By Pamela Dozois

Contributing Writer

Remembering what inspired us as children can often ignite a latent passion in our adult lives.

Paula Parisotto worked for the YMCA for 20 years, first as a personal trainer, then as a health and wellness director and eventually as its associate executive director in the mid-2000s. It wasn’t until she reluctantly returned to school that her passion for fashion revealed itself.

“I was planning on becoming a firefighter. While working at the Santa Maria Valley YMCA as a personal trainer, I had gone through the interview process and was preparing to attend the fire academy. Unexpectedly, I was offered the position as health and wellness director of the Santa Ynez Valley YMCA, which became the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA,” she said. “Eventually I was promoted to … associate executive director, a position I held until my departure in 2013.”

Paula Parisotto and Bentley, her rescue Pitbull, meet with company.

It was when she was offered the possibility of a position as executive director in 2011 that she was told that the job required her to have a college degree. Her on-the-job experience wasn’t sufficient. Reluctantly she returned to school, initially to acquire a business degree from Hancock College. Instead, she graduated with an associate of science degree in fashion.

“One of the classes I had to take was a personal development class, and it was there I discovered I had a latent passion for fashion. I quickly changed direction from business to fashion and let the YMCA know I would be leaving in a year or two. I then began building my business as a personal stylist,” Parisotto said.

“As a personal stylist I work with people to audit their wardrobe, teach them how to dress and shop for their body type so that they can look and feel good every day.

“I find that, especially with female clients, they are so focused on everyone else that they themselves become less of a priority. Through teaching them how to dress and shop for their body type, their confidence and beauty shines and they feel important again,” Parisotto explained. “As a personal stylist it’s most gratifying to see the remarkable transformations happen on the inside when women and men see themselves differently on the outside.”

She works with more than 100 clients, whom she dresses for daily wear and special occasions.

Recently a friend of Parisotto’s sent her a class picture that was taken of them in second grade, and it demonstrates how far back her love of fashion and style extended.

“In the picture I was wearing a little dress with knee socks and patent leather shoes and a scarf around my neck,” she said. “The rest of the children had on jeans and T-shirts, except for my friend who was also well dressed. My friend reminded me of the day the picture was taken, recalling that she had spilled chocolate milk all over herself, and that I had taken her into my room and dressed her up for picture day. She pointed out that I was a stylist even at the age of 7.”

“Looking back I don’t know how on earth I did it. I was married, running the YMCA with 150 employees, going back to college in my 40s, while raising four teenagers and three rescue dogs. I was also attending Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) on Wednesday evenings and attending the School of Style in Los Angeles on the weekends, and formulating a business plan. It was insane.

“While I was doing all of this, I knew that in addition to having my own personal styling business, I wanted to design my own collection. But I didn’t know what it would be — clothing, shoes, purses, jewelry, I had no clue,” she said.

However, when she was given a cork purse from Portugal three years ago she had an inspirational moment. It turned a personal stylist into an accessories designer.

Pictured is the GiGi Clutch handbag next to a picture of Paula Parisotto and her grandmother, Norma Brown, who was known as GiGi.

“When I wore the purse people would ask, ‘Is that cork?’ and next they wanted to touch it. It happened all the time. And that was the moment I knew that my collection would be cork purses. It took two and a half years of late-night researching the cork forests of Portugal to find the very best cork fabric, traveling six states in five days to meet American manufacturers, sketching and sewing samples in my studio, and all the other thousands of steps it takes, going from a drawing to a physical hand bag. I had no designing or manufacturing background. I just figured out how to make it happen,” she said.

“The thing that struck me is that cork is unique, soft, lightweight, stain- and water-resistant, hypo allergenic and earth-friendly, and is as durable as leather but it’s washable,” explained Parisotto.

“Cork oak trees grow primarily in Portugal, southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa. When a tree reaches 10 years of age, large sections of its outer bark are cut and peeled from the tree. Cork oak is unique in its ability to regenerate its outer bark. Once every 9 to 12 years, without causing damage to the tree, the cork can be harvested again.  A single cork oak, which lives up to 200 years, can be harvested over 16 times. It’s an amazing tree.”

The Paula Parisotto Cork Collection of handbags and belts is an all-purpose line, surprisingly soft and effortlessly stylish. All of the collection is named after inspirational people in her life.

“A few weeks ago I was speaking to my cousin who mentioned that he had visited the cemetery to pay his respects. He mentioned that the family plot was located under a large cork oak tree. My husband, Fausto, and I looked at each other in disbelief, as cork oak trees are not commonly grown in the United States. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what is!

“My life’s journey has led to this very moment, where I am intentionally building a brand that creates freedom; freedom to allow me to fulfill my passion and create the life I want for my family and to help my staff do the same. I hope my journey inspires others,” she concluded.

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