Darlene C. Ritz is the chair for the Fashion Design department at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. A Denver native, she has worked and traveled all around the world, only to return back in recent years. Her resume is quite impressive, she has designed in New York City as well as in Japan, for the trendy brand UNIQLO. And with a recent Ed. D in Organizational Leadership, it’s no surprise that she was invited to present at this year’s Denver Red Ball.

Darlene C Ritz with Students

Darlene C Ritz with Students. Photo by Delmy Gooch

However, her life wasn’t always so glamorous and fashionable. Her first job was at Casa Bonita, where she spent her days as a dishwasher. Working odd jobs here and there she eventually got herself to New York City where she ended up with her first design job, which paid less than waitress. Through out the years Ritz worked her way up the fashion ladder until she ended up back in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

Red Ball is a hair show and fashion show that takes place in Denver showcasing local designers, innovative hairstyles from dozens of salons, and artist. The show produces over 100 pieces of fashion with red elements in each garment. The show aims to raise awareness for World AIDS Day and support services by Denver Colorado AIDS project. Having taken place on November 20, 2016, this year’s show featured Ritz who made waves with her innovative collection of both men’s and women’s pieces. So we sat down with Ritz to discuss this year’s Red Ball as well as learn a bit more about her complex past.

“Ironically, the RMCAD campus is next door to my first job, washing dishes at Casa Bonita.” – Darlene C. Ritz

303 Magazine: Hi Darlene, can you first tell our readers a bit about yourself and your history in the fashion industry?

Darlene C. Ritz: My career in the fashion industry officially began in New York City, though I have been designing garments for as long as I can remember. I have designed in NYC, LA, San Diego, Tokyo, Toronto, and many other cities. As a Colorado native, I jumped at the opportunity to return to my home state in 2014 to work with Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design as the Chair of the newly launched Fashion Design program. Ironically, the RMCAD campus is next door to my first job, washing dishes at Casa Bonita. It’s been so great to see how much the Denver fashion industry, and the art scene,  has grown in the past 20 years.

Darlene C. Ritz with DeMarcio Slaughter in a fitting – Photo by Meg O’Neill

Darlene C. Ritz with DeMarcio Slaughter in a fitting – Photo by Meg O’Neill

303:  It seems like life was not always so glamorous. Did you dream of becoming a designer even when you were a dish washer?

Ritz: Yes and no. In high school I thought I would study theater as my Bachelor degree (I did obtain a minor in theater) in hopes of becoming an actor for a living. However, I was always doodling in the margins of notes and my doodles were always fashion. I even designed homecoming dresses for my best friend (Cindy Schutz) and me; though I did not have the skill at the time to make them. Sometime before college Cindy suggested studying Fashion Design and things just clicked.

As a college student I worked all the typical college jobs; I delivered pizza, waited tables, served cocktails, and worked in the costume department (as a scholarship). I moved to NYC 10 days after college graduation and started interviewing anyway I possibly could, including restaurants. I was offered my first industry job and a waitress job within two weeks; ended up accepting the Assistant Designer position, even though it was less money.
I joke that my first apartment in New York was a single that I shared with a family of cockroaches.  It was hard work and long hours for very little pay; I survived on street vendor bagels; and I learned so very much.
303:  How did you keep your dreams alive?

Ritz: Keeping the dream alive was so very difficult in those first few years. I was discouraged by more one person, and told not to continue. That only fueled my determination to continue. The best way I can describe how I kept my dream alive is to tell you the same story I tell my students: remember your fashion moment. My fashion moment came when I was about 6 years old. My mom was my first fashion icon. One day we were coming home from ballet class and I was grouchy. My mom asked if she could try to cheer me up; I responded ,”You can try but it won’t work”. We were driving over the hill on Kipling about 38th street. Those of you who have grown up in cold weather climates know how light takes on a sparkling quality in the cold winter evenings. It was a cold, dark evening in December and all the city lights were sparkling in the cold.   As we got to the top my mom said “Oh, look at how beautiful! It looks like diamonds on black velvet! Oh, I wish I had a dress made of that material!” I immediately visualized my mom wrapped in diamond encrusted black velvet; I still have a picture of it in my mind. Any time I thought about giving up, I thought about that picture.

At every orientation, I share that story. Some students like to share their fashion moment, some don’t. However, I have never met a designer that didn’t have one. I tell students to remember that moment any time they feel like giving up; and those times will come. What makes a difference is being able to ride through those moments.
My career has taken twists and turns I never expected. I was in fashion sales and marketing for a bit; I’ve been a fashion educator for 13 years now. Still, I have always been in the fashion industry and I have always found a way to use my creative, design instincts to help clients and students. I have always been a designer, even when my title did not have the word “designer” in it. And I have always maintained my connections through freelance work. It has paid off in spades.

303: Since Red Ball is all about benefiting the Denver Colorado AIDS project, can you tell us a bit more about the project or what you learned?

Ritz: This organization brings services to nearly 4,000 people living with AIDS. Being a part of the fund raising effort to provide these services was truly an honor and I am humbled by the experience. I was a teenager in the ’80s and witnessed the fear and discrimination that accompanied this horrible disease, including the slow reaction to provide services for those in need. We have made progress, yet, there is still no cure. If fashion can help provide service, I’m in.

303: What does it mean to participate in this year’s Red Ball?

Ritz: Two of RMCAD’s fashion design students volunteered at Red Ball: Ben Rosenthal and Alexandra Knox. After the show, Alexandra said she was so inspired and could not wait to design for the show next year. That is worth every single minute spent working on this collection.

303: Tell us a bit about creating your collection for Red Ball? What were your influences?

Ritz: There were two major influences on this collection. Costume history tells us about how people lived their lives on a daily basis. What is more basic to the human experience than getting up and getting dressed each day? What we wear affects what we do each and every day.

There was an image of [a] woman in Edwardian chemise (camisole) and drawers that inspired the collection. The colors were inspired by DeMarico Slaughter and the fabrics he brought for us to work with for his 2016 Pridefest costumes (designed by RMCAD student Alexander Ablola, and built by RMCAD fashion department under my direction, special thanks to adjunct instructor Nicole Bartet). The combination of rich red and royal purple added a regal feel to the Edwardian-inspired dressing garments.

“Life should be a celebration, my Momma taught me that! If fashion can bring a sense of celebration to those that are suffering, then we have done something right. And if we can raise funds for services and have a good time doing it, well then we have done something right.” – Darlene C. Ritz 

303: What other collections at Red Ball stood out to you and why?

Ritz: Gosh, the whole evening is kind of a blur. Eddie Ricke, James Etc., and Eve Jenkins gowns were amazing! Kimono Dragons was the innovated as always. All of the lingerie was gorgeous. And of course, AnnaFesta is always a-mazing! What stood out for me was the camaraderie backstage with all of the designers, models, and HMUAs. I love the support in the Denver fashion community. It’s a great time to be an independent designer in Denver; not only because of sense of community but also because of the apparel manufacturing initiatives happening in this state.   

303: Anything else you’d like to add?

Ritz: I want to thank the models; Da’Nasia Jamee, Myrra Reznicek, Katie Pitts, Eddie Davis Jr, and Matt Block. Ya’ll are the best muses in the business and make me look good! Talie Ayers from 3 Little Birds Salon for the amazing hair and makeup. Marnee Padilla for the amazing choreography (and for the nudge to apply). Mostly thank you to Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design for promoting the creative industries in Denver.