Most women embark on a quest for the perfect dress at least once in their lives, be it for a prom or a wedding, a quinceañera or a sweet 16 celebration. For Maria Aguilar, owner of Bradenton’s Purabell House of Fashion, that quest takes place daily.
Aguilar has been in the business of designing and making “the perfect dress” for countless women for decades — and she’s only just getting started.
By combining an eye for fashion, a lifetime’s worth of experience as seamstress and a mind for business and ambition to succeed, Aguilar has grown her business from a humble dressmaking shop to a sophisticated haute couture fashion production and consulting company based out of Bradenton.
Originally from Mexico, Aguilar moved to Florida in 1987 and graduated with a degree in fashion from Tampa’s International Academy of Design and Technology. She went on to open her first fashion business, Originals by Maria, in Palmetto.
With Originals by Maria, Aguilar built her reputation for high quality custom-made gowns and dresses for weddings and quinceañeras. (Similar to sweet 16 celebrations in the United States, quinceañeras are elaborate celebrations when young women in many Latin American cultures turn 15). Originals by Maria also specialized in ballroom dancing gowns and figure skating costumes, as well as garment alterations and tailoring.
“I don’t remember ever really having to advertise,” Aguilar recalled. “Business spread by word of mouth once women started wearing the dresses.”
While Aguilar’s daughter, Malvina — who today helps run Purabell House of Fashion — was a student at Bayshore High School, Aguilar became involved with the fashion programs at local schools like Bayshore and Manatee Technical Institute, where she organized fashion shows and connected students with industry professionals and models so that they could learn tricks of the trade such as runway walking.
Aguilar returned to Mexico in 2000 with plans to expand her business by opening a production company. There, her private design label, Purabell, was born. During her time in Mexico, Aguilar worked with companies in California to manufacture clothing, but maintained the desire to ultimately operate a full in-house fashion business.
The company went through its share of growing pains, particularly when the economy began to fail in 2008, but by 2009 Aguilar was ready to bring her label back to the United States.
“We hit a spot where we were really discouraged, which I think a lot of businesses have been hitting throughout the past few years in this economy, but we knew we had to pick up and move forward,” Malvina Aguilar recalled.
Aguilar became involved with the Manatee Chamber's Economic Development Council, where she said she discovered the resources and motivation to re-open her business in Bradenton and bring the Purabell design label to the next level.
“As soon as my old clients knew I was back in business, they were there,” Aguilar said. “The support from the community has been really amazing.”
Whereas Originals By Maria was a much smaller operation, Aguilar used the industry experience she gained over the last decade to establish Purabell House of Fashion as a more sophisticated operation.
Aguilar chose the location for Purabell House of Fashion in an up-and-coming area of commerce off Lena Road (just east of I-75 on State Road 70) because of its proximity to the interstate.
“We started out small, but we ultimately want to be all over Florida,” Aguilar said. “Being close to the interstate has already made it easier for people to come from Tampa or Sarasota, but that’s just the beginning. What we really look forward to is helping other boutiques start their own labels.”
Purabell House of Fashion is currently preparing to branch into consulting and assisting local boutiques in manufacturing their own lines of apparel. The production space at Purabell House of Fashion is large enough to manage small-to-midsize manufacturing products for these boutiques.
Aguilar’s experience in international manufacturing also makes her an invaluable resource for clients looking to acquire contracts with larger manufacturing companies overseas. However, the Aguilars say they plan to encourage boutiques to manufacture locally whenever possible.
“Support for local economy and domestic manufacturing is the direction the country is taking, and it’s something that we want to promote,” Malvina Aguilar said. “It’s more cost effective in the end and allows you to take a much more hands-on approach to the final product.”
Once the operation is fully up and running, Aguilar indicated that Purabell is set to hire five more people to begin with, and will continue to create jobs as it grows.
“The cost of producing locally is somewhat higher, but when you think about what you’re getting in the long run and what it does for the community, we really think it’s worth it,” Aguilar said.
“You just have to think about what you’re doing for the community by staying local. Not only are you getting a better quality product, but you’re creating jobs — and in this economy, that goes a long way.”
In the meantime, Purabell House of Fashion continues to work on custom projects while advancing its own line of fashion designs.
“This is not just a job for me —it’s something I truly enjoy,” Aguilar said. “I’ve been around sewing machines for 40 years and have always loved it. I was the little girl who always knew what she wanted to do when she grew up, and now I’m lucky because I get to do what I love every day.”