University of Michigan senior Alexa DeFord has designed shoes for DKNY and worked for Steve Madden. But the path to her fashion dreams wasn’t easy.
By Alana Blumenstein
Photography by Alyssa Lopatin
University of Michigan student Alexa DeFord is not your ordinary college senior. At just 21, she’s designed shoes for DKNY and secured a summer job at Steve Madden. DeFord is living out her dream, but her success wasn’t easy to achieve.
DeFord, an Ann Arbor native, decided in fifth grade that she wanted to be a fashion designer. “I was just always interested in fashion,” she says. From then on, she says fashion was her passion. She loved fashion coloring books and would cut up and design clothing for her American Girl dolls.
In high school, DeFord took a break from her art when she began struggling with her mental health. Now, she recognizes it as a mix of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety. She says she was unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time, and it reflected in her grades. When she stopped showing up to school completely, she was hospitalized. She says her love of art is what helped her cope. “I was just always drawing and doing art,” she says. “And that is what I kind of stuck to.”
When she returned to school, DeFord says she finally felt confident in her skills. Taking control over her designs — and her health — she dropped all her AP art classes and replaced them with independent studies. “I made my own curriculum for art,” she says, adding that art became half her schedule. “That is what kept me in school senior year of high school.”
She still didn’t know where college would take her, but she knew her future was in fashion. Initially, she had pictured herself living in New York. But she quickly realized she wasn’t ready for such a big change. On a whim, she applied to a program in her hometown: The Stamps School of Art and Design. To her surprise, she was sitting in her basement when she received her acceptance letter. “I think my mom fainted,” she says. “That was a huge deal.”
DeFord says transitioning to college was tough. “Freshman year was very hard for me,” she says. “But I found what I liked and realized that if I started networking … I could find opportunities for myself.”
Her first opportunity came sophomore year when Steve Madden hosted an event in Ann Arbor. There, she met Wendy Steinberg, the vice president of key accounts. “I just started talking to her and she offered me a job,” she says. In June 2018, DeFord began her summer internship at Steve Madden.
When she returned for junior year, DeFord became the digital fashion editor for SHEI magazine, a U-M fashion, art and pop culture publication.
In January, DeFord was walking through campus when a DKNY poster caught her eye. The poster advertised the 2019 Stamps Shoe Design Competition, inviting students to submit their designs to the fashion house. In addition to receiving $150 to both DKNY and Bass, winners would receive an all-expenses paid trip to New York to create prototypes of their designs.
DeFord says she began by researching the company. “If it’s not on-brand for that specific company, they’re not going to sell it,” she explains. She studied the styles presented online and in fashion shows. “What they sell online is very different from what’s in the show,” she says. “I wanted to mix the two together, but I also wanted to make the shoe marketable to young women.”
UM Diversity and Inclusion Advisor Brian Banks says DeFord’s work stood out. “Alexa is really good,” he says, adding he knew she would be in the running. “She is a really humble, talented student. I think she’s going to do really well in the future.”
DeFord was given two assignments: a DKNY sneaker and a GH Bass & Co. penny loafer. For her first shoe, DeFord designed a black and white sneaker with subtle hints of red and pink. In the detailing, she weaved the laces through DKNY lettering on the side. In her second assignment, DeFord went for a simple penny loafer with an athletic twist.
Her winning shoes will be eventually available in stores.
“It feels really good to know that I accomplished something like that,” DeFord says. “If I can handle that, I think I can handle anything.”
The competition may be over, but DeFord’s work is just beginning. This summer, she returned to Steve Madden as a design assistant. “I’ve just formed great relationships with them,” she says. “I really, really love working at Steve Madden.”
DeFord says there are times when she still can’t believe this is her life. “Something I tell myself every day is, ‘This is the life I used to dream about,’ ” she says. While a part of her credits fate, she also credits her dedication to her craft.
Even though DeFord is living her dreams, she still has to manage her mental health. To cope, she stays in touch with her therapist through FaceTime. “It’s not ever going to be all glamorous,” she says.
Though social media posts may paint the illusion of a perfect life, DeFord says there’s no such thing. “Everyone struggles,” she says. “Social media is solely a way of showing your best self.”
To all aspiring designers, DeFord advises not to worry about failure. “The only way that you’re going to succeed is if you fail,” she says.