The Emerging Plus-Size Designer Tess Holliday & Nina Parker Love

“I knew I wasn’t the only woman to have this issue.”

Plus size designer Melissa Mercedes counts Laverne Cox and Nina Parker as fans.

When Melissa Mercedes was invited to the Latin Grammys in 2017, she couldn’t find anything to wear in her size. But instead of skipping the event altogether, she decided to flex her creativity and make an ensemble for herself: a metallic mermaid satin aqua green wrap dress with a plunging neckline and high slit. In doing so, she inadvertently tapped into a potential business idea.

“This experience really inspired me [because] I knew I wasn’t the only woman to have this issue,” Mercedes, 40, tells Bustle. “I understood the familiar pain and stress of standing in the dressing room and finding nothing to wear, especially in the plus-size space. I wanted to be a bridge and help take away that pain.”

Now, four years later, her vision is being recognized in a major way. Mercedes was just announced as the winner of The Cultivate Award, an initiative from Eloquii and The Curvy Fashionista that supports the next generation of BIPOC indie designers in the plus-size fashion community. A panel of judges evaluated designers based on criteria including inspiration, originality, innovation, and aesthetic.

Mercedes’ curve-hugging designs from her namesake label have been spotted on celebs including Laverne Cox, Tess Holliday, and Nina Parker. The secret to her success? It starts with “cut, color, and fit,” she says. “Specifically for dresses, I believe these are the key elements when creating a powerful red carpet garment.”

As The Cultivate Award winner, Mercedes received a $10,000 grant and a one-year professional mentorship program. And in 2022, she’ll design a capsule collection with Eloquii that will be sold on the retailer’s site.

“I try to design styles I know I would want to wear,” Mercedes says. “As a plus-sized woman myself, I try to imagine what I know I want but have not seen. I’ve never seen a statement bow on a midnight velvet catsuit. My vision of a show-stopping flowing galore taffeta bow came to life when I designed ‘Diosa’ from my Satori Collection modeled by Erica Lauren.”

Mercedes is also focused on giving back to her community. In 2020, she and her daughter sent 25 backpacks filled with school supplies to the Dominican Republic, where her family is from.

“[It was] to a school of children who really needed the supplies,” she says. “I would love to continue to do more charitable work for communities. There is such a huge need.”

When Mercedes envisions post-pandemic fashion, she pictures a lot of drama and experimentation, especially with bold prints and textures.

“Fashion is going to be such a great time,” she says. “Everyone is ready to emerge. I know my fellow fashionistas are ready and waiting to be glammed out. I envision a lot of patterns, embellishments such as feathers, and dramatic looks with makeup and eyeshadow.”

As an up-and-coming designer, Mercedes is ready to make a lasting mark on an industry that’s long ignored people like her.

“The future of fashion overall will be full of innovation,” she says, adding that she’s currently working on a swimwear collection featuring her favorite styles for curvy and plus-size women.

“Quarantine was a good time for a pause, a time to reflect and recharge,” she says. “Creatives are ready to bring that power to the forefront and bring new concepts and ideas to life.”