From Monk to Fashion Designer
By Patricia Morris Buckley
As the youngest of 11 children, Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra watched as his siblings chose careers in law, medicine and architecture. Even then, he knew he wanted something completely different for his life.
“I wanted to be an artist all the time,” he said. “I was always telling everyone that wherever I went.”
It took Ybarra many years to accomplish his goal, with detours into graphic design and Catholic ministries. Today, this North Park resident is a fashion designer, a teacher, a jewelry craftsman, theatrical costume designer and a historical archivist.
“Jose Maria is so fabulously talented,” said Lisa Paik, director of public relations for Fashion Careers College (FCC) in San Diego. “He just has a fashion sense that you don’t see often. The artisanship behind his craft is phenomenal.”
Born in Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico, Ybarra came to the US to earn his BA at the University of Arizona. Mindful of his family’s admonishment to have a profession where he could earn a living, he majored in graphic design. His life then took a major turn when he entered a monastery in Italy.
“I had always been asking why I was so lucky,” he said of his reasons for making such a drastic decision. “People always talk about all the poverty in Mexico, but I didn’t see it. I lived in a bubble in Catholic boarding schools until I moved to the U.S. Then I wanted to make a difference. My way of changing the world was through the church.”
Ybarra chose a monastery in Italy because he had visited his grandmother there every summer. He had a working vocabulary of French and Italian, which helped him as he was stationed in Vatican City.
“It was great for the most part because we really helped people,” he said. “I was good at following and being a team player.”
After 13 years, he grew weary of living well while others lived in poverty. When he could no longer deal with this and other such incongruities, he left the order. Ybarra then tried a Buddhist monastery in New Mexico, but after leading a busy life in Italy, he couldn’t spend the day chanting, and left after six months.
Visiting family in San Diego, he discovered the Fashion Careers College and finally found the perfect way to match his artistic gift with his need to be busy and helpful. As he already had a bachelor’s degree, he finished the college’s certificate program in two years, graduating in 1994. It was obvious to his teachers that Ybarra had a significant gift.
During that time, famed fashion designer Zandra Rhodes also saw that same spark in Ybarra when they worked together at the San Diego Opera, where she designed costumes for “The Pearl Fishers.” She invited him back to London to assist her in opening the Fashion and Textile Museum in 2003.
After Ybarra returned, he tried his hand at designing costumes for Cygnet Theatre, Lamb’s Players Theater and the Old Globe Theatre.
“Someone from Sierra Repertory Theatre saw my work at Cygnet and asked me to design a show there,” he recalled. After graduating, he traveled to Sonora to be the guest costume designer for a production of “Rashomon.” “I ended up staying there for 18 months.”
The reality TV show “Project Runway” brought him back to San Diego. A friend at FCC suggested he audition for the show, and he needed help from the college to put together a portfolio. Although he progressed easily through the audition levels, he eventually decided against being on the show late in the process.
“I’m a private person,” he explained. “I didn’t understand why a camera had to follow you to the bathroom. I just didn’t want to go to that last level.”
However, that experience led to Ybarra teaching classes at FCC, something he has quickly grown passionate about. Once again, he has found a way to give back to others.
“I never want to stop teaching,” he said. “I love watching the students’ faces when they get it. It’s the kind of satisfaction you usually only get by eating chocolate.”
He also continues to volunteer to help others with his gift. For instance, he recently assisted the San Diego Historical Society’s Museum of San Diego History with its latest exhibit, “San Diego Style,” which features 39 pieces of historical clothing from the late 19th century to 2008. He recreated historical undergarments and researched each piece’s relevance to San Diego history.
“Jose Maria brought a great sense of balance to the show with his technical knowledge,” said Nicholas Vega, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “This knowledge helped us fill several gaps.”
In addition to teaching, Ybarra continues to design for theater and hopes to have his own fashion line someday. He already designs Halloween costumes for Target and Marvel Comics and sells his sparkly and highly stylized jewelry (all gold, silver and real pearls) on the Internet.
“It takes a bold woman to wear one of my pieces,” said Ybarra, who began selling his work when actresses bought them after a show closed. “And interestingly enough, I’m famous for my rosaries.”
Paik agrees that Ybarra’s designs are unforgettable. “Everything he does is grandiose and over-the-top, but in a good way,” she pointed out. “A lot of his designs are based on certain eras, which he learned in designing for the theater, and that’s what makes them interesting.”
After a path that’s taken him from Mexico to the U.S. and Italy and London, Ybarra has finally fulfilled his wish of being an artist in so many ways, it’s difficult to count them all.
“Fashion is my thing,” he said. “It’s what I feel I’m good at. But I could never do just one thing. I love doing everything that I do.”
Fashion Careers College will hold its 23rd annual Golden Hanger Fashion Awards Gala on Nov. 7, from 6:30-11 p.m. at the Town & Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego. Students of FCC will debut their collections on the runway, and costumes from the Timken Museum’s Art of Fashion event will also be featured. The event supports the Make-A-Wish Foundation of San Diego and Variety Children’s Lifeline Charity. For more information, call (619) 275-4700 or visit www.fashioncareerscollege.com.