During his first year as a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rudy Lopez helped orchestrate the largest end-of-year showcase the fashion department has ever seen, held at the Main Street Train Shed. This is a dramatic achievement for Lopez, who, even a year ago, thought working as a professor at VCU was far from likely. After years of failed starts and stints in retail to pay the bills, he’s at the forefront of campus fashion, and branching out city-wide.
This article originally appeared in RVA #33 Summer 2018, you can check out the issue here, or pick it up around Richmond now.
Lopez, originally from the Philippines, grew up in a family of achievers. His father was a doctor, his sister a financial executive; another sister went into the arts and became a sculptor. He came of age during the 1990s East Coast skateboarding scene. Although he loved to draw from his earliest years, he really explored his creative side while playing in bands and traveling to hardcore punk shows in DC. When it came to a career, he wasn’t sure where his many interests and energy would lead.
Lopez took his first shot at college at George Mason University, where he quickly partied his way to academic probation. The summer after his first year, while talking about his future, a friend asked if he could see himself drawing more. Lopez immediately thought, “Yes, of course.” He researched art schools and sent in five drawings to VCU; his journey through art school started that fall, in 1998.
The words of Dean Richard Toscan during orientation shaped him in ways that probably weren’t expected — he still remembers them today: “If you think you are the hot-shot artist in [your] high school, look around; you’re one of 500.”
“I felt way over my head,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t that artist.” Self-fulfilling or not, his prophecy turned out to be right — but something good still came of his struggles through the school’s foundation classes, which he called “art bootcamp.” The summer after that first year, Lopez received an invitation to help out with a fashion show in New York, hosted by Organization for Returning Fashion Interest (ORFI).
“They needed help putting on the fashion show, filling out model sheets, organizing garments, sending invitations; the grunt work,” Lopez said. He hopped a train to New York, where he went 48 hours without any sleep.
“I was surrounded by creatives,” he said. “I felt this overwhelming wave of passion.”
When he returned to VCU, he turned to the fashion department to merge his newfound interest with his desire to be creative. He pursued the Fashion Merchandising track, thinking he could study design later if he wanted. Future internships led him to new contacts in New York and revelations about his career path. After graduation, Lopez attended Parsons School of Design, where he studied fashion graphic design.
From Parsons, he worked his way back to Richmond’s Need Supply Co., where he worked as a store manager before opening Henry, a streetwear shop on Broad Street, in 2006. Although the store earned acclaim, and is seen as the foundation for the current streetwear scene in the Broad Street Arts District, it didn’t survive the economic downturn, closing in 2008.
Lopez was discouraged. “It got to a point where I hated the Richmond fashion scene,” he said. He and his wife decided it was time for a break from the city, returning to Lopez’s native Philippines for about five months. However, he came back for a position at VCU, as a manager at the campus technology store.
While there, an assistant professorship opened up at the Fashion Department in VCU. “They asked me to interview,” Lopez said, and he went for it, despite thinking it was a long shot. Fortunately, he got the job, and said he couldn’t be happier with the work, especially mentoring students like himself who struggle to find their passion.
“I love it — teaching, guiding, and mentoring,” Lopez said. “Looking back at my own path, I always liked giving younger, up-and-coming people advice. I loved helping them and giving them whatever I could.”
He described the team as “a great blend of analytical and creative backgrounds,” looking to “create well-rounded people who can think in a variety of ways.”
Enter Lopez. He hopes to encourage an increasing level of collaboration among departments in the school and with businesses in the community. He says the community is ready for it. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t follow fashion,’ but every single person is dressed,” he said. “You’re part of the cycle.”
During the end-of-year fashion showcase, Lopez invited friends to create music, bringing the community to the campus. Joe Davenport, who performs as DJ Bobby La Beat, laid out live beats.
It’s just a first, small step toward his goal of uniting different communities. “Collaboration this year is not as extensive as I would like,” he said. “When you look at the production of a fashion show, there are so many elements: we have music we need to curate, the Department of Theater could create backdrops for the fashion show, there’s opportunity to work more closely with the designers as they create their collections.”
The physical impact of his presence could be seen in the innovative runway design for the 2018 showcase. The venue selection gave students space to create a runway that welcomed three times as many guests compared to previous years. Compared to a typical 70-foot runway, Lopez said, this year’s runway snaked through the train shed for nearly 500 feet.
“People were caught off guard when I said the fashion show could be bigger,” Lopez said, about an event that was already dramatically larger than prior ones. “It could be bigger not even in terms of people, but to be inclusive of people outside of VCUArts and fashion.”
Ultimately, he does this work because he wants the next generation of fashion students to be as proud of Richmond as he is. He said his work is “a reflection of how proud I feel graduating from the school, and the students coming after me.”