Marisol Perez hustles through the coffee shop parking lot, hiding under a Marsala-colored umbrella lined with peach-hued fabric roses.
As she closes it, the meticulously placed buds become a fresh spring bouquet with a curved, brown wooden handle protruding from the center.
"I made this myself," she notes as she shakes the rain off. "I'm very into the Victorian style."
Perez, 40, of Town 'N Country, had to leave the dresses she created for her fashion line, Solimar Collection, in her car. There's no telling what sort of damage the deluge would have done to a flamenco dress made entirely of newspapers or a skirt and top crafted from duct tape and tiny squares of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Allure magazines.
"When I first started making clothes, I thought, 'Wouldn't this be a great way to save money, making things from recyclable materials?' " Perez explained. "Fabric is so expensive. And plus, in the economy we live in, using things that would be considered trash makes sense."
Four years later, Perez showcases her collection of 15 to 20 pieces of "wearable art" at local fashion shows and events as she works to build her brand and break into the daunting world of fashion design.
Part costume, part environmental statement, Solimar Collection ranges from flapper dresses made of shower curtains to structured cocktail dresses crafted out of coffee filters.
Always voted Best Dressed in school, Perez taught herself to sew, making clothes for her dolls as a child. She took up sketching while studying fashion merchandising and served as fashion editor for a school publication, which allowed her to proclaim what was hot and what was not.
"I like shapes that celebrate woman's femininity and curves but aren't too revealing," she said. "I like classy and classic chic looks."
Fashion greats like Christian Dior, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta and Bob Mackie inform Perez's personal tastes, and that eclecticism of era and silhouette makes her cleave to details in her work to elevate the work above its materials.
She will take regular soda bottle caps and cover them in fabric, then another layer of fabric to create a single rosette for a necklace. Inspired by Scarlett O'Hara's bad-economy ingenuity, Perez took a curtain to build a flamenco skirt, and by the time she was done adding tiny details that made it look like anything but a curtain, it weighed 16 pounds.
"The style of flamenco, the art of it, I appreciate, and I thought the with tie into Tampa culture and Ybor City that it would be perfect piece for my collection," she said.
It's 15 years since Perez moved to Tampa. She grew up in Boston and migrated to get out of the cold. Port Richey was her first stop, but wasn't really her scene as a city girl. She joined a relative down in Sarasota but admitted the area felt too much like a retirement community for her tastes. After getting a job as a financial analyst for a major insurance corporation, she relocated to Tampa and found a city that agreed with her.
Things were going well until she was laid off four years ago. She had to make decision — chase her fashion dream or try to return to the corporate world.
"My family was really supportive because they'd say, 'You love this. This is your passion. Just go for it,'" Perez said.
Her mother, who lives in Tampa, even models for her on occasion. Perez has made her mother a costume for a senior center show entirely of coffee filters and accessories to kill for, like a peacock fascinator and recycled fabric jewelry.
Show organizers contact Perez for events like Earth Day or fashion shows at St. Petersburg's ARTpool Gallery, but she said she's hoping 2015 can be the year she expands her repertory into museum exhibitions, costuming and maybe even red carpets. She's never had a dress commissioned, but says with her skill, it wouldn't be difficult.
"I work in fabrics as well. The recyclable materials is just way to stretch myself and see what I'm capable of," she said.
For her, first comes the idea and then the materials. A beachy, poolside dress became even more colorful once she decorated the hem with a string of rainbow-hued toothbrushes. Perez knew she wanted to make patchwork denim skirt before she deconstructed several pairs of jeans to build a white lace-lined mini with a train. Finished works aren't always what she imagined; in rare cases, she'll tear something she doesn't love apart.
"The flapper dress I made out of a shower curtain, I thought it was too flimsy. Other people loved it, but I don't ever want my work to look cheap. Even when I make something out of garbage bag, I don't want people to think it's a garbage bag," she said. "That's the other part of my brain, the analytical side that obsesses over details."
Plastic is the trickiest material Perez has attempted to work with so far, but she's already rolling around the idea for a dress made of glass, even though she knows it would be a dangerous proposition. Still, she wonders about the final result, the beauty of being covered in light.
Dressing the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Gwen Stefani and her childhood style icon, Madonna, are on the Solimar Collections bucket list. Until that day, she'll keep living her dream by showing her work, making fancy leopard-print hats for her shih tzu, Lulu, and crafting accessories that make her stand out, whether she's walking into a coffee shop or a night club.
"Fashion is really about making it your own. Everyone has their own vision," Perez said.