When we think of luxury brands, our minds tend to conjure up images of designers like John Galliano, or better, Karl Lagerfeld–grand, borderline intimidating individuals who can appear so removed from our day-to-day lives. Indeed, the world of fashion and luxury can often seem unattainable, especially to those of us who are not born into circles of privilege.
One look at Valas’ unique designs and one has no doubt that they are an integral part of that world. But what makes this brand so special is the heartwarming story of its inception, which hides an unconventional duo–a brother and a sister, linked together by a touching tale of family and hardship.
Most of the world is still in quarantine mode, and thus, this is how we meet Karina Salmeron and her brother, Kenneth Villagra, the incredibly talented and humble masterminds behind the brand Valas. They share the same mother, but different fathers–and here lies the base of their beginnings as a family and business owners. The two tell us the story behind their dream, from war-torn Nicaragua to the arms and backs of the biggest celebrities.
Nicaragua, where it all started
Karina Salmeron was only 7 years old when she was uprooted from her native Nicaragua to the United States. At the time, her native country was going through turmoil, a period called the Nicaraguan revolution which spanned 12 years.
Her earliest memories as a child were haunted by this background of war, even though she wasn’t completely aware of the horrors that loomed above her. “At that time, a lot of people were fleeing Nicaragua because people were getting killed if you didn’t join the army,” Karina shared.
As the country was divided in two, she lived the life of a child, the best she could. Karina’s father was a military man and although she grew up sheltered from threats, she was also a witness to the brewing tensions that surrounded her.
“I felt the heaviness of the surroundings. I just didn’t see any of the killing but the energy was there. I felt it. Thank God I didn’t experience that,” she said.
“My father was a general in the government,” she continued. “And I have memories of him picking me up and he was packed with whatever he needed to have–I mean his guns and everything else, military Jeeps.”
“I remember going into these big mansions in the hills and the jungle. They were built out there and there was protection all the time for him. There were men with swords,” Karina continued.
There was a lot of uncertainty, as she recounts. Every weekend, she would wonder where her father would take her. She would feel fearful, because she “didn’t know what it was going to be like.”
And these images never left her. Some of the memories remained questions without answers. “I, to this day, wanna know where those houses are at. Where did he take me, you know?”
Fleeing the motherland for a better future
Karina’s complex journey, and the essence of the brand she shares with her brother, Kenneth Villagra, cannot be understood without exploring the fracture she experienced as a child–and the heartwarming tale of her reconstructed family.
Moving from Nicaragua to America at the age of 7 years old was no small feat. While her father carried on with his military duties, her mother Myriam, had attempted the journey to the United States while she was still a teenager.
In 1977, at the age of 16, Myriam was hit by a truck. The accident broke a bone in her ear and she needed to have surgery on her ear or else, she could have lost her hearing.
She had fled the country to seek medical help in an emergency, leaving Karina behind, which was no small sacrifice. Yet, her decision to remain in America was never made without her daughter in mind. Being from a small village in Nicaragua, Myriam lived through a climate of fear and uncertainty; she wanted to save Karina from that life.
“She came here on a journey for a better future, sacrificing her life and her family so I can have a better future,” Karina said.
For the longest time, Karina had grown up without her
“I hadn’t seen my mom since I was a baby. When I was in Nicaragua, I used to dream ‘Oh, is that my mother, in the background of that movie?’ because I thought the extras were people here in America,” she recalled.
In America, Myriam never forgot about Karina–far from it. The more time she left Karina behind, the more frightened she was. “She was always thinking of me and how she was going to bring me back to the States to be with her,” Karina said, translating Myriam’s words. Because she was not legal in the country, Myriam worked odd jobs like babysitting to be able to support herself and send money to her family back in Nicaragua.
Eventually, she met another Nicaraguan man– Kenneth’s father, Jorge, a person who would come to play a central role in Karina’s life. In fact, Karina calls him “our dad,” not Kenneth’s dad.
Jorge’s story is a bit different but there are parallels to be drawn with Myriam’s journey. When the latter met him, she told him she planned to go back to Nicaragua, to her daughter. As it turns out, Jorge’s mother–much like Myriam–had also left Nicaragua to settle in America, and lived separated from her son. When Jorge suffered a leg injury in 1967, she had an opportunity to bring him to America too so he could have surgery and be reunited with her. At the age of 12, he too started a new life.
After being together for two months, Myriam and Jorge got married on Christmas Eve. He knew that Myriam had left her child back in Nicaragua and he wanted to help her. “That’s the reason I got married, because I wasn’t planning to get married at that time,” Jorge revealed.
Their union meant that she became a U.S citizen, which would immensely facilitate the process of bringing Karina to the United States.
“God was looking after her because she found Kenny’s father. A man that adored her. They weren’t in love at the beginning but he adored her, and she was already packed to go back to her country, to me. And he was like ‘No, stay here. I will bring your daughter here to be with you.’ And he took a chance on her.”
