i live here (now): valerie mayen

"I love the pot de crème from the Greenhouse Tavern," confesses Valerie Mayen. "Sometimes, they let me take the ramekin home and bring it back for a refill."

Apparently the skinny world of high style leaves a little room for a sweet tooth.

Cleveland's top fashionista is so partial to sweets that she even named her local couture business after a confection. Yellowcake, after all, is named after yellow cake with chocolate frosting, a dessert Mayen says is wholly underrated.

The essence of that timeless treat aptly describes the crafter's craft: "Sweet design with classic style." Mayen's ability to apply that mantra to her unique clothing line garnered national notoriety last year on Season 8 of Lifetime's smash hit "Project Runway."

On that reality competition show, Mayen showcased more than just her fashion flair; she quietly displayed support for the North Coast while hobnobbing with the likes of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. Donning items such as an oversized sweater emblazoned with 216 or a "Cleveland is for plums" T-shirt, Mayen showed her adopted city major props. Calling this city home for nearly a decade, Mayen's enthusiasm for all things Cleveland is more than cotton-deep.

Before settling in Cleveland, the Corpus Christie, Texas native studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. A Cleveland Institute of Art scholarship lured her here. Upon graduating from CIA in 2005, Mayen was awarded a Creative Workforce Fellowship and a $20,000 grant from Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC).

But Mayen credits Clevelanders, whom she describes as "sincere, kind, hard working and not pretentious," for truly forging her North Coast connection. She has even also found a way to keep in touch with her Guatemalan heritage through Café Bellas Artes, a club that celebrates the Latino arts community.

For those who assume Cleveland in February is the land of parkas and bubble vests, Mayen aims to turn that perception around. Outerwear is a Yellowcake specialty, which transforms the lowly coat to new levels of form, function and flair. With names like Convertible Apple Wrap, Eggplant Swing and Storm Cherry, the jackets look and sound almost good enough to eat.

Currently, Mayen sells her haute couture through her website, an online store at Etsy, and at various "pop-up" shops throughout town. Her offerings include hats, headbands, jackets, accessories and T-shirts. PlayhouseSquare is hosting a sales event this weekend and MOCA Cleveland will host another on Feb. 24. Don't be surprised if you run into Mayen (and her trademark cupcakes) at either event.

So, is there more to the Cleveland sewing scene than JoAnne Fabrics? Affirmative, says Mayen.

She recommends Globe Sewing Machine near Broadway for professional hardware such as steam irons, pattern weights and needles. Virginia Marti Fabrics in Lakewood supplies the softer side of the craft with one-of-a-kind designer fabrics. For fun, funky and affordable vintage threads that are ready-to-wear -- or modify -- Mayen heads to Unique Thrift on Lorain.

"Every indie hipster and arts-school girl loves Unique," she says, with emphasis on love.

The Cleveland skyline serves as backdrop to her Midtown live-work space, where Yellowcake creations come to life. Across the hall, a different mission is beginning to take shape, where carpenter's tools litter the floor and rough framed lumber stands in waiting in the airy warehouse space. When complete, Buzz and Growl will be a fully equipped sewing co-op where budding designers can "incubate" their craft. Mayen envisions members benefiting from both the space and each other as members share tips, suggestions and motivation.

Buzz and Growl will place Cleveland on the cutting edge of the burgeoning DIY sewing entrepreneur movement. Mayen hopes the open-club concept will peel back the lid of an otherwise secretive industry while supporting domestic production, which she fiercely champions. The 2,000-square-foot space will accommodate up to 40 monthly members and will include two living-wage apartments.

"The artists can live there and have a work space right next door," she says.

Assuming Mayen secures the remaining $20,000 still needed for equipment, Buzz and Growl is slated for a summer opening.

Mayen may have left Project Runway prematurely on Episode 10, but she's dug her heels deep into Cleveland. Buzz and Growl is only the beginning, she says, with future plans of expanding the co-op concept to include spaces for photography and illustration. Beyond that, Mayen dreams of launching a Cleveland-based school that teaches vocational arts such as videography, culinary arts, modeling and styling. Imparting those skills to underprivileged kids is yet another of her goals.

Until then, she'll be ratcheting up Cleveland's status on the national stage by dressing "naked" cupcakes and weaving herself more intricately in her adopted city.

"I want to raise a family here," says Mayen. "I love the seasons, the food, the people, the tradition, and the culture."

Photography by Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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