Vanessa Villarreal cried when she read the email.
About a year after her first pop-up sale with Lion’s Den Creative, the 23-year-old UF alumna received a request to collaborate with Lee Jeans. A representative from the label wanted her to paint nine denim jackets to gift influencers for the holidays.
As a self-proclaimed “jean hoarder,” Villarreal started Lion’s Den Creative in September 2019, hand painting designs on items of her extensive denim collection. Since then, her work has gained attention in the Gainesville scene and beyond, being featured in publications such as Marie Claire Magazine.
Villarreal’s best friend, Aniyah Morinia, was one of the first to hear about the Lee Jeans email. Morinia, who described herself as a behind-the-scenes public relations person of Lion’s Den Creative, said she knew the message was urgent when she received a text from Villarreal of her name in all capital letters.
“It was just really sentimental and a moment that we'll definitely always remember, especially as bigger things happen,” Morinia said. “We were also grateful that her business had grown to this level where she could get recognized from a major denim company; that's like the dream.”
Villarreal spent over 50 hours adding her unique art to the jackets for celebrities such as Sam Smith, Jessica Alba, Heather Morris and Stephen “tWitch” Boss.
During the collaboration, Villarreal said Lee Jeans gave her creative freedom. She sketched two designs for each celebrity, which were inspired by their respective social media color palettes and talents. From there, she sent the ideas to a representative who offered suggestions.
Although working with denim isn’t a new medium for Villarreal, she had to adapt her process for this project. Normally, she paints jean pockets white as a base layer to sketch her design on. Since the jackets were dark denim, pencil drawings weren't visible, so she had to place trust in her hands.
For the pieces she sells at Lion’s Den Creative, Villarreal said small flaws eat her up. But for this project, she didn’t have time to find faults. She only had five days.
Each jacket took her five hours to paint, except the one for Sam Smith, which took 15 hours.
For Smith’s, Villarreal originally drew simple flowers inspired by their merchandise. However, without the luxury of a thin brush, she said the flowers looked “like blobs.” Rather than start over, she decided to make the design intricate and added more color and lines.
“That one was super stressful, but I'm really happy with the product,” she said. “And to see that Sam Smith reposted it, it was completely worth it.”
Heather Morris also publicly recognized Villarreal’s work. The dancer and actress posted a picture with her jacket, and she messaged Villarreal, saying sometimes her son steals the jacket from her closet.
From the time Villarreal read the first email to when celebrities celebrated her work, she felt disbelief. And the timing, she said, was divine.
“When it comes to Lion's Den, I just have to give glory to God for all that’s happened, because it definitely wasn't my doing independently,” Villarreal said. “I was just taken aback. Again, this is like a ‘God, is this you?’ type moment.”
Although she has made handiwork since she was four, like lined-paper bird houses and crocheted blankets, she didn’t begin painting until two and a half years ago. She didn’t study art either. So for a long time, Villarreal said the title “artist” felt like it didn't fit right. But the Lee collaboration allowed her to believe it.
“I've come to the realization, in reality, I am an artist. I'm a creator. I create. I paint,” she said. “And I'm pretty good at it.”
With orders shipped from California to New York, and now to celebrities’ homes, Villarreal’s art — and her belief in it — only continues to grow.
Contact Katie Delk at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @katie_delk.
Katie Delk is a sophomore with a journalism major and an anthropology minor. For the Avenue, she writes about music, culture and the environment. When she is not writing, she is outside with the trees, reading a fantasy book or listening to Beach House.