Ilse Valfré has built an army of dedicated fans and customers for her feminine art and apparel.
In 2010, Ilse Valfré was working as a Montessori preschool teacher in San Diego. She loved working with children, her mother always said that she was very good with them, but something just wasn’t right. “I really wanted a job where I could be my own boss because I wanted to travel,” says Valfré, sitting on the patio of Alfred’s Tea Room in Los Angeles. “I liked working [at the school], but it wasn’t my own thing. I knew I could do it for the time that I did, but I was getting really itchy.” The only way that she could scratch her itch was by quitting her safe job and jumping into the unknown. And that’s exactly what she did.Now as Valfré — the multi-talented visual artist and fashion designer behind her eponymous line — looks back on that life-changing decision, she smiles knowing that it all worked out for the best. But that was not a guarantee six years ago: “I moved back in with my parents [in Tijuana, Mexico], I started a blog and I started doing artwork everyday. I was super broke because I wasn’t making any income and my parents weren’t giving me any allowances once I came back!”
With no money and no distractions, Valfré went to work every day on her blog, which was a mix of drawings and designs that really spoke to her. Pen drawings of fantastical, girlie pinup characters with big eyes sporting pink blush over star-shaped freckles began to define Valfré’s aesthetic and gain her followers.
“When I started, I only had something like five views — and three of those views were probably from me!” laughs Valfré. “After two years, [my blog] really grew because that’s when Tumblr and especially Instagram really started to take off.” While Valfré isn’t afraid of being proud about her accomplishments, saying that her blog has “taken off” is still a bit of an understatement. As of publishing time, Valfré’s Instagram boasts 642,000 followers, with a single post regularly garnering over 10,000 likes.
What started as a simple blog to push her art out into the world has turned into a fashionable company specializing in summery dresses, playful iPhone cases and an onslaught of postcards and prints of Valfré’s original creations. “Even though we’re 15 people now, I think [that starting by myself was] the best way to start because I now know, on a small scale, I know each area because I didn’t go to school for business. It helped me to start like that from scratch.”
Now working “100 percent on the creative” side, Valfré has been able to expand her carefully curated list of inspirations, which includes Frida Kahlo (“I love how raw she was back in the day with her emotions — she had no filter and transmitted that in her art”), illustrator Edward Gorey, Chloë Sevigny (“She’s the ultimate effortless cool girl”) and street artist Miss Van (“She really blew my mind being a female street artist breaking pretty much all the rules in being a male dominated environment”). Her favorite thing to do now is be inspired by the world around her.
“I gather a lot of my inspiration from girls I meet,” says Valfré as she takes a look at people sitting near us. “I like to observe people and I think that LA is a very interesting place for that because it seems like the people here aren’t very judgmental. Here you can be yourself and nobody cares.” That self-assuredness is present in the growing use of bright and vibrant colors within Valfré’s work. “The way that people dress or the color scheme that people are wearing can inspire me to do a drawing.”
Beyond inspiring her work, Los Angeles has become a welcoming home to Valfré’s art, which wasn’t getting any pickup in Mexico. “I went and knocked on doors and got noes all the time [at home],” Valfré says. “[But] its so cool to see that with the internet, you could not be popular in a country — like Mexico … just wanted something different and I wasn’t a hit there — however, here [in the United States] I was a hit because of the internet.” And Valfré doesn’t take the advantages that the internet gave her lightly: “Once I quit my job and went back to my parents’ house, I emailed every day all the time. I knew I had to make this work because there was nothing else that I could see myself doing. I didn’t have the money or the connections to go to galleries in New York and say ‘Check out my work,’ but because of the internet, [I found a following]. I’m very thankful for the internet.”
Not only is Valfré thankful for the channel that helped launch her career, she’s thankful to the people who fell in love with her dainty and powerful images in the first place. “I want all of our campaigns to be organic and artsy because not everyone buys from us. Our customers or followers or fans — whatever you want to call them — some of them follow the brand and the art and do their makeup like the characters, some of them get tattoos [and some just] buy a dress. I want it to be more like an experience, because that’s what it is. I want it to keep that artsy feeling because it’s an art based company. I really want to keep that DNA alive and so far I think we’ve done a good job with that!”