Myriam’s story “made sense to him and his morals.” Jorge stepped up and helped her reunite with her child when everything seemed so hopeless in a country so new and so foreign to her. He, a complete stranger, gave the “chance of life for a little child that he didn’t know.”
Today, Myriam is proud of her new life but also of her children, who have honored her incredible journey. While Karina and Kenneth have had to overcome their own obstacles, it was always with their parents’ sacrifice in mind.
A new family but a similar purpose
Coming to a completely new environment at such a young age was not easy for Karina. From the freedom of Nicaragua’s playgrounds to the suburban American neighborhoods, there was a lot to learn from that transition.
“I had to fend for myself. I had to learn the new language,” Karina told us. “I had to learn how to play with kids that were from different cultures now–and a different way of playing. So I think that defines my life a lot, being able to mold myself and being able to fit in but still have your culture at the same time.”
The difficult journey has brought her a new family, with whom she is carrying on the legacy of a rich and complex past, even if it was difficult at first. “I didn’t know I had a baby sister. I didn’t, or I ignored that she was married now [to another man]. I had to adapt to [a new family]”
As it turns out, her new family is a synthesis of different cultures and experiences, all tied together by a strong, unbreakable bond.
And Kenneth is part of that “new family,” as Karina calls it. He was born and raised in San Francisco. Unlike Karina, he did not live through Nicaragua’s war-torn years but he is no less mindful of the sacrifices his parents went through.
“What they did for a better future is what we’re doing ourselves, Karina and I, coming together, collaborating, trying to create this family-joint business, trying to create generational wealth and a generational business,” Kenneth said. “They were able to create a foundation for us.”
For them, Valas is much more than a brand. It’s the logical continuation of their parents’ sacrifice. “They put us in a position to be able to do what we’re doing now,” Kenneth continued. “So now we’re taking a risk on each other and build a better foundation to help those that come after us.”
The tragedy before Valas
Before Valas became the brand that it is today, it started with a dream–as all amazing things do. Karina had worked in retail for a while. At the time, a close friend of hers had tragically passed away and the circumstances surrounding her death were rather dark.
“We were scared because we didn’t really know what had happened to her or who had killed her,” Karina said. “So we were scared and we didn’t know if this man followed her at work.”
This frightening episode pushed Karina to quit her job, out of concern for her safety. That’s when her partner at the time planted the seed in her head: after all the experience Karina had gathered during her years in retail, wasn’t she more than qualified to try her own hand at the fashion game?
So, little by little, Karina started researching and designing on her own but she was not really looking at the business side of things. That’s when Kenneth, who was studying in business, came into the equation. When “he came along, it became more serious,” Karina said.
“I do a lot of the creative side. Kenny does the business side.”
What was Kenneth’s reaction when Karina first suggested this collaboration? After all, a brother-sister duo is not something you come across often in the fashion world. But to him, there were no second thoughts.
“I’m always supportive. I’m very loyal to my family. When she came to the idea, I jumped all over it. It’s one of those things where, growing up I always knew I wanted to have something for myself. I never liked the idea or fell for the idea of working for somebody else.”
“And who better to work with than my big sis, you know?”
Hard work made the dream become a reality
Starting a luxury fashion brand from scratch can seem unattainable, even downright impossible. As a Latino woman in an industry that prides itself on elitism and exclusivity, Karina has had her fair share of obstacles.
Even throughout all the difficulties, she still considers her own insecurities to be the biggest challenge she has faced to date. “I don’t come from this background, I didn’t go to this design school. These stores are very high end. Are they going to think I’m like a fake? I was afraid of judgment, what they’re going to think of myself.”
From her accent, to questioning her every move, these thoughts kept running through her head until she finally realized that everyone who ever made it had started from a dream. Through her experiences in bringing Valas to life, she discovered how a lot of brands come from foreigners just like herself.
Mostly, she knows she has to trust time and effort. Brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci took decades to get established, so why would she feel discouraged by the road ahead of her?
“We don’t come from a wealthy family,” Kenneth said. “When you’re creating an item designed for luxury and you present it to these high end boutiques, you lack that confidence within yourself and you have that insecurity. I’m in a place with four walls that isn’t built for me. I don’t come from this lifestyle. I don’t live within this lifestyle.”
Much like Karina, Kenneth’s confidence came with time, experience and the knowledge that their products and designs were just as great, if not better than what was out there on the market.
“I had to figure out how to design,” Karina added. “I had to figure out how to talk to these people in different stores, or how to sell our products. How to believe in what we have. It’s not just about a product on its own. It’s about family. It’s about love.”
Ultimately, she has one advice for aspiring business owners: “Go for it. Have a business plan but don’t be insecure or compare yourself to others.”
Every piece has a story–and is also part of a story
To this day, Karina mourns the lost relationship she could have had with her father. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to him because they kind of had to sneak me out of the country,” she revealed. Her father didn’t want her to come to America, as his views on the country weren’t positive. A few months after she had left Nicaragua, there was an ambush and he had passed away.
And so, the military influence found in Valas’ designs was not intentional but remains informed by her past. The name of the brand itself, “Valas,” is the Spanish word for “bullet.” As Karina revealed, she wanted to challenge the associations we have with a word that is often linked to violence. Instead, she hoped to infuse it with more positive meanings.
Her designs came from a part of Karina that “was bottled up” and flowed naturally through her creative process. In retrospect, the final creations feel like an ode to her past, to a father she never really got to know and a country that could never truly leave her. Her very first design, the Voyager backpack that came out 8 years ago, is a testament to that.
“And naturally that came out, like the backpacks with all the pockets. They are very heavy, they are very manly. They are very strong. And I am a small petite woman so I feel like those were like my emotions. I wanted to portray the strong, unbreakable. I think that’s why the Voyager came out,” Karina said.
Fun fact, the Voyager caught the attention of so many people, including that of a museum in Amsterdam, where it is displayed in an official exhibit. “To me, I was over the moon. That’s an accomplishment right there,” Karina said.
Additionally, celebrities like Justin Bieber, Diddy (who wouldn’t tell an investor where he got his Valas bag from, because he didn’t want another person to copy him) and basketball stars have all gravitated to her unique designs.
On the other hand, the Champion bag is a celebration of their cultural heritage. Designed to look like a wrestler’s belt, it’s an ode to Kenneth’s childhood, to growing up watching the sport and feeling empowered by it.
But the Champion’s bag story doesn’t end there. In 2019, renowned musician duo Wisin Y Yandel wore it during protests against corruption in Puerto Rico, championing for their country. “The bag can speak on its own. It has that emotion tied into it,” Karina said.
But what really made her feel like she “had made it” was the moment she saw one of her bags worn by a regular person at the gym. “I was like ‘Is that our bag?’” she remembered. “I was so excited I wanted to take a picture.”
It always comes down to family
When it comes to working together, Karina and Kenneth completely trust each other. And so, the process hasn’t been a difficult one at all. In fact, their connection and alignment has allowed for Valas to reach the stature it has today.
“There are connections that you have with people, with siblings, that might be different than other siblings,” Karina revealed. “It’s just the way it is. A bit like soulmates. It doesn’t have to be a lover or anything like that. It could be a brother or a sister. It’s just that you know that you can trust that person.”
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, as well as America’s complex and hostile history with its Latino immigrants and minorities, a brand like Valas becomes a groundbreaking symbol for what a better future can look like. Kenneth and Karina have not been spared by the lasting effects of negative attitudes towards people who look different.
“Without it being said, you feel the judgment,” Karina said, referring to certain dealings she has had in her beginnings as a brand owner. “There is this energy that you feel. Like ‘Who are you guys? Who are these Latinos selling me these $2000 bags? What is their background? What school did they go to?’”
During an incident with a group of 10 buyers, Karina remembers being subjected to this line of questioning. “They only wanted to talk to me. ‘What school did you go to? What is your background?’” she said. Even though they had come to Valas because they obviously loved the bag, they seemed more concerned with finding out about her credentials.
Karina felt like they were making a judgment on whether or not they could sell her bags based on her background only. As mentioned earlier, only time helped her find that confidence to stand proudly in that space, despite the judgment she may have faced.
“There are people for everyone so don’t be ashamed of who you are, or what your background is or what country you came from. It’s okay, you are who you are. And you gotta accept yourself first for people to be like, you know what? I like these siblings. They are really doing their dream, this American dream.”
The biggest lesson they learned
So you see, family is at the core of Karina and Kenneth’s brand. It’s something they derive pride from and want to honour throughout the rest of their voyage with Valas. “I’m thankful that my mom took the steps for a better future. And you know, here I am now,” Karina said. “I have a company with my brother and we’re still carrying that dream of a better future for our family.”
If there is anything they learned from their parents’ love and sacrifice, it’s that family will always be there for you. “At the end of the day, that’s all you have,” she continued. “It’s your family. You know? That’s who you run to in emergencies. If you’re sick, if you’re happy, your family is number. I feel that’s what I learned from her. She’s sacrificed and put herself second for me.”
Now, they are the torchbearers for future generations of kids who look different, who may not see themselves represented in certain spaces. Together, through their family, they want to “be an inspiration to the younger generation of our family and other kids–kids that look like us, kids that don’t have anyone that looks like them, that don’t have their own business.”
Their journey is also about breaking stereotypes and forming new identities, as rich as their cultural heritage and the land they live in. “Not all Latinos are housekeepers–nothing wrong with that, you know–but they can be business owners. They can be entrepreneurs, they can be dreamers. We don’t come with the intentions of being criminals or anything like that. We are good people too.”