Brownsville native lands spot on New York Fashion Week runways
On a warm summer night in downtown Brownsville, the house-turned-art-studio adjacent to the Carlotta K. Petrina Cultural Center thrummed with the beat of electronic music and chatter as people awaited the start of a fashion show.
One by one, models adorned in outlandishly tailored suits glided through the studio and down the front steps on high heels. The fashion show ended with applause from onlookers, followed by a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to honor the person who brought them together.
At 21, Brownsville native Nolan Navarro has carved out a career in the notoriously tough modeling world and is a regular at New York Fashion Week. The birthday soirée-fashion-show is an example of how Navarro — who uses gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” when referring to self — has continued to cultivate aspiring talent in their hometown along the way.
“ I’m part of the whole change, and I think it’s kind of cool that this is all happening,” Navarro said. “I went from a more masculine or more feminine side at the end of fashion week this season.”
Navarro is tall and slender with a shock of close-cropped hair bleached and dyed hot pink. Combined with a sheer black-and-pink dress, it’s an ensemble that might turn heads in Brownsville but wouldn’t warrant a second look in New York City, Navarro said.
Despite the city’s reputation as a world fashion capital, Navarro said it’s only been during the past few years that New York Fashion Week and the industry have become more inclusive of models of color and members of the LGBT community. They were featured in a video of Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour discussing highlights from the September runways.
Navarro has long had a love of fashion and worked to overcome bullying to express that passion from a young age. They started their own modeling agency at 14, with help from mom Ester Navarro, and began organizing fashion shows and coaching girls in the skill of walking in high heels.
“That’s the second I put them on. I already knew how to walk in them,” Navarro said. “It came to me like that, and I knew that I just had to keep going with them.”
They were offered a modeling contract by a New York City agency at 19, and participation in Fashion Week soon followed.
“The second I got to New York, it was just castings after castings after castings,” Navarro said.
They have since modeled for luxury brands like Palomo Spain and Luar, both known for new age designs. Miley Cyrus fans might recall a one-of-a kind Palomo Spain garment from her “Malibu” music video that was modeled by Navarro.
They said the fashion industry, which brings Navarro in close proximity to celebrities and fashion icons, can be a whirlwind. But they are determined to stay level-headed.
“Being able to ask for something and being able to get it handed to you within a matter of hours — just a crazy feeling,” Navarro said. “But I think I’m really strong about that and I’m really, really safe about every move that I make … because I don’t want to fall down. I don’t want to fall deep into a spiral, as they call it.”
“A lot of people didn’t believe in him, especially in the Valley. They were like, ‘Well, he’s a kid. What can this kid do?’” mom Ester Navarro said. “Well, believe it or not, all those people were proven wrong because we’re very, very proud of him.”
Dad Rodolfo Navarro added that Nolan appeared in fashion shows around the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, once even clearing everything from the walls in their home to host a show.
Family members said Nolan grew up showing an interest in just about every creative field, from fashion and photography to music and theater. Older sister Nadine Navarro said Nolan asked for a sewing machine as a birthday gift and learned to sew without instruction. She started modeling for Nolan when they were 14 and 16.
“He conquered it and went all the way to New York, showing everybody, ‘You guys bullied me, and look at how far I came,’” Nadine Navarro said. “So he’s just showing the Valley, don’t give up. You guys can get somewhere. From a very small town at the tip of Texas all the way to New York Fashion Week.”
They said Nolan has tried to lift up others along the way. Ester Navarro said Nolan organized a charity fashion show for a family friend who was diagnosed with cancer, and Nadine Navarro along with three others made it to San Antonio Fashion Week thanks to Nolan’s coaching.
“That’s Nolan. He’s encouraging everybody out there,” she said, adding that Nolan never hesitated to comfort classmates who were bullied.
“ He’s doing all this for Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley,” Rodolfo Navarro said. “He wants it to be more known, for the kids here to communicate and do their fashions.”
Navarro has continued to collaborate with best friend Juan Martinez, 19, a designer and stylist, on fashion events in Brownsville. For Navarro’s birthday fashion show, Martinez ran with the idea of transforming blazers and business attire into something “totally different.”
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Martinez said of Navarro. “We support each other. He supports me with everything we do.”
The duo has taken over the studio space at the behest of the Carlotta K. Petrina Cultural Center, where Martinez recently held a fashion event and is planning another show next year. It’s tough for up-and-coming models with little money or social media followers to get started, Martinez said.
“We have a couple creatives that reach out to us every day and tell us they’re really interested, and we help them as much as possible,” Martinez said. “It’s really important for the fashion industry to come out here because it’s really hidden here in Brownsville.”
Locals who are interested in fashion connect mostly through socializing, such as events at coffee shops or museums. People who have heard of Navarro’s success might feel intimidated, Martinez said, but they shouldn’t be.
“He’s outgoing. If you want to talk to him, talk to him and he’ll become your friend,” Martinez said.
Navarro said while many young people want to leave the Valley, Navarro wants to bring the fashion industry’s attention to the area. Everyone is welcome to the model castings they and Martinez organize.
“We want to get to know you,” Navarro said.
Despite the tough nature of the fashion world, Navarro said they want to continue advancing in the modeling industry — including finding success abroad. They are also pursuing their degree at Austin Community College and aspire to become a journalist.
“I feel like if I quit, I would be a failure. There’s no taking a step back, it only moves forward,” Navarro said. “I’m still putting in the work, and the universe is still giving back to me. It’s good karma, for sure.”