SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. —When Anastasia Torres-Gil, high-fashion designer for dogs, cuts into a Louis Vuitton handbag to make it into a Chihuahua pillbox hat, there is, occasionally, a pang of regret.
"I have to shut my eyes and cut into something I used to love," Torres-Gil says. "But, it's just fabric. My motto is: 'If I wouldn't wear it myself, I wouldn't put it on a dog.' "
In fact, re-purposing lightly used designer fashions has evolved into an almost chic and often hilarious line of unique dog outfits on sale at Torres-Gil's new online company, My Favorite Couture (myfavoritecouture.com).
The quickly expanding line of canine couture includes a variety of outfits still sporting original labels such as Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, Channel and Burberry. Everything is created from items that Torres-Gil finds in local, used clothes stores and her own closet. She accents outfits with accessories like decoupage buttons, rhinestones, baubles and used tablecloths.
"Santa Cruz has amazing thrift stores," she said. "The quality of things people throw out."
Her eclectic collection includes a rainbow Pride Day outfit, a Harley-Davidson vest and cap and, occasionally, a matching outfit for a dog's human counterpart.
Most recently she created a last-minute outfit for her husband, Rafael, and their gray "plus-sized" dog Coco, a pug/yorkie mix that resembles Yoda from the "Star Wars" movies. Last week the pair won third place in a dog/owner look-alike contest on the television show "Sabado Gigante." Torres-Gil said the competition was "formidable."
The first time Torres-Gil, a former prosecutor and labor lawyer, made a doggy hoodie from an old designer purse and put it on Coco, she broke into laughter.
"I like to play it straight. I'll have Coco snorting but looking very fashionable; the contradiction of something really fancy on her is really funny for me."
Torres-Gil currently recruits and works to retain foster parents for Santa Cruz County children. She spends much of her time sewing, painting and collecting odds and ends for her artwork. Her Santa Cruz backyard studio is next to a mini duck pool for her two rescued ducks and the sleeping area of an 18-year-old potbelly pig, also rescued. Cats and four dogs — all rescued — live there as well.
Twenty-five percent of sales are earmarked for the Santa Cruz SPCA to help with a capital campaign for a new facility. Torres-Gil outfits are part of a monthly photo shoot with SPCA canine models by Santa Cruz photographer Portia Shao of Positive Vista studio. Greeting cards from the photo sessions will be available for sale at the SPCA on Chanticleer Avenue and at the SPCA website.
"She's turning the homeless orphans into stars," said Lisa Carter, executive director of the local SPCA. "They're hysterical. The dogs love the attention and they pose. The Chihuahuas cross their legs. I'm not some crazy dog person, or, maybe I am, but they really pose like they're on a runway."
Torres-Gil also sells her painting skills to support the SPCA. She charges a $50 donation to the organization from people who want their dog's portrait painted on a pair of shoes.
"There's no one with a business plan putting out as much money as Anastasia has to make this a profitable business for the SPCA," Carter said. "More importantly she's getting our dogs adopted in record numbers." People are sharing the pictures online through Facebook and Twitter. "She's just a gift to the shelter."
Requests are streaming in for new designs which are priced starting at $50.
"First on my list, is the matching bridal gown for a Bichon Frise," she said this week. "I've also had a request to do a 'Hairspray'-inspired pug outfit for Baltimore's Honfest. So, I've go t my work cut out for me." Torres-Gil said she's also eager to begin "a Miami-inspired Carmen Miranda/Tropicalismo" line of couture for dogs. There have also been requests for cuffs for a pig's feet that match a wedding dress, scarves for cats and larger items such as a dog at the local horse rescue ranch, Pregnant Mare Rescue.
"I'm really trying to create a business that is green, unique and supports animals — not to mention, a business that's a lot more fun than being a lawyer," Torres-Gil said. "The pet industry is booming and it seems to be recession-proof."
Recently Torres Gil brought Coco, who has now had some brush with fame in the entertainment industry, to Carmel, Calif. for an open casting call.
"There were all sorts of beautiful dogs and one guy was admiring them and then took one look at Coco and burst out laughing," Torres-Gil said.
Perhaps, it was the fez-styled hat made from Chloe tiger print pants or the matching gold-embossed pleather vest.
Designs can be seen at www.myfavoritecouture.com, www.santacruzspca.org and at www.positivevista.com.