Darcel de Vlugt talks design, vitiligo, and feeling beautiful

As a wedding dress designer, Darcel de Vlugt’s job is to make women feel beautiful on the biggest day of their lives. But interestingly enough, Darcel doesn’t like the word beautiful, and it has a lot to do with the fact that she never considered herself beautiful growing up.

This isn’t one of those typical coming-of-age, finding-my-true-beauty stories. You see, Darcel’s story is a little different. It’s a matter of black and white, but also so much more than that.

Growing up, Darcel and her family moved around a lot due to her father’s job with the United Nations. When they left Trinidad, Darcel was the definition of a normal child, but only a few years later, at 5 years old, they noticed some white spots on her dark skin. The spots spread throughout her body, and eventually turned her skin into a half-black, half-white masterpiece.

By the time Darcel was 17, her entire body had been stripped of its melanin, thanks to her battle with an auto-immune disease and skin condition called vitiligo. They say it’s caused by stress, but there’s really no indication of exactly what causes the condition – but Darcel has embraced this massive part of her, and has become an advocate in many ways.

“In telling my story, I’ve always been aware that because I’m trying to reach out to young people [with vitiligo], I want to be positive,” she explained. “But what I haven’t really touched on, because it’s not something I really want to dwell on, is that there’s a lot of darkness that comes from the self-discovery. There’s unanswered questions, and there’s always the question why. Why did this happen to me? And how has this compounded other things that have happened to me?”

It’s a valid question – how has living with vitiligo changed her life. Besides the obvious lack of colour on her skin, especially compared to her family, it’s easy for Darcel to see now how having the skin condition changed her life’s path. In fact, it led her down the road of fashion in the first place.

“When I was younger, I think subconsciously I told myself, you’re never going to be the girl that all the boys are chasing after, and it was fine,” she added.

“So I would experiment with my style a lot. I wanted people to have something else to say about me before they say ‘look at her skin’.”

Whether it was wearing fedoras like Janet Jackson, head wraps or dresses over jeans, Darcel slowly became known as the fashionable one in Cyprus, where she was living with her family, instead of the one with the spotted skin. And by the time she made her way over to London for university, Darcel had become one of the rare cases that had fully depigmented – she no longer looked like she had vitiligo, she just looked pale.

And so, as she started her degree at London College of Fashion, and honed her focus in on women’s wear, she realized that this too was something that was affected by her condition.

“My love for red carpet wear comes back to my skin, and wanting to escape. So, I don’t do swimwear, I don’t do corporate wear, I don’t do everyday stuff. I’m not interested in those things,” she said. “I’m interested in those moments that make you feel like this is not real. Surreal, fantasy moments, that’s what I want to create.”

And what’s more surreal than a bride on her wedding day? Nothing. Because of Trinidad’s lack of a red carpet culture, Darcel focused on the next most glamourous thing: weddings. She’s quickly become Trinidad’s most sought-after wedding dress designer, and somewhat of a lace whisperer. With intricate beading, stitching and lace placements, her dresses look more fitted in the newest issue of Vogue rather than at a reception hall here in the Caribbean, but this is her art.

“I am actually rejected the word designer now. I’m calling myself a fashion artist,” Darcel explained. “Not just because that’s how I feel about my work, but that’s the kind of respect I want for my work as well. I don’t want consumer behaviour when it comes to my brand, I want real interaction with my client.”

And that’s exactly what you get with House of VanderVlugt (VDV). Customized gowns, personal experience, one-on-one moments. This is your wedding, your dress, and your moment, and Darcel is on hand to make it happen.

That’s exactly why Darcel is so picky about the clients that she accepts – not just for the fact that she’s booked solid through wedding season – but because she knows that this isn’t a one-time transaction, a purchase-and-go type of deal. She knows that she’ll see her brides through the darkest times and the happiest moments. She’ll help them work through minor details, and she’ll work alongside the bride’s other vendors, like the makeup artist and photographer. Because of the nature of the job, she’s pickier than ever that she only works with brides she vibes well with.

“I’ve matured in that I don’t take every job that comes along. I’ve learned to gauge what’s actually going to be fulfilling to me, and what’s potentially stressful, so now I stay away from stressful jobs, because the more money is not worth it,” Darcel explained. “It’s not about the money for me. It’s about engaging in something I love, that somebody else will love, and if I feel like a project is not going to do that, then I prefer to say no.”

While most people want to avoid stress in the workplace for various reasons, Darcel has reasons of her own: her skin. While we still don’t know how she developed vitiligo in the first place, doctors say that stress doesn’t help. And after finding out she was pregnant years ago, as well as a following custody battle in family court, Darcel has slowly started to re-pigment.

And even processing this has been difficult for her: after years of finally coming to terms with her skin condition, and the fact that she’ll never portray her natural dark skin ever again, seeing a few spots appear threw her for a loop. And while now, years later, Darcel is comfortable in her skin (and with her journey) –even she finds herself wishing things were different sometimes. Online, through vitiligo communities, people tell her how lucky she is that her skin is one colour, and she silently thinks ‘no, you’re the lucky one’.

“You have beautiful patches, everyone can tell that you’re special,” she tells them. “With me, they just think I’m sick.”

It’s a common experience: everyone wants what they don’t have. Girls with curly hair want straight hair. Women with skinny bodies want curves. And in the vitiligo community, it’s no different. Even Darcel’s own daughter, Daeja, who just turned 7, looks at her mother and wishes she could look just like her – vitiligo and all.

And of course, while Darcel doesn’t wish that on her daughter, she helps to teach her about the community, about her background, and about who she is, especially because Darcel felt so confused growing up, and not knowing exactly where she fit in.

“I am a very proud third culture generation kid. I am really proud of the fact that I come from one place, grew up in a next place, speak a different language,” Darcel added.

“I tell people, I also changed from black to white, so when it comes to crossing boundaries, I’ve crossed them all.”

There’s no boundary that’ll hold Darcel back. In a world of black and white, she is screaming colour.

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