever. He is a true example of an authentic designer.”
Scott Fordonda, Rhude’s operations manager, says Villaseñor brings something to the table that is innovative and unique. “His artistic and forward-thinking designs are why I’m here today. He’s the definition of a grassroots artist living the American Dream, being an immigrant from the Philippines and coming from nothing,” Fordonda said. “The clothes have a story behind them which makes them more valuable than just your basic name brand.”
Chris Jasmine Catapia is a third year UC Santa Barbara student majoring in Philosophy. She wrote this article for the Writing Program course: Journalism for Web and Social Media.