When Project Runway scouts approached Shantall Lacayo about participating in the show’s 19th season, they had no idea the Nicaraguan-born talent had already starred in the Latin American iteration of the competition more than a decade prior. Fortunately, the rules were in Lacayo’s favor. “I didn’t win, but I made it to the final,” she says of her first try. “But I took every opportunity I gained from that to build my brand.” Despite finding a wealth of inspiration in her home country, she decided that her best chance of success meant relocating to the United States.
“We always knew we wanted to move here, to find our own American dream,” says Lacayo, who settled in Miami with her husband over three years ago. But “it was hard, because it felt like we were starting from scratch.” Lucky for Lacayo, it wasn’t long before Project Runway came calling, though she took some convincing. (“Hell no, I’m not doing this again. It was too hard,” she told her husband, who reminded her what the exposure and a win could mean.) “This competition is as much about mental strength as it is about talent,” she adds.
One of her greatest challenges was homing in on her brand’s DNA. Because she frequently collaborates with artisans from all over Latin America, judges warned her that her point of view wasn’t yet clear and that she needed to reclaim some of her artistic license, despite having demonstrated stellar technical skills. For her winning collection, she put those tailoring chops to work while revisiting elements of her previous designs: The Mesoamerican serpent god Quetzalcoatl inspired both a floor-length evening coat and the sinuous placket of a button-front red silk dress. The silhouettes also called to mind the Art Deco motifs of some of Miami’s most iconic buildings, a perfect marriage of two cultures. “My family was convinced I was going to win,” says Lacayo, who was far from certain herself. “With such a talented group, you just never know. All I could do was focus on giving 200 percent.”
For Lacayo, the prize ($250,000 from Pilot FriXion Erasable Pens and a CFDA mentorship) will be life-changing, enabling her and her family to relocate to New York, where she feels there will be even greater prospects. Describing her customer as a sophisticated woman who loves fashion but wants something unique, she’s hoping to tap into potential clients like “spectacular” Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps, whom she dressed during an eveningwear challenge in episode 10. “We came to Miami looking for a chance,” she says. “But to best grow my business, New York feels like the correct path forward. I’m just so incredibly grateful.”
This article appears in the March 2022 issue of ELLE.
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