100 Women 2016: Designing clothes for people with Down's syndrome

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Isabella in one of her own jackets, inspired by traditional Guatemalan textilesImage source, Juan Carlos Menendez
Image caption,
Isabella is 19 years old and has already shown her work at London Fashion Week

For one woman with Down's syndrome, rejection and discrimination spurred her on - as far as London Fashion Week. Now this designer from Guatemala is on the BBC's 2016 list of 100 inspirational women.

Before she was an internationally-recognised designer, Isabella Springmuhl says she was rejected by two fashion schools in her native Guatemala because she has Down's syndrome.

"They said I would not be able to cope," recalls the 19-year-old.

But that rejection was exactly what Isabella needed to turn her life around, says her mother, Isabel Tejada.

"I was furious that these institutions did not give Isabella a chance to learn. It was so sad, but it made her change everything. She then decided she wanted to learn sewing so I took her to a sewing academy for women."

Image source, Juan Carlos Menendez

While learning how to sew, Isabella was asked to design outfits for worry dolls - traditionally hand-made dolls originating from Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. The tiny dolls are usually put under children's pillows in the hope that they will take away their sorrows while they sleep.

Isabella took a different approach.

"Isabella didn't want to design clothes for... finger-sized dolls," says Mrs Tejada. "She created life-sized dolls and dressed them in the colourful embroidered jackets and ponchos that she's now famous for."

Image caption,
Isabella picks colourful textiles from the markets in her home country, Guatemala

Isabella moved from designing for dolls to people, and soon enough produced a collection that gained the attention of the fashion world. Earlier this year, she became the first designer with Down's syndrome to take part in London Fashion Week.

It was the platform that made her. But aside from having a passion for fashion, Isabella points out that her main inspiration for designing arose after a struggle to find well-fitting clothing for her body type.

"It was difficult for me to get clothes," Isabella says.

"We have a different body constitution; we are shorter, wider, or very thin. My mother always had to fix the clothes she bought for me.

"So I decided to design clothes that fit people with Down's syndrome, plus I really love Guatemalan textiles and the diversity of colours and textures they represent."

What is 100 women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. We create documentaries, features and interviews about their lives, giving more space for stories that put women at the centre.

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Isabella's colourful signature designs, consisting of one-of-a-kind Guatemalan vintage textiles combined with colourful floral embroidery, have increased the popularity of the young designer who has already been invited to fashion events being held in Panama and Miami next year.

She has her own unique design process. It starts with hand-picking vintage, authentic Guatemalan textiles from her trusted supplier in Antigua which are then taken back to her atelier and worked on by a seamstress and an embroidery expert, all according to Isabella's specifications.

Image caption,
Isabella's family, including her designer grandmother, are an inspiration for her work

"She's quite opinionated and headstrong about her decisions," laughs Mrs Tejada. "If I or anyone else makes a suggestion she says 'Uh uh mama no, I want it this way.'"

Her strength and determination came about precisely because her journey to success was not an easy one.

"The truth is, people were critical and didn't believe I could do things", Isabella says.

"I was discriminated against.

"But I had the love of my family and my friends and that helped me to make my dream come true. I have already been to Rome, London, Mexico and have been invited next year to go to Miami, Chicago and possibly Paris."

Image source, Alexs Vazquez
Image caption,
Isabella showed her designs at London Fashion Week 2016
Image caption,
Isabella met other designers at London Fashion Week, including five others from Guatemala

What's next for the teenage designer? To conquer the world, of course.

"I want to export my brand Down to Xjabelle all over the world. I want people to know my designs and to know that people with Down's syndrome can do what they set out to do. I want to be able to live on my own and be 100% self -sufficient.

"I want people to know me for my work, and what is inside my heart